Tuesday, May 21, 2024 May 21, 2024
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Baseball

Tough Injuries, Tougher Resolve: A Texas Rangers Conversation

The injuries keep piling up, but the Rangers keep winning anyway.
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This may be the Rangers' cleanup hitter in a week or two.

The Stars are the top seed in the Western Conference and hold a 2-1 lead in their second-round playoff series. The Mavericks hold that same 2-1 lead in their second-round series—and are beating the top seed in the Western Conference. And over in Arlington, the defending World Series champions have spent much of the season in first place despite weathering one of the longest injured lists in baseball.

It feels like that latter development has not gotten quite the attention of the first two, which made this a good time for StrongSide editor Mike Piellucci and StrongSide Rangers correspondent Jamey Newberg to sit down for their first chat of the young season. How are the Rangers staying afloat? What should we make of Josh Smith and Nathaniel Lowe helping carry the lineup far more than Corey Seager, Evan Carter, and Wyatt Langford have? And the bullpen—it’s pretty impressive!

Mike Piellucci: Jamey, is it possible for a team to quietly occupy first place? Because I feel like that’s where the Rangers are after sitting atop the admittedly mediocre AL West so far in 2024. Some of this is due to what the Mavericks and Stars are doing. Another chunk probably owes itself to this being far less surprising than last year’s early surge, when there was little reason to presume a team fresh off 94 losses would storm out of the gates like the eventual world champions did.

But, still, for all the (deserved) consternation about the state of the rotation, and despite Corey Seager mostly looking as out of sorts in 2024 as he was otherworldly in 2023, Texas is handling business and doing so without a ton of fanfare. 

That, to me, is a good thing. It means the Rangers might be leveling up into the group of franchises that have the maturity to stack up wins, however they come, when circumstances aren’t ideal. And it also means the resilience that was the trademark of last year’s group hasn’t worn off in its title defense. 

Jamey Newberg: I’m firmly in the “They Can Never Hurt Me Again” camp after the journey the Rangers let me tag along on in 2023, a journey I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to experience. They can’t hurt me—especially not this soon—but this is sports, and I’ve never renounced the ability to let the team I love send me into an exasperated stupor, at least occasionally.

Yeah, “maturity” is a good word for it. The Rangers are physically decimated, and not just on the mound. Seager isn’t the only one looking for a (pro)gression to the mean, even if his slow start is the most pronounced. Even their defense has some rust to shake off. 

Fourteen months ago, it was common (and warranted) to point to Bruce Bochy’s steadying presence, his refusal to panic, and the resilience that had stamped so many of his Giants teams as pluses for this team. Now I think it’s fair to apply those same labels to his roster. 

Still, though Texas is certainly handling its business, for me the headline to this point is: “Thank God for Josh Smith the AL West.” 

Mike: Seriously, though: where would this team be without Smith and his illustrious hair? He’s not this good—that .373 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is going to drop some, even though he is faster than average—but he’s always had the plate discipline and the baserunning, and those play up a whole lot more when he’s in the 87th percentile at hitting the ball in the sweet spot per MLB Statcast, a massive leap from what he delivered in 2023. That skill set, packaged with that versatile glove of his, could make him a valuable piece of this roster. 

Funny enough, it was around this time last year when we were applying that same big-picture sentiment to Ezequiel Duran, who came over with him in the Joey Gallo trade. Now I have no idea what to make of Duran. I suppose that underscores the folly in assessing trade returns too soon with players who don’t have a full season’s worth of Major League plate appearances to their name. 

How much rope are you giving Duran these days? And, for that matter, Leody Taveras, since some of your longstanding concerns with him look especially relevant these days?

Jamey: Player development is a tricky thing, and it never stops. Look at how much work Evan Carter has to do (and not just against lefties). 

I want Duran to have a really good month so he can be traded at closer to whatever market value he had a year ago when he was doing in Seager’s absence what Smith is now doing in Josh Jung’s. It’s not that I don’t trust that Duran is a long-term middle-of-the-order bat—he absolutely has that upside—but through various forces, the Rangers are suddenly pretty thin in impact trade ammunition. Duran’s picture here is as a versatile bench piece or valuable fill-in if one is needed for an extended stretch. There should be other teams who think he’s more than that—as long as he puts together a long enough stretch these next couple months to remind them of that.

Taveras … man. He’s been somewhat of a lightning rod for me basically because his issues have little to do with baseball talent. In fact, the issues exist in spite of his talent. It’s the “little” parts of his game that drive me crazier than I’d like. Bad routes in center field … hearing outfield fence footsteps … an inability to get a bunt down … baserunning gaffes. The good news—really good news—is he’s settled into one of those hot streaks out of the 9-hole that helps this lineup chug. I can’t see a scenario in which Taveras doesn’t finish the season with Texas—but I can absolutely see one in which he finishes it as a fourth outfielder.

