The last time StrongSide editor Mike Piellucci and StrongSide Rangers writer Jamey Newberg talked baseball, the Rangers were one of the best teams in baseball.
Oh, what a difference two months make.
They’re as flummoxed as you are watching Texas spiral down the standings, so they huddled up to talk about the bullpen (duh), the new ace, and a few disconcerting thoughts about where the team is going. They can’t promise any of it will make you feel better about what you’re watching. But if it bums you out, at least you’ll be in good company.
Mike Piellucci: Jamey, things are not great.
The Rangers have lost nine of their last 11 games, lowlighted by a season-worst eight-game losing streak. The mildly reconfigured bullpen looks every bit as brutal as what we watched in June. The bats had a week and a half where they topped three runs only once. Josh Jung is on the IL. Jonah Heim looks like he probably still should be. Our Sean Bass wrote a column titled “It’s Time to Hit the Rangers Panic Button,” and I imagine pretty much everyone nodded along and wondered why it took us so long to run it.
Again: not great. Not great at all. So I won’t waste your time or our readers’ attention by asking if you’re concerned. But I do want to know what concerns you most about the team right now.
Jamey Newberg: Their résumés. This team is really light on pennant-race experience, and you can see a number of key players who appear to be pressing and out of sorts. Hitters taking center-cut fastballs and lunging at pitches along with the catcher. Swinging out of their shoes with two strikes. Looking overmatched situationally. Playing tentatively on defense and unintelligently on the bases.
The only position player on the roster who has played in a League Championship Series, let alone a World Series, is Corey Seager. The offense isn’t abnormally inexperienced, but they’re extremely pennant-race untested. It looks like a lot of guys are pressing, and it only got worse once Seattle began mounting its ferocious charge.
Also: the bullpen.
Mike: You mean to tell me you don’t feel great about a group that boasts exactly zero dependable right-handed arms? Whose best reliever last year, Brock Burke, is noticeably less dominant—3.27 ERA and 4.30 FIP compared to 1.97 and 3.29 last season, to say nothing of nearly three fewer strikeouts per nine innings—despite shouldering way less of a workload? Whose best story and best late-inning arm in the first half of the season, Will Smith, got paintbrushed by a season’s worth of regression in the month of August alone?
Well, I never!
There is just so little to turn to. That’s before getting into how the one guy earning every cent of his paycheck, the rejuvenated Aroldis Chapman, cost Texas Cole Ragans, who instantaneously bounced back to the dominator we saw in spring training once he got moved to Kansas City, which calls a whole lot into question about how the Rangers were using him and why they couldn’t summon an iota of that in Arlington.
Jamey: Let’s talk more about that depth. Sort of a crazy thing to imagine six months ago having to worry about, but one thing that’s been hard for me to get my head wrapped around is how, after spending more than $800 million on frontline free agents the last two winters, they did very little to improve what was a bad bullpen in 2022. It’s like the Cowboys’ kicker situation, but worse. The Rangers spent like they planned to compete. They spoke publicly about how they expected to compete. So why not spend on the bullpen, a relatively inexpensive roster unit?
OK, given the fickle nature of even the best relievers, perhaps the Rangers decided spending on veterans who might regress in 2023 wasn’t the best strategy, especially if—privately—they felt 2024 was the real target. Benefit of the doubt; I’ll give them that. Moving legitimate prospects for Chapman and Chris Stratton in July, once it was clear there was a division for the taking, made sense.
But they needed more. Nobody disputes that. With as many games as the Rangers have lost lately, imagine what the division would look like if they’d fortified the bullpen more, whether in January or July.
They’ve got enough depth at catcher, as brutal as the Heim absence was. They had Zeke Duran to step in for Jung; you could do worse. But the lack of depth in relief is what I’ve had a hard time understanding, and it’s what I’m most concerned about the rest of the way. Not exactly an epiphany.
