Home Sports We’ve seen this movie before with the defending champion Rangers. Will this sequel have a dark ending?

We’ve seen this movie before with the defending champion Rangers. Will this sequel have a dark ending?

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ATLANTA, GA – APRIL 20: Texas Rangers pitcher Nathan Eovaldi (17) during the MLB game between the Texas Rangers and the Atlanta Braves on April 20, 2024 at Truist Park in Atlanta, Georgia (Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It was just two weeks ago when the Texas Rangers were in first place in the American League West, five games over .500 and 8.5 games ahead of their rivals, the Houston Astros. With Houston’s pitching in shambles and Seattle’s offense stuck in the mud, a golden opportunity seemed to be emerging for the Rangers to gain further distance in the division race.

Instead, Texas lost nine of its next 12 contests. By losing the series opener Tuesday in Philadelphia, the Rangers fell below .500 for the first time all season. And having caught the mighty Phillies on a very different trajectory than their own, the Rangers are at serious risk of losing a fourth straight series in the coming days. Suddenly, Texas is three games behind the first-place Mariners and just 2.5 games ahead of a resurgent Houston club that has played much better in recent weeks after its surprisingly woeful April.

So is it time to panic? Probably not. But as June approaches, now seems like a good time to recalibrate our expectations for the defending champions and evaluate what has contributed to their lackluster start to 2024, one that stands in stark contrast to the path they charted in the regular season a year ago. .

Let’s remember that this is the time of the season when last year’s Texas Club began to assert itself as a legitimate contender in the American League. Buoyed by one of the best lineups in baseball and plenty of competition on the mound, the Rangers went 18-9 last May and carried much of that momentum into the summer, building a 6.5-game lead, the highest of the season, in the American League West Division at the end of June. Control of the division gradually waned in the second half and the Rangers lost the crown to Houston on the final day of the regular season. Of course, a red-hot October run (mostly on the road) to the franchise’s first World Series title quickly removed the bitter taste of September.

While we know the 2023 Rangers’ story ultimately had a happy ending, it’s crucial to remember how close Texas came to missing out on a chance to discover some magic in October. And this year, the Rangers don’t seem to have the luxury of a comfortable cushion in the standings thanks to a strong first half. If a return to the postseason is in the cards, Texas will need to find its groove in the dog days of summer, rather than waiting until the postseason to play its best baseball.

One of the main reasons Texas got off to such a tremendous start a year ago was an offense as dangerous as any in the league. It regressed a bit as the summer progressed, but came roaring back to life in October, led by two legendary performances from Corey Seager and Adolis Garcia and the introduction of 21-year-old outfielder Evan Carter to a national audience.

With nearly every key hitter back in the fold, plus a full season from Carter and the addition of top prospect Wyatt Langford to the everyday lineup, Texas was projected to have an even scarier lineup by 2024, a notable notion considering what which the unit accomplished in 2023. However, while Texas ranks in the top half of MLB in most offensive categories, it has hardly looked like a juggernaut at all. Seager endured one of the worst crises of his career from mid-April to early May, one that he is just beginning to emerge from. Garcia was wonderful in April before crashing back to Earth with an ugly May. Marcus Semien has been steady as always, but he can’t lead a lineup on his own. Carter has yet to answer questions about his ability to handle lefties while also being solid against righties. And while Langford was dealing with a disproportionate number of bad strikes in his first stretch before landing on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, he wasn’t exactly ripping the cover off the ball before getting hurt either.

Nathaniel Lowe has been stellar since coming off the disabled list following an oblique strain, but he was sorely missed over the first three weeks. Josh Jung needed wrist surgery after a bump during the first week and is not expected to return anytime soon, though that loss has been mitigated somewhat by the surprisingly solid production of utility man Josh Smith (123 OPS+), who has filled in admirably at third base. Still, Jung’s power potential is noticeably absent at the heart of the order, particularly with the other stars yet to hit his stride.

From a stylistic perspective, it was much easier to stomach Texas ranking 27th in stolen bases a year ago when the offense was producing at such a high level. A similar lack of enthusiasm on the basepaths this year (19 steals in 49 games currently ranks 29th in the MLB) is a more glaring weakness for Texas when its bigger bats have less punch. Overall, while it would be a stretch to call it a bad offense, it has certainly felt stagnant at times, a rather problematic reality considering the issues on the mound.

Even before the season, one of the biggest questions for Texas heading into 2024 was what the rotation would, or could, look like after the All-Star break. With the expected return of Max Scherzer from back surgery this offseason, and the possible returns of Jacob deGrom and Tyler Mahle from Tommy John surgery, the hope was that the pitching staff could stay afloat until those arms of impact will rejoin the team. But injuries to opening day starter Nathan Eovaldi, 2023 innings leader Dane Dunning, reliable left-hander Cody Bradford and emerging postseason star Josh Sborz have further decimated this group, forcing Texas to dig deeper into what I barely had it at the beginning. While the rotation, especially Jon Gray, who has quietly been fantastic recently, has largely done his job since Eovaldi’s demise, the bullpen certainly hasn’t. Despite excellent performances by veterans Kirby Yates and David Robertson, who were brought in this winter explicitly to strengthen the unit, Rangers relievers currently rank 30th in baseball with a collective ERA of 5.15. That’s not going to be enough.

Texas Rangers ace Nathan Eovaldi is recovering from a groin injury he suffered in early May. (Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

While injuries have devastated several contenders early on, Texas’ struggles to stay healthy across the roster stand out as especially daunting. But remember, it’s a long season, Texas’ health issues are also reasons for optimism considering what this team could and should look like at full strength in the second half. There are too many good-to-great players on this roster to discount its relevance as a playoff contender. Additionally, Texas isn’t the only talented team that has failed to showcase its potential over the first two months. Their opponent in last year’s Fall Classic, the Diamondbacks, are also not off to a bright start, not to mention equally expensive teams like Toronto, San Diego and San Francisco.

And as for their direct competition, Seattle and Houston each have their own roster flaws and internal challenges to overcome in the coming months. At the same time, each is good enough to take advantage of a chance at a division title if Texas continues to falter.

With a new championship standard established, it’s up to the Rangers to remind us what made them contenders in the first place.

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