After a 3-4 road trip through New York and Toronto, two venues the Rangers have historically had problems with, Texas again sees itself a full 20 games over the .500 mark. They’ve ceded little ground to Oakland since the A’s went on a blistering hot streak through July, still holding a sturdy 5-game division lead, and the Angels have all but fallen out of a division race that was supposed to be determined between themselves and the Rangers. Barring an improbable Texas collapse conflated with an unfathomable winning percentage down the stretch from either Oakland or Anaheim, the next six weeks are essentially going to play as a postseason tuneup for the two-time American League Champs.
Today in Toronto, Matt Harrison was dominant. It took him only 90 pitches to cruise through 8 innings, striking out 7 and walking just one, allowing two runs on two hits. This season he leads the Rangers in wins (14) and ERA (3.19), despite carrying an xFIP of 4.26 and SIERA of 4.39, suggesting he’s not really as good as his numbers indicate, but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that he’s been the Rangers best pitcher. He makes up for his lack of pure talent/stuff with a consistent level of good-ness, which is what made him a 4.2 fWAR pitcher last season, and is the underlying ingredient to putting him on the same pace in 2012. If the playoffs started tomorrow, Matt Harrison, the goat of last year’s World Series Game 7, would be your Game 1 starter. That’s both a tribute to the player he’s become and an indictment on how average the Rangers rotation has performed up to this point in the season. You can look at Elvis Andrus’s flashiness, the tormenting electricity of Neftali Feliz’s fastball, or the above-average backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia has become with the Red Sox, but to say Harrison is the most underrated of those 4 prospects brought back from Atlanta in the Mark Teixeira trade would be a vast understatement of epic proportions.
Also in the conclusion to the season series in Toronto, Michael Young hit his first home run since a 14-3 Rangers romping of Baltimore all the way back on May 7th. Why he remains a regular starter on the most talented Rangers team ever assembled, I’ll never know. But on a day where he went 3-5 with a home run, a double, and 5 RBI — perhaps the most productive offensive output of his entire season — maybe he’s on some track to turn it around. Who knows? If I had to put my money on it, I’d say he’s still merely a fraction of what he used to be, and deserves to be benched 6 days a week, but I’ll take that kind of performance out of the over-the-hill 35 year-old any time. It is, however, nice to know he still has it in him.
Now that the regular season has all but been decided in the AL West, I’ll now take the time to construct what I believe will be the most optimal roster/lineup down the stretch and in the postseason. Obviously Michael Young needs to be, at most, a part-time player, so who should make up for his production? For starters, Mike Olt deserves to get the bulk of the DH playing time. I mentioned last week what he brings to the table… the things Michael Young has never particularly possessed in his arsenal. This year in particular we’ve seen Ron Washington’s personal displeasure for replacing proven veterans with inexperience, but there comes a time when the present outweighs whatever accumulated credit a player has developed in their past. I respect that Ron Washington backs his players unequivocally, and that the Rangers reciprocate that sentiment by going to war for him on and off the field, but this portion of the season calls for giving yourself the best probability of winning baseball games, and blind faith shouldn’t factor into the equation.
This is why I think the Rangers should call up their top Minor League prospect, Jurickson Profar. Sure, he’s only 19. Sure, he hasn’t seen even one at-bat above the AA ranks (where on the season he’s hitting at a triple slash line of .279/.359/.458). But I don’t care. Michael Young is a pathetic infielder at any spot you place him, toting with him brick hands, a slow first step, and range that you could realistically find at your local YMCA Sunday softball league. Although Profar isn’t as elite playing shortstop as Elvis Andrus (who is?), he could still adequately hold down the position if the game called for it, and possesses the seamless flexibility of doing the same at 2nd base. With Mike Olt already being an above-average backup 3rd base/1st base option, Profar could handle the same responsibility covering the middle infield. Plus, next year as a 20 year-old, he’s a good bet to start on the big league club anyway, so this season’s comfortable division lead would give him a healthy opportunity to get his feet wet. All things considered, he’s also a smart baserunner who could steal bases and give the team a lift off the bench in the postseason. Even at his age, he provides a multitude of services that Michael Young does not as the team’s resident “super-utility” infielder.
So here’s how it stacks up in the playoffs:
Against right-handed pitchers, add Mike Olt as the DH and otherwise keep to the status quo; play David Murphy in left, let Hamilton and Cruz patrol the other outfield positions, keep Mitch Moreland at first, and leave the rest of the superb infield as is. Against lefties, play Craig Gentry in center, move Hamilton to left, roll with a rotation of Mike Olt or Michael Young at 1st base/DH, and sit Mitch Moreland and David Murphy. This is a way of maximizing the team’s offensive talent while still giving the Rangers average-to-above-average defense at all of the main positions (perhaps excluding 1st base, which is the least important from a defensive standpoint). How does Profar factor into this? He doesn’t. He’s a switch-hitting pinch-hitter off the bench, a matchup problem for the opposing pitcher, or pinch-running option in a late-game scenario.
Will Ron Washington implement this wave of thinking? I highly doubt it. He’s too committed to his veterans and instincts. But would it make the team a better functioning machine? I think that nets a different answer.
The Rangers operate like a team you would make up in a video game. They have a plethora of valuable pieces, several of which can carry the team at any given time. I think Texas is good enough to win the World Series even with Michael Young’s ever-expanding black hole of nothingness inhabiting the lineup everyday, a testament to the juggernaut residing in the clubhouse, and roster construction of our metaphorical lord and savior, Jon Daniels. Would I like to see these changes made? Absolutely. I wouldn’t mind feeling like a god in my own mind. Do I expect it? Not at all. Only time will tell if it actually matters.
Ladies and gentlemen, we’re entering the home stretch, where the games actually start meaning something.