“When you find yourself in a bad dream, close your eyes.
Count backwards from three.
Wake yourself right up.”
— Maeve Millay, Westworld
Toronto 10, Texas 1.
Toronto 5, Texas 3.
Toronto 7, Texas 6 (10).
* * *
We’re watching HBO’s Westworld now. It’s flawed. But, at least a couple episodes in, it is fantastic.
It’s flawed but we watch. It makes us think and makes us feel and makes us crave more.
There are probably critics out there, hatchets sharpened, concluding that Westworld isn’t perfect. It’s not. Maybe there’s an implicit self-justification at work — I need to find fault in that show or else I won’t look smarter than fans reading the review — but for me the imperfections are acceptable and part of it, and I’m not talking about the glitches in the hosts.
There are flaws, perhaps like Jake Diekman assigned that one at-bat and Shin-Soo Choo not his, or an irritatingly inconsistent strike zone, but we watch.
Westworld was first a movie in 1973, the year the Rangers suffered the most losses (105) in franchise history. It’s been remade as a TV series in 2016, the year the Rangers (95 victories) fell one regular-season win short of a franchise best. And, on the whole, short of more than that.
So much better this time around. Exponentially better.
Over more than seven months, Texas assembled and prepared and competed and competed and competed, and in the process built the winningest club in the American League, a franchise first.
Three games after that, 2016 ended, as abruptly as 78 hours over a four-day span can.
The starting pitching faltered.
The offense staggered.
The defense wobbled.
* * *
Jeff Banister talked at his and Jon Daniels’s season-ending presser about the sense of a mission incomplete, about being unsatisfied with the ultimate outcome.
Daniels talked about the emotions the Rangers went through Sunday night and Monday morning, players and coaches and club officials, the sense of knowing how good a club this was and is, and how special and unique a group it was, a feeling that hit home knowing that, because this is professional sports, it won’t ever be together in that exact form again.
But they also both talked about the awesomeness of the season, the growth and the posting up every day and the success, and though it ended painfully — and sports pain comes in all kinds of different forms, whether you’re a strike away from a flag or swept in the first round or eliminated with a month left on the schedule — 2016 was a tremendous year for the Texas Rangers.
Post-season success is never guaranteed, maybe more true in baseball than in the other major sports. The job is to put your team in a position to win. That’s true of the starting pitcher and the leadoff hitter. The manager and his coaching staff. The General Manager and the advance scouts. The analytics department and the replay guys and the medical and conditioning team. Ownership and minor league coaches and coordinators and the amateur scouts all over the globe.
The job is to put your team in a position to win.
A whole lot of folks with the Rangers did that in 2016, and have done it for years at a nearly unmatched rate.
But then things like near-misses and close calls and small battles that go the other way intervene, and someone goes home sooner than planned.
The park in Westworld offers the “choose your own adventure” draw, and if we wanted to look at Texas-Toronto in that way, we could drive ourselves crazy.
What if Adrian catches the Donaldson line drive?
What if Rougie gets the tag down at the end of that play and Donaldson trots back to his dugout and the Rangers to theirs?
What if Cole catches Encarnacion’s soft liner right after that, or lets it go without deflecting it?
What if Desi doesn’t hesitate just short of the fence three batters after that, snaring the Tulowitzki shot rather than seeing it draw turf for a bases-clearing triple?
What if Desi doesn’t hesitate on the grounder to third before breaking home?
What if Lucroy holds onto the passed ball?
What if Rougie completes the double play?
What if Lucroy says yes to Cleveland and what if Cole says yes to Houston and what if Houston says yes to Banny?
What if Jeffress faces Saunders rather than Diekman facing Upton, and what if Choo leads off the ninth instead of Hoying?
Boston lost in three as well. Its starting pitchers (Rick Porcello, David Price, and Clay Buchholz) gave up 12 earned runs in 11.2 innings, not significantly less ineffective than the 16 in 10.1 that Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, and Colby Lewis surrendered to the Jays.
The vaunted Red Sox offense — facing an Indians staff missing two of its three frontline starters (Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco) — hit .214/.278/.378 in its series. Rangers hitters: .204/.255/.320.
