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September 8, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Not Dead Yet

by Christina Kahrl

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Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat

            Sun Tzu

For the first time since the Rangers' dwarfish dynasty run of the late '90s, this year's outfit figures to mosey into October with a post-season invitation. Unfortunately, they also stand a very good chance of doing little better than perhaps doubling their franchise total of post-season victories.

There's the usual reason for that, of course: the Rangers seem incredibly likely to draw the best team in the league as their first-round opponent, and whether that's the Yankees or the Rays, it figures to be a tough matchup against a team with significantly betters lineups and stronger rotations.

The problem becomes just that wee bit worse, however, because the club's great summer gambit, the acquisition of Cliff Lee to have a shutdown starter with which to open any post-season series on an up note, may go for naught. Lee's aching back has kept him out of the regular rotation of late. While the Rangers are being sensibly cautious, his missing starts is bad enough, but worse yet he hasn't been Cliff Lee v.2009 or even Cliff Lee v.7/10/10. In his last seven starts, he's been more like Cliff Lee v.2007, the guy who got hammered with alarming regularity. The Rangers have lost six of his last seven starts—a performance for which Lee deserves much of the credit.

Now, admittedly, given some of the indicators we like to kick around, everything might seem relatively ducky, even with his recent failures. Rangers fans can affect a certain sangfroid by noting that Lee has struck out 47 batters in his last 45 ⅓ innings across seven starts, against just five walks. In that frustrating seven-start run, he posted quality starts in each of the first four before things really got ugly, only to see three of those quality outings get blown after the sixth inning. Sure, he's allowed 60 hits and 35 runs, but BABIP fanciers can blithely note his .386 clip, blame the seven men on the field behind him, and call it a day.

Or not, since the Rangers feature the best defense in baseball. If you want to splice minute samples to conjure up a reason why that isn't related to Lee not having his best stuff, other than quibbling about his having to deal with the occasional spot start afield for Vladimir Guerrero, or a few too many non-Borbons in center, but it's a bit hard to blame the glove men, squelching much of the root of any over-worn talk about regression. With his pitch efficiency dropping (from 3.4 per batter to 3.7, and with more of those pitches coming from the stretch (what with all the hits), his recent, shorter shellings don't have a lot to recommend them. As much as you can place absolute faith in Gameday, his velocity isn't down.

Given that Lee's breakdown didn't really become obvious until his last three starts, is there anything Jon Daniels and the Rangers should have done? Surely they could have jumped in on some starting pitcher during the waiver period, and helped themselves out, right? Any comment about execution in the abstract is that the Rangers have to operate in a real world, one that involves a calendar as well as a budget. Their options, however expansive they might seem if you're dealing with the basic proposition that you need to do everything possible to give your team a shot at the pennant—and not simply an invitation to be squashed by an AL East powerhouse TBNL—were limited by both factors.

They were more limited still when you get into the distractions involved with an awkward ownership shuffle; not necessarily a paralyzing setback, but something that's going to consume time via meetings, conference calls, conversations, and interviews. That chews up time that might have been better spent on the team on the field.*

As is, the Rangers' acquisition of Lee wasn't about owning him forever after—it was about leveraging this season's post-season appearance and turning it into something more than just a first-round squashing and re-enactment of the ignominy of the Rusty Greer Era. It was exactly what the team should have done, an adaptive exploitation of an opportunity created by the organization's slow build-up to become a true powerhouse. The initiative displayed was a nice bit of execution by Daniels and company as far as the operational art, but the foundations of the franchise's future success are all still in place, whether Cliff Lee's post-season star shines or tarnishes in his latest uni, before his inevitable departure as a free agent.

All of which might sound a bit glum for the time being, but stepping away from this wee bit of back-related drama, are the Rangers really dead? Maybe it's my brand of perpetual optimism, but I don't think they're done just yet, whether Lee is all there or not.

First, they do have the advantage of a healthy lead in a division where it's doubtful that either the Athletics or Angels could build up a head of steam and make a sustained run and play above .500. So when it comes to the health of Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton and Elvis Andrus—yes, those things are all troublesome, but they're also the sort of thing the club won't have to exacerbate by chaining them to the daily lineup. This should also help them manage Lee's situation. Given their laudable depth in the rotation, it's something they can ride out.

Even then, if you can set aside the questions over Lee's effectiveness and what the absence of an ace might mean going up against the Bombers' top tandem of CC Sabathia and a rehabbed Andy Pettitte or the Rays' duo of David Price and Matt Garza.** Happily, they're still arguably the best defensive team in the game—well shy of recent standards of single-season greatness, but still very good, handily leading the majors when it comes to getting PADE. Second, they're armed with one of the best bullpens.

Of course, so are the Yankees and the Rays, but as a result it isn't inconceivable that the Rangers' bullpen and defense wind up being the collective heroes of the hour in any scenario in which they win a Division Series. Given those two key factors, it's no surprise that they're well-slathered in Secret Sauce—again, not as liberally as their likely first-round foemen, but they aren't desperately outclassed.

If there's an immediate challenge, it's in focusing on getting their regulars healthy. Lee's name looms largest for the time being, but their caution here is like their readiness to rest Andrus' barking hammies—they still have the big picture in mind, and if this year's run comes up short, it's still an exciting first step in what's expected to be a run of lasting success. Their shot at unseating an AL East team or two in the postseason was always going to require a few things going their way; thanks to the weakness of the West, they can still try to line those things up to take their best shot.

*: As Matt Richtel's remarkable investigations already appear to have made clear, that guy you know in your office who jabbers about his capacity to multi-task? You guessed it, he's really just an unfocused boob.

**: Here, I'm just going off performance. I realize that the Rays' faith in James Shields as a workhorse might jigger assignments around a bit. The Yankees' dependence on Pettitte coming back successfully may get drowned out by the Yankees being the Yankees and futzing around with Lady Gaga and non-stories like Joltless Joe's fatal attraction to Wrigleyville, but it's arguably as important as Lee's health is to the Rangers—in the matter of Javier Vazquez, you can't say I didn't warn you.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Cliff Lee,  The Call-up,  Tactics

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