And on Smith, I’ll say this: because he got his professional start in a different organization, I think it’s lost on most Rangers fans how little minor-league baseball he played. Between the Yankees and Rangers, he’s got a mere 166 farm games on his ledger. In that span, he’s a .305 hitter with a .421 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage, with 22 home runs, 39 doubles, 41 stolen bases, 101 walks, and 101 RBI. So while his .295/.402/.464 slash line is a big jump in the big leagues, it’s also not that much less in all three categories than his minor-league numbers. 

Agree with you that Smith probably won’t maintain an .850+ OPS all year, but it’s not like it’s some dead cat bounce. He’s a very good baseball player.

Mike: The reality is Texas might need more offense from all three of those guys than fans would likely prefer. 

The romantic notion—and not an entirely unfounded one—was Carter and Wyatt Langford would complete their precocious rise by cementing themselves as Seager and Marcus Semien’s junior partners in the lineup at the tender age of 21 and 22 years old, respectively. But as Ken Rosenthal detailed over at The Athletic, hitting prospects are taking longer to hit the ground running in the big leagues than we’ve seen in recent years. Jackson Holliday, Langford’s rival for the top bat in the minors entering the year, has already returned to Triple-A after a rough transition, while fellow top-five prospect Jackson Chourio isn’t faring much better in Milwaukee. 

So as spellbinding as Carter’s October was, and as borderline unprecedented as Langford’s surge from 2023 draftee to near-World Series debutante to Opening Day lineup fixture has been, they remain two players who have played a combined 13 games in Triple-A. There’s more than enough time in this young season for either or both to course correct, but one of the early takeaways that matter most to me is a defending World Series champion probably should not count on untested early twentysomethings to shoulder loads this heavy. It’s hard not to read into last week’s reacquisition of Robbie Grossman as a small acknowledgment of that, too.

But the flip side now is when Smith and Duran and especially Taveras should be flattening their own development curves to compensate. Basically what I’m saying is, don’t be shocked if Smith ends the year far higher on the team’s WAR leaderboard than anticipated.

Speaking of pleasant surprises: you and I spilled enough digital ink last year kvetching about the bullpen that I think it’s only fair we pause to acknowledge how hilariously reliable Kirby Yates, David Robertson, and Josh Sborz have been in the late innings. It’s almost like there’s a ton of randomness baked into relief pitching!

Jamey: Tap the brakes on Sborz, whose shoulder held up for two outings before it landed him back on the injured list this week. As for Yates and Robertson, good grief. Yates looks like the 2019 version, when he was an All-Star and finished ninth in the National League Cy Young vote. Robertson may be even more locked in. 

The feeling of having a duo that gives you a vibe of shortening the game to seven innings is not common around here. And the part of that vibe that differs from Will Smith, who was outstanding for a long time in 2023 before he was bad, is that Yates and Robertson have end-of-game stuff. Smith had end-of-game moxie; that’s a valuable thing, but not as easy to bank on for six or seven months.

Yates is 37. Robertson is 39. The Rangers have managed, so far, to survive an absurd run of rotation injuries. I’d prefer not to imagine what would happen in the bullpen if either of those two had to miss significant time. Now I’m sorry I even brought it up. 

Here’s something I bet you assumed I’d be the last person to bring up: Nathaniel Lowe is cooking.

Mike: Oh, buddy, is he. We are nothing if not fair around here, so just as you brought him up, I should match that effort by pointing out that if we’re going to quibble with Smith’s BABIP, we definitely need to note that Lowe’s .404 number is going to plummet considering he’s not exactly the fleetest of foot. And the power has to ratchet up, especially when Jung isn’t around to compensate at the other infield corner.

But my appreciation of Lowe always centered on his being a rare bird: a lefty bat with patience and, at his best, minimal platoon split. Well, so far this season, his walk rate and his strikeout rate are an identical 17.4 percent. Against righties, it’s a hilarious 20.4 percent walks to 13 percent strikeouts. And after a down season against southpaws last year, he’s hitting .273 against them with a .368 on-base percentage. Small sample theater, of course, but the only down period of his Rangers career coincided with his mother being diagnosed with brain cancer last year—and when I spent some time with him during the offseason, he confirmed how difficult it was to compartmentalize when everything was so fresh. 

He turns 29 in July, so it’s unlikely at this point that he fully taps into his raw power enough to become the masher everyone wants him to be. But as unusual, as his skill set is for the position he plays, it still stands out relative to most of the rest of the roster, too.

Jamey: Another thing that stands out [dons flak jacket] is that he might be one of the team’s most valuable trade assets this winter. 

But that’s for another time. For now, the Rangers are back in town from Denver a little ahead of their hockey counterparts. This next stretch—Guardians and Angels at home, Phillies and Twins away—feels pretty big for a team with a real division tussle developing and a stitched-together pitching staff. We’ll see how much strong minds can continue to carry a beaten-up ball club.

Authors

Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…
Jamey Newberg

Jamey Newberg

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Jamey Newberg covers the Rangers for StrongSide. He has lived in Dallas his entire life, with the exception of a…
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