Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Rangers Pepper 8/6: Life after Cruz

by Dustin Copening

#RangersThoughts” on Twitter can be seen by following me @dfwfanconnect, but those thoughts evolve every few days from 140 characters into what I have dubbed as  “Rangers Pepper”.

How do you follow up a 6-1 stretch that has launched your team back into the pennant race? If you’re the Rangers, you do so by attempting to replace your team leader in homers and RBI who just got popped with a 50 game suspension you feared was coming for several weeks.

Last night showed it could be worse. Heck, it has been worse, and it isn’t unprecedented for a team to overcome a body blow like this. Before I get to that, let’s take a stroll down memory lane to a happier time in the career of the Boomstick (2:05 mark if you’re the impatient type):

The Sting Of The Inevitable - Ryan Braun rolled over. Amazingly. After more than a year of finger wagging and proclaiming he had nothing to hide, he just went away rather quietly for 65 games. The shockwaves from that unforeseen decision were the first warning signs that Texas might be losing their best power hitter for most, if not all of the remaining games of the regular season.

By the beginning of last week it was clear that Bud Selig would be making good on his promise to hand down the final rounds of suspensions for those involved in the Biogenesis investigation, and with authority. There would be no negotiated suspensions for the rest of the players involved.

Take your medicine and like it. Want to fight back? Be prepared for career Armageddon if you lose.
So, at around 10:00 yesterday morning, the news that every Rangers fan had been dreading since Spring Training hit. Nelson Cruz will watch the rest of the regular season unfold from someplace other than right field. A spectator to the conclusion of a year pockmarked by one dose of bad news after another.

Bob Nightengale has a source that told him that Jon Daniels and his staff were, blindsided by hearing that Cruz would not appeal the decision. Pardon the skepticism, but when was the last time anyone accurately reported JD being left flabbergasted by anything involving the organization he’s helped build into a routine playoff contender?

Ben Rogers was allowed to go on the record for Ian Kinsler to combat reports that the clubhouse was overcome with anger. Abandoned by a brother when he was most needed. Kinsler professed love and support for Nellie, not rage and disappointment.

Sorry Mr. Source. Wrong again.

We do not know yet if Nelson Cruz has played his last game in a Rangers uniform. The probability is good that he has, but there is a chance that ownership and management may find a comfortable dollar figure that they and Cruz can agree on, or he might get a shot at another October run with the club if they make the playoffs.

That’s looking like a big IF, but allow me to share with you a few reasons why I believe the Cruz banishment is not the final nail in this season’s coffin.

Cream Puffs In The Road Ahead - Texas has the easier schedule in August than Oakland, a team that they have managed to make up 4 games against in a little more than a week. That’s 4 more games than the Rangers gained on the Athletics in all of July.

August has not only started much better, but it sets up to provide a smooth path for Texas as they adjust to life without Nellie. In the next 23 games, the Rangers will play opponents with a combined winning percentage of .415. None of those teams will enter their series against the Rangers above .500. Even more promising, Texas already has a 27-14 record against these foes.

For the A’s, they will play 25 games before meeting up with the Rangers once again. The combined winning percentage of the teams that they face in that span is .511, and their record versus those opponents is 21-23. That includes 3 contests against the Astros; however, the Rangers get Houston 7 times in the next 27 days.

September’s schedule swings back in Oakland’s favor (a .452 opponents winning percentage compared to Texas’ .514), but Oakland will finish the season with 6 road games against the Angels and Mariners. They are 14-12 against them.

Texas gets 7 home games against the Astros and Angels. They are 15-4 against them

Precedent Set - You need only look to a year ago to answer the question of if a team can survive losing one of their best offensive threats for the stretch drive of a season and make the playoffs.

The San Francisco Giants were suddenly faced with the task of making due without Melky Cabrera on August 15th. As play began play that day, San Francisco was tied for the NL West lead with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  45 games later they had upped their runs per game average from 4.2 to 4.9, and won the West by 8 games. Finishing the year 30-15.

They did all of this without finding anything close to a suitable replacement for Cabrera’s bat in left field.

In 105 games as the Giants’ left fielder, Melky posted a slash line of .350/.396/.513. He scored 76 runs and drove in 56 RBI. In the other 57 games, his replacements hit .215/.270/.276 with 21 R and 16 RBI. Twelve of those games came prior to his suspension, but the picture is still clear.

San Francisco won the West because the players not playing in left stepped up.

And before anyone points to an obvious gap in pitching talent between the 2012 Giants and 2013 Rangers; Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Matt Garza, Martin Perez, and Alexi Ogando all have comparable or better numbers than their Giants counterparts did last year. Albeit with nearly two months left to go in this season.

Offensive Productivity, COME ON DOWN! - Who will step up to fill the void left in the Texas lineup by Nelson Cruz?

Ron Washington has found a combination he’s comfortable with at the top of the order (1: Martin, 2: Andrus, and 3: Kinsler). Kinsler at 3rd (.231/.295/.385) hasn’t clicked quite like Cruz did hitting there (.276/.324/.455), but the offense had rebounded lately with Cruz shifting to the 6th spot in the order.

The Rangers tried David Murphy there last evening, and even though he is in the middle of a massively disappointing season, Murphy is hitting .283 with 2 HR since the All Star Break. Though, he did have two misplayed balls in right field last night that could have been ruled errors.

Mitch Moreland hit behind Murph, whose .294 average and .980 OPS in the last 7 days could signify he’s about to match the .329 average and .937 OPS performance he put up in August of 2012.

Craig Gentry, Engel Beltre, and newcomer Joey Butler will see the remaining playing time in the outfield. The likelihood of one, or all three of them equaling the lost production of Cruz is about as good as ESPN hiring me to replace Randy Galloway, but that’s not what Texas needs to advance to October.

Should Murphy, Moreland, or both discover the swing that got them to the big leagues, then all Ron Washington will ask of Gentry, Beltre and Butler is that they catch the ball and avoid giving up runs on the occasions when they reach base.

Step one in this baseball chemistry experiment proved to be a success. Only 49 more to go.

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