Mike: In a way, it’s a microcosm of my concerns when they started this process two winters ago. Remember what Jon Daniels said after Texas moved Joey Gallo at the trade deadline in 2021? “No half measures.” At the time, that scanned a whole lot like a full-fledged rebuild was underway—until, of course, ownership reversed course and dropped half a billion on Seager and Marcus Semien.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s a very fun way to go about things! Much more fun than piling up prospects and hoping to be good three years down the road. But as I first argued after the Semien signing, this approach only works if you make a sustained effort to fill in the gaps around them. They did so this offseason in the rotation, and they doubled down by acquiring Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery after Jacob deGrom went down.
But they certainly didn’t match that financial commitment in the outfield, and I suspect even the Rangers themselves would be hard-pressed to admit they saw all of Duran’s emergence, Adolis Garcia’s game finally catching up to his reputation (plate discipline is a beautiful thing), and Leody Taveras saving his career happening at once. And they obviously didn’t invest in the bullpen, either, which has gone as poorly as the outfield has gone swimmingly.
That’s a recipe for a mishmashed timeline. Let’s play out that hypothetical of 2024 being the real money year. Semien will be 34 next postseason. So will Nathan Eovaldi. And deGrom, the Plan A for an ace, will be 36. They know as well as we do that those are the sorts of ages where every great season is house money, and yet they’re locked into the baseball equivalent of very expensive mortgages with two of them.
Given that, it makes no sense to wait around and build methodically. You press forward and maximize the prime years you do have—no half measures and all that. Yet they chose not to augment this by investing in relief pitching, which would have been far cheaper than the work they already did in the rotation and up the middle. The strategy doesn’t add up, and we’d probably be talking a lot more about it had the Rangers not hit an exacta box of young hitters after a decade of totally barren returns.
Jamey: On top of all that, here’s the thought I keep trying to push away: what if 2024 is as unexpected in the other direction? The Rangers are outplaying every projection this year; even with this brutal stretch, they still have the best run differential in the game behind the Braves. What if they underachieve next year? What if they make the expected upgrades to the roster this winter, start the year with a rotation that includes Scherzer, Eovaldi, Jon Gray, Dane Dunning, and, around the second half, deGrom—but don’t win as much as anticipated?
That’s the stomach-ache scenario I’m trying not to think about. Despite the absence of deGrom and long layoffs from Seager, this division was theirs, and it feels like they could have done more at the trade deadline, particularly with a relief group that was begging for a bigger upgrade. This is unquestionably a “go for it” season. What if 2024 turns out not to be another one of those?
Make me think about something more immediate, Piellucci.
Mike: How about Max Scherzer and how much of a blast it is to watch him?
Sure, this is not the vintage version, and the cost paid reflects that. He sits at 94 now, not 97. He’s not guaranteed for 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings like he was for something like a decade. But were it not for deGrom, we’d be talking about even the relatively diminished version of Scherzer as the best arm to join Texas since at least Yu Darvish.
There’s something special about watching a legend stave off time: how he battles and scraps and adapts. It’s also pretty cool when said legend is so transparent and articulate about that process. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s looked more like himself—a 2.64 ERA, a 2.59 FIP, and 11.74 strikeouts per nine innings in five starts—than he ever did in New York this year, either.
Then there are the intangibles. You mentioned all the ways inexperience might be wearing on this team as the season goes on. Well, bringing in someone this accomplished and this possessed is the way to inoculate against that. Maybe the Rangers ultimately do fall apart. Should that happen, it will be in spite of every fiber of Scherzer’s being.
Jamey: I’m a believer in alpha dogs coming in and taking some level of pressure off everyone else. Sort of the opposite of how inexperienced players tend to fall into the trap of trying to do too much when the lineup or bullpen unit around them has been decimated. Dang it, dude. You were supposed to cheer me up.
Mike: Methinks only a nice string of wins is going to do that. So let’s check in and do this again at the end of the regular season. You’ll either be in the best of spirits, or I’m going to have to divert some of StrongSide’s budget toward a good therapist for you.