Six months ago, the Texas Rangers were a couple weeks removed from trading Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder. They had just inked J.P. Arencibia to be the backup catcher to Geovany Soto, and were only two weeks away from signing Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year deal to plug the last big hole in the lineup and on the 25-man roster. There was no news on the pitching front, because all five starting rotation spots were locked in, and at least half of the bullpen was nailed down with plenty of internal candidates to fight for the last two or three open roles. December 2013 was a good-looking month for the Rangers, with a complete and well-rounded team on paper ready to make a charge at Oakland and reclaim the AL West division crown. That almost seems like another lifetime ago.
Since those happier times of roster slots filled with healthy, productive, major-league quality players, the Rangers have now famously become one of the most snake bitten and unlucky teams in recent memory. Texas has now placed a player on the disabled list 20 times in their 66-game long season to this point, more than they have made in each full season since 2010. Just looking at the list of players who will not or are unlikely to play again this season - Prince Fielder, Matt Harrison, Martin Perez, Jurickson Profar, and Mitch Moreland - those players were considered to be worth 10 wins by the ZiPS projection system before the year began. That's a nearly impossible setback for any team to recover from.
And yet, with what can only be described as a tragic start to the year, the Rangers have managed to MacGyver together a 32-34 record, only instead of duct tape and a Swiss army knife Ron Washington has had to use Chris Gimenezes and Dan Robertsons. An opportunity for the AL West title looks all but lost now, as the buzz saw that is the Oakland Athletics continues to tout the best record and run differential in the American League, while Los Angeles and Seattle currently hold the two AL wild card spots. However, Texas sits just 2.5 games out of a wild card position, and according to Fangraphs they have an eight percent chance at the playoffs. Eight percent isn't great, but with 60 percent of the season left to play, there have been plenty of teams who have come back from worse, like the 2012 Athletics squad that sat 31-35 at the same point in the season, eight games back in the division before finishing the season 63-33 and wrenching the division from Texas on the last game of the year.
As July approaches, Texas will define itself in the coming weeks, and possibly in the nine-game road trip they start on Friday against the top three teams in the AL West. Depending on the Rangers' position as the trade deadline approaches, Jon Daniels and his front office could find themselves in a buy, sell, or hold position. Here is the argument for each:
In his recent Grantland piece, Jonah Keri posits that while 2014 is a lost season for Texas due to all the injuries, 2015 looks much brighter. There is no denying that the grass looks greener in 2015, but to consider 2014 to be lost at this point may be premature. Keri makes a comparison to the 2012 Boston Red Sox, who were labeled as extreme underachievers and lovers of chicken and beer who collapsed. But what Keri points out is that those Red Sox suffered major injuries to key players, not unlike Texas this season, and that once those players returned in 2013 Boston found itself hoisting its third World Series trophy in a decade. That certainly brightens the outlook for 2015, but there is one key difference between that 2012 Boston team and the 2014 Rangers: Texas hasn't fallen apart.
Ron Washington has done an outstanding job of motivating and pushing his club to still find success in this cursed season, focusing solely on those who are still able to contribute instead of moping about all of the missing pieces. Contributions from unexpected sources like Chris Gimenez, Nick Martinez and Nick Tepesch (despite recently terrible outings by each), Rougned Odor and Luis Sardinas, and even Joe Saunders are helping Texas to tread water.
There are still winning pieces who are healthy, and still more who are scheduled to return from injury and could provide that mid-season shot in the arm, such as Derek Holland and Geovany Soto. Combine those two players with potential late-season weapons from the minor leagues like Luke Jackson and Chi Chi Gonzalez, you could talk yourself into seeing the Rangers as being just one starting pitcher and one bench bat away from being good enough to make a run at a Wild Card position, if they can string together a few victories before July 31st.
This is, after all, still the Yu Darvish and Adrian Beltre window, and calling any season lost so long as those two are on the roster is a sad day for this franchise, and those two franchise-defining players.
On the other hand, it may be time to be more realistic about what it even means to play for a Wild Card spot, and if the Rangers have a legitimate shot at it. Going all-in for a chance to play in a coin flip game with a dilapidated roster against the other Wild Card seed doesn't sound like an enticing offer. Unless Texas can pull up from the .500 line in a big way, positioning themselves as sellers in the trade market may be the best course of action for this franchise, as they chase repeating the 2013 Red Sox revival and take a more legitimate shot at the 2015 World Series.
Being sellers in the current market is not necessarily a bad thing. There are 26 teams in Major League Baseball currently within six games of a playoff position, which may make for a very quiet trading period, or it may make for a very expensive one for those who are looking to buy. Just as Texas saw last season in their Matt Garza acquisition, the trade market in a two Wild Card format can definitely favor the sellers.
If the Rangers look to sell, their possessed commodities that would make the most sense to move would be anything not tied down. For a team that wants to contend in 2015, it doesn't make sense to trade Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, or any of its other top-caliber players. Considering the outlook for the free agent class of the upcoming offseason, moving Alex Rios or Joakim Soria doesn't even make much sense, considering both have affordable club options for 2015, unless the return in prospect value was too good to pass up (a Garza offer, if you will). Instead, look for the Rangers to shop other bullpen pieces like Neal Cotts and Jason Frasor, each on one-year deals. If Colby Lewis and Joe Saunders produce good results over the next month, they may be attractive veteran starting pitching pieces to a contending team. None of these will deliver a significant return, but if each could fetch one quality prospect in the upper levels of the farm system, it would be fruitful for Texas.
Like with most things, the true answer may lie somewhere in the middle for the Rangers. Several of the Texas minor leaguers have made significant strides forward this season, and the wave of talent that was in Low-A and High-A in 2013 is making its way into Double-A this season. Players like Odor, Sardinas, Jackson, Gonzalez, Alec Asher, Jerad Eickhoff, Joey Gallo, and Jorge Alfaro are on the right path to provide a pipeline of young, cost-controlled talent like the one that Texas thrived on from 2010-2012, but has lacked the last couple of seasons due to in-season trades depleting that pool of resources. It would be unproductive to once again leverage those assets in a trade unless the return was also of long-term benefit.
On the other hand, having an 'everything must go' sale and throwing in the white towel sends an impactful message to a clubhouse and a fan base that can be difficult to recover from. Baseball is first and foremost a business, but it doesn't benefit a business to cut the legs out from under its employees and consumers when the team still has a fighting chance in this season.
Instead, what Texas should do is hold its cards for as long as they can. See if they can get some better luck with injured players returning and contributing, see if any aid comes from the farm system, and peruse the market for trades like the one the Rangers made last year for Alex Rios, that gave them a quality major leaguer at the cost of a utility infielder prospect, a price they could afford to pay. This isn't the year for the Rangers to make major, short-term moves, but it isn't the year to completely count this team out, either.