DALLAS - It doesn’t matter whether your team is chasing a division title, a wild card spot or a better draft pick spot, September is a time for discovery. For those teams who are either new to the contention chase, or those that weren’t expected to be in one, it’s a time to discover whether the current roster can withstand the toughest stretch of the season. For teams that are perennial contenders, it’s a time to discover how much more the old dogs and veteran can contribute and how much they can pass on to the next generation.
For every team, however, it’s a time to discover who’s going to play a significant role – on next year’s squad.
That’s especially true for the 2017 Texas Rangers. Stubbornly hovering around the .500 mark, Jeff Banister’s squad appears to be playing right up to a healthy handful of expectations. They may make the playoffs via a wild card berth, but they may not.
This kind of purgatory makes the job of Banister that much more difficult. On one hand, Banister has to play the people he believes give his team the best chance at cracking the ten teams that will get to play past 162. On the other, he has to find time to audition the 2018 wave of Texas Rangers. With several free agent holes to fill next year, this September becomes especially important for a Texas team that wants to contend every single season.
Which pitchers are auditioning for a spot next year? Every single arm you see, outside of Cole Hamels, Martin Perez and Alex Claudio, is trying to prove to Jon Daniels that they should be in consideration for rotation spots, bullpen spots and, perhaps hugely important this season, depth next season. There are a few with a little more to prove than others.
Sadly for Nick Martinez, his Major League path kickstarted much earlier than anyone would have wanted. In the injury riddled 2014 season, Martinez had a strong enough showcase in Spring Training that he became the Rangers’ official fifth starter that year. Since then, Nick’s been through a lot of ups and downs, displaying just enough flashes of brilliance to warrant repeated Major League appearances throughout the past three seasons.
Having only played professionally for seven seasons, Martinez suffers from being a “Quad-A” player. Sporting a 35-23 record, 3.28 ERA, 1.205 WHIP and a 3:1 K/BB ratio in the Minors, every time he gets sent down, Nick performs well enough to the point where one would think it’s time to make him a contending middle-to-back of the rotation piece for the Rangers.
In the majors, though, Martinez’ ERA jumps up a run and a half, his strikeout to walk ratio is cut in two, and he is prone to three times as many homers. Texas fighting for a wild card spot is key to showing whether Martinez can be a permanent Major Leaguer. He needs to prove that if he wants to stay with the Rangers organization – Martinez is out of options going into next year, which means if he doesn’t make the cut, he gets DFA’d.
Cashner’s stint with the Rangers has been a glorious finding. It took a whole first half of a season, due to lingering injury issues, but Cashner’s fit in nicely as the Rangers’ number two starter. In fact, if not for injuries, the Conroe, Texas native would be among the top ten in ERA. Since the All-Star Break, Cashner has put up a 2.92 ERA, 2.23 K/BB ratio and 1.070 WHIP. He’s been a fantastic addition and right about what Texas likes – a hard throwing pitcher with a great slider who puts the ball in play, one way or another.
Not only is Cashner auditioning for the Rangers, as he has this entire year, he’s auditioning for 29 other teams. Cashner, who had spent his whole career to this point with the Cubs, Padres and Marlins, is showing that he can pitch effectively in the American League.
Having fetched a $10 million price tag for this season, that yearly value is sure to go up in free agency and he’s certainly not going to settle for another one year deal. No, Cashner has made the most of this “pillow” contract. While he would be a great piece to slip into a very unsettled rotation, one has to ask what price Jon Daniels is willing to pay.
With Yu Darvish, and supposedly, Shohei Ohtani, hitting the market, “good” will, in all likelihood, take a back seat to “great.” It’s up to Cashner to prove how indispensable he is.
Mendez has two Major League games under his belt. They were from 2016 and resulted in six runs over three innings. In other words, the Rangers’ number one pitching prospect would like a redo on his first impression.
As Frisco’s season ended, Mendez was called up without a rotation spot readily available. Is this a test? The situation Mendez was in last season was the same – called up in September to help a team in contention. The Rangers are a little more desperate to get into the playoffs this year, but it would appear that Mendez’ contribution would be similar. He’s here to augment the bullpen and pick the brains of the veteran arms on the staff.
Mendez went through a full regiment of starts for Frisco, 24 of them, resulting in a 7-8 record and a 3.79 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP. That’s more than serviceable, especially given that this was the first season that every appearance he made was a start. Now, Mendez is going from a regimented routine to being available at a moment’s notice in the Rangers’ bullpen.
Texas is likely going to have three rotation spots up for grabs at the start of 2018 – can Mendez prove that he can be effective in whatever role his club needs him?
Since coming over to the Rangers as a free agent after the 2015 season, Griffin has proved to be a useful back end and depth piece for Texas. He’s still had to overcome his share of injuries, including an odd case of gout and an oblique strain that sidelined him for two months this season.
Even so, since coming back, Griffin’s been the quintessential “keep the team in the game” pitcher. Even in the Oakland game on Player’s Weekend, in which he only lasted 3.1 innings, he surrendered just the three runs.
With all of that said, Griffin’s salary was $2 million for this season with one more season of arbitration owed to him. He’s also been relegated to the bullpen for a short week and will likely need to fill in as a reliever down the stretch. If the Rangers are truly going to go in on one or both of Darvish or Ohtani, every penny is going to matter.
“Sweet Lettuce” needs to use September to prove that he can go a little longer in games or be of great use as a swingman in the pen. It’s unlikely Texas would commit more than what Griffin will likely earn in 2018 to a minor league pitcher. In other words, Griffin needs to have a strong showing this September or risk being non-tendered in the Winter.
When you’re a rental brought over to a contending team to help in a playoff chase, you better make it count. In Miguel Gonzalez’ case, he’s with the Rangers with just the remainder of this season left on his contract. For most Rangers fans, he falls more into the “who’s that” category of acquisitions, rather than the “who’s who” list, but Miguel Gonzalez just needs to be what he’s been for the White Sox the last two months – sneaky good.
Since the All-Star break, before his debut in Atlanta with the Rangers, the 33-year old posted a 3-2 record with a 3.11 ERA, while upping his K/9 and K/BB ratios over nine starts. He’s cited his success as being a product of being healthy, confident and in command of his pitches.
With a $5.9 million contract from 2017 (after being released from his original Baltimore contract), it might not be in the cards for Gonzalez to A) command a high-dollar, long-term contract for next year, or B) be with the Rangers next year. The Guadalajaran has 4-5 more chances to prove to the Rangers that he can be a contributing member to a back end of the rotation on a contending team.
Rookies Austin Bibens-Dirkx, Jose LeClerc, Ricky Rodriguez, Nick Gardewine and Paolo Espino are going to be in the organization in some capacity next year. While it’s not unimportant for them to have a strong showing during a playoff run, it’s far less likely that those pitchers are going to be kicked to the curb when 2017 ends. Tony Barnette has a $4 million option that will undoubtedly be picked up for 2018. Jake Diekman still has another two years to go on his contract. Matt Bush and Keone Kela are still under club control for a while and Alex Claudio is Alex Claudio. Jason Grilli and Tyson Ross are likely headed elsewhere.
There are a slew of position players that are going to be looking for ways to contribute to prove their worth as well. We’ll look at those in the coming days.
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