We’ve seen this movie before with the defending champion Rangers. Will this sequel have a dark ending?

by Admin
We've seen this movie before with the defending champion Rangers. Will this sequel have a dark ending?

It was just two weeks ago when the Texas Rangers sat in first place in the AL West, five games over .500, and 8.5 games ahead of the rival Houston Astros. With Houston’s pitching in shambles and Seattle’s offense stuck in the mud, a golden opportunity for the Rangers to gain further distance in the division race appeared to be emerging.

Instead, Texas lost nine of its next 12 contests. By losing the series opener on Tuesday in Philadelphia, the Rangers dropped below .500 for the first time all season. And having caught the powerhouse Phillies on a much different trajectory than themselves, the Rangers are firmly at risk of dropping a fourth consecutive series over the next couple days. Suddenly, Texas is three games behind the first-place Mariners and only 2.5 games up on a resurgent Houston club that has played much better in recent weeks after its shockingly woeful April.

So is it time to panic? Probably not. But as June approaches, now feels like a fair time to recalibrate our expectations for the defending champs and assess what has contributed to their middling start to 2024 — one that serves as a stark contrast to the path they charted in the regular season a year ago.

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Recall that this is about the time of the season when last year’s Texas club began to assert itself as a legitimate contender in the American League. Fueled by one of baseball’s best lineups and just enough competence on the mound, the Rangers went 18-9 last May and carried much of that momentum into the summer, building a season-high 6.5-game lead in the AL West by the end of June. The grip on the division gradually let up in the second half, and the Rangers lost the crown to Houston on the final day of the regular season. Of course, a red-hot run through October — primarily on the road — to the franchise’s first World Series title quickly eliminated the sour taste of September.

While we know the story of the 2023 Rangers ultimately had a happy ending, it’s crucial to remember how close Texas was to missing out on the chance to discover some magic in October. And this year, the Rangers do not look like they’ll have the luxury of a comfortable cushion in the standings provided by a strong first half. If a return to the postseason is in the cards, Texas will need to find its groove in the dog days of summer, rather than waiting until the postseason to play its best baseball.

One of the biggest reasons Texas got off to such a tremendous start a year ago was an offense that was as dangerous as any across the league. It regressed somewhat as the summer went on but came roaring back to life in October, headlined by two legendary showings from Corey Seager and Adolis García and the introduction of 21-year-old outfielder Evan Carter to the national audience.

With nearly every key hitter back in the fold — plus a full season of Carter and the addition of top prospect Wyatt Langford into the everyday lineup — Texas was projected to have an even scarier lineup for 2024, a remarkable notion considering what the unit accomplished in 2023. Yet while Texas ranks in the top half of MLB in most offensive categories, it has hardly resembled a juggernaut by any stretch. Seager endured one of the worst slumps of his career from mid-April to early May, one he is only just starting to work his way out of. García was marvelous in April before crashing back to Earth with an ugly May. Marcus Semien has been steady as always, but he can’t drive a lineup on his own. Carter has yet to answer questions about his ability to handle southpaws while being only solid against right-handers. And while Langford was dealing with a disproportionate number of bad strike calls in his first stretch before landing on the IL with a hamstring strain, he also wasn’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball before he got hurt.

Nathaniel Lowe has been stellar since coming off the injured list following an oblique strain, but he was sorely missed for the first three weeks. Josh Jung needed wrist surgery following a hit-by-pitch during the first week and he’s not expected back anytime soon, although that loss has been mitigated somewhat by the surprisingly robust production from utilityman Josh Smith (123 OPS+), who has filled in at third base admirably. Still, Jung’s power potential is notably absent from the heart of the order, particularly with the other stars yet to hit their stride.

From a stylistic perspective, it was much easier to stomach Texas ranking 27th in stolen bases a year ago when the offense was producing at such a high level. A similar lack of zest on the basepaths this year — 19 steals in 49 games currently ranks 29th in MLB — is a more glaring weakness for Texas when its biggest bats are packing less of a punch. On the whole, while it’d be a stretch to call it a bad offense, it has certainly felt stagnant at times, a fairly problematic reality considering the issues on the mound.

Even before the season, one of the biggest questions for Texas entering 2024 was what the rotation would — or could — look like after the All-Star break. With the expected return of Max Scherzer from offseason back surgery, and the potential returns of Jacob deGrom and Tyler Mahle from Tommy John surgery, the hope was the pitching staff could tread water until those impact arms rejoined the squad. But injuries to Opening Day starter Nathan Eovaldi, 2023 innings leader Dane Dunning, reliable lefty Cody Bradford and postseason breakout star Josh Sborz have decimated this group even further, forcing Texas to dip further into depth that it barely had to begin with. While the rotation — especially Jon Gray, who has quietly been fantastic recently — has largely done its job since Eovaldi went down, the bullpen has most certainly not. Despite excellent showings from veterans Kirby Yates and David Robertson, who were brought in this winter explicitly to fortify the unit, Rangers relievers currently rank 30th in baseball with a collective 5.15 ERA. That ain’t gonna cut it.

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 20: Texas Rangers pitcher Nathan Eovaldi (17) during the MLB game between the Texas Rangers and the Atlanta Braves on April 20, 2024 at Truist Park in Atlanta, Georgia (Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Texas Rangers ace Nathan Eovaldi is recovering from a groin injury he suffered in early May. (Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

While injuries have ravaged several contenders in the early going, Texas’ troubles staying healthy up and down the roster stand out as especially overwhelming. But let’s remind ourselves that it’s a long season, Texas’ issues on the health front are also reasons for optimism considering what this team could and arguably should look like at full strength in the second half. There are too many good-to-great players on this roster to dismiss its relevance as a playoff contender. Plus, Texas is hardly the only talented team that has failed to demonstrate its potential over the first two months. Its opponent in last year’s Fall Classic, the Diamondbacks, aren’t exactly off to a scorching start either, not to mention similarly expensive teams like Toronto, San Diego and San Francisco.

And as for their direct competition, Seattle and Houston each have their own roster flaws and internal challenges to overcome in the coming months. At the same time, each is plenty good enough to seize the chance at a division title should Texas continue to falter.

With a championship standard newly set, it’s on the Rangers to remind us what made them contenders in the first place.

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