By Mark Miller
It was a subdued scene Monday night inside the Texas Rangers’ clubhouse at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Grown men were showing the emotions of the end of a long season. There were handshakes, fist bumps, high fives, and hugs. Pitcher Matt Garza, who likely will play elsewhere next season, went around having his teammates sign one of his jerseys. Lance Berkman, who very well could retire, told fellow free agent David Murphy “it’s been a lot of fun.”
The reality that there would be no October baseball for the first time in four years was becoming evident. Sure, 29 of the 30 Major League Baseball teams experience the same scenario each season. For some, it’s after 162 games, for others, it’s sometime later. For the 2013 Rangers, it occurred in Game 163 in the American League Wild-Card play-in game which they lost 5-2 to the Tampa Bay Rays.
“It’s going to be hard waking up tomorrow knowing I don’t have to be here,” said starting pitcher Derek Holland.
It was the 72nd loss of the season against 91 wins, fifth best in team history. Yes, there were plenty of inconsistencies, most notably a 20-6 August followed by a 2-12 start to September. There was the 0-6 homestand early in the final month and a 7-1 stretch at the end.
While the 2013 Rangers fell short of their goal to finally win the World Series, they don’t consider this season a failure at all.
“It’s a failure because we’re not in the playoffs in that sense,” said manager Ron Washington. “But we broke in a lot of young kids. We dealt with a lot of adversity. And through all of that we held things together. At the end we just didn’t get it done. But I think with all we went through and the way we stayed together and fought I told those guys they should be proud of themselves.”
Let’s face it, if someone said the Rangers would start the season without past stars like Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Michael Young, be without three key starting pitchers for extended periods of time, and several offensive players for various numbers of games, who would ever have thought this team could win 91 games?
“Yes they are all disappointed like I’m disappointed,” Washington said. “We all wanted to get into the playoffs and have a chance at the World Series. It didn’t happen. But we won 91 ball games through everything that we’ve been through and it’s not an excuse because you have to do what you have to do and things happen.
“There’s a lot that happened. We lost some of our best pitchers (starters Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, and Alexi Ogando, and reliever Neftali Feliz). We lost our first baseman (Mitch Moreland to injury) for awhile. We lost our second baseman (Ian Kinsler to injury) for awhile. We lost our best power hitter in the lineup (right-fielder Nelson Cruz to a 50-game suspension) and through all of that other guys stepped up. We just didn’t get it done at the end.”
Through all of that there were plenty of bright spots, most notably the development of those young players Washington mentioned. Rookie left-handed starter Martin Perez proved he belongs in the Major Leagues with a 10-6 record and 3.62 earned run average. Rookie center fielder Leonys Martin (.260 average, 8 HR, 49 RBI, 36 stolen bases) showed why the Rangers signed him out of Cuba with a solid rookie season.
Right-handed reliever Tanner Scheppers (6-2, 1.88 ERA) shined as the eighth-inning setup guy throughout the season. Rookie right-handed starter Nick Tepesch (4-6, 4.84) had both good and bad moments when healthy. He was one reason the team had an April record of 17-9 even after Harrison was shut down after just two starts.
Though nearly half the players who were with the Rangers when they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 World Series were around this year, make no mistake this was a different team than the recent past. Without people like Hamilton, Napoli and Young, the offense just wasn’t as good as the following numbers attest.
In 2010, Texas batters hit a collective .276 with 787 runs scores. In 2011, they had a .283 average with 855 runs. Last year the numbers were .273 and 808. This year, they hit .262 with 730 runs.
While the Rangers had just 162 home runs in 2010, they knocked out 210 and 200 in 2011 and 2012. This year they managed 176. And they stole 123 bases in 2010, 143 in 2011, and 91 last year but 149 this year.
Without as many big boppers to ignite the offense with three-run homers, Washington had to go to the aggressive, small ball measures he truly loves. Some times things worked; some times they didn’t. But it definitely was different than the recent past.
The team’s pitching and defense overall were very good. Despite injuries to Lewis, Harrison, Feliz and Ogando, the Rangers had an earned run average of 3.62, their lowest in team history since 1982. The Rangers’ .986 fielding percentage tied for the best in team history with last year and 1996.
By far the better part of the pitching staff was the bullpen. Led by closer Joe Nathan (6-2, 1.39, 43 saves), that group had a 35-18 record, the most wins in the American League, and a 2.91 earned run average, behind only Kansas City’s 2.55.
What ultimately did the Rangers in was their inconsistencies ultimately caused by the loss of too much talent both expected and unexpected. They knew before the season that players Hamilton, Napoli and Young would no longer be in the lineup. They believed Lewis would play sometime after the All-Star break. But they didn’t know starter Harrison would go down after just two starts, that Ogando would be in and out of the lineup.
“Yes we were a little more streaky this year than in past years. But the end result is I’m really proud of what the team did in the last week. It just didn’t work out for us tonight,” said Murphy.
This team doesn’t need a major overhaul. It does, however, require the services of an every day designated hitter and solid, preferably right-handed-hitting left fielder. Don’t be surprised if the Rangers re-sign Cruz to play left field with Alex Rios staying in right and Martin and Gentry continuing to share center.
No changes are needed in the infield with Beltre, shortstop Elvis Andrus, Kinsler and Moreland back. It wouldn’t hurt if Moreland (.232 average. 23 HRs, 60 RBI) could improve his numbers. The same for fifth infielder Jurickson Profar who hit .234 with six homers and 26 RBI in his rookie season. Good thing he’s just 20 years old.
The Rangers will have to decide if they want to pursue another year with A.J. Pierzynski as their No. 1 catcher. Pierzynski had a solid season at .272 with 17 HRs and 70 RBI. Plus, he did a great job handling the pitchers. But he’ll be a highly sought-after free agent.
On the mound, look for Nathan to be somewhere else as the Rangers turn the ball back to former closer Neftali Feliz or former Kansas City Royals closer Joakim Soria. If they can bring back left-hander Neil Cotts, the bullpen could be set.
Yu Darvish (13-8, 2.83, league-leading 277 strikeouts), Holland (10-9, 3.42) and Perez again will anchor the starting rotation. Who follows them depends a lot on the health of Lewis and Harrison. If either can’t go, Ogando will be the fifth starter. If both can’t play, Tepesch again becomes a possibility. Otherwise, Ogando and/or Tepesch could be in the bullpen.
The combination of adding the right bats and the return to health of key starting pitchers ultimately could decide the fate of the Texas Rangers in 2014.
“We do have to make some adjustments and we’ll do that over the winter and move forward,” Washington said. “I still think we have a chance to come back and compete for the division again. I think everyone who’s involved with us in that clubhouse feels the same way.”