Texas finished no inning in its series against Toronto with a lead.
Boston claimed one such frame (Game One, inning one).
What nobody could anticipate was Texas (which posted the second-best batting average with runners in scoring position in the Major Leagues this year) hitting .130/.167/.174 over 24 such plate appearances in the ALDS, while Toronto (24th in the league during the regular season) hit .471/.550/.882 in 20 RISP opportunities.
Yes: The Rangers had runners in scoring position more often than the Blue Jays did in the three-game series.
But, as Banister said, emphatically: “Toronto did not miss when we failed to execute a pitch.”
The club’s three big late-season additions to the offense — Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Gomez — hit .280/.341/.503 with 25 doubles and 26 homers in 461 Rangers at-bats in the regular season.
They went 5 for 36 (.139) without an extra-base hit in the ALDS.
“We got cold at the wrong time,” said Lucroy, though he was talking in that case about the offense as a whole.
Cole, Yu, Colby.
Lucroy, Beltran, Gomez.
* * *
So now what?
How many more years can we expect Adrian Beltre to be Adrian Beltre?
Can Elvis repeat his career year?
Can Texas expect to hit on another spectacular find or two along the lines of Ian Desmond and Matt Bush and Tony Barnette?
Which of the club’s free agents (Desmond, Beltran, Gomez, Lewis, and Mitch Moreland) will be back, and what about Derek Holland, who carries an $11 million team option?
Though Daniels said the club would welcome every one of them back under the right circumstances, they won’t all be Rangers next year.
Two of the three Blue Jays pitchers who started against Texas were acquired for Adam Lind (Marco Estrada) and for a relatively modest $10 million in the first year of a three-year deal (J.A. Happ, who before that had been traded four times).
Texas will need to get creative, and perhaps as fortunate as the Jays were with Estrada and Happ, to address the 2017 rotation behind Hamels and Darvish and Martin Perez. The free agent market for starters is nearly barren (and accordingly will be overpriced), and the cost in trade — as we saw in July — is going to be prohibitive.
(OK, let’s get this out of the way.
I need to say this first: You are not a bigger fan of Yu Darvish than I am.
Maybe on par with me. But no more. Next to Cliff Lee, I’m not sure there’s a pitcher with a “T” on his cap I’ve ever been as fired up to watch pitch.
But upgrading the rotation is going to take some out-of-box thinking, and I had a thought that, against my better judgment, I didn’t immediately dismiss.
Texas reportedly presented Tampa Bay with multiple offers in July for lefthander Matt Moore before the Rays shipped him to San Francisco. Jon Heyman [FanRag] wrote that the Rays, in discussing Moore and Chris Archer with Texas, “were focused on Joey Gallo and especially Jurickson Profar,” and I assume enough other names were discussed to give the Rangers a good idea which of their other prospects Tampa Bay covets.
Here’s my terrible idea: Yu Darvish, Jurickson Profar, Joey Gallo, Jose Leclerc, and Yeyson Yrizzari for Chris Archer, Logan Forsythe, and Brent Honeywell.
Texas rationale: Darvish is going to attract prohibitive free agent contract offers a year from now, at a market level that the Rangers will likely back off of before someone like the Dodgers will. Assuming no major changes in the CBA this winter, Texas would recoup only a draft pick between rounds one and two if he leaves. And you certainly aren’t going to trade him during the 2017 season unless you’re hopelessly out of contention — obviously not something Texas plans to be. Profar doesn’t have a position here, and before long the shine is going to wear off if he’s still playing only a few times a week and getting even closer to free agency. Gallo is a fit — as long as he’s able to make the necessary adjustments at the plate that a contending team will need him to make. The 28-year-old Archer can be a legitimate number one (in spite of his ugly 9-19, 4.02 season), and he’s under club control for another five years. Next to Chris Sale’s, there may be no more valuable pitching contract in the game. Forsythe would offer a first base option and expands the club’s depth at several positions.
Tampa Bay rationale: If the Rays hit enough in 2017 to contend — and maybe they believe Profar and Gallo are ready to help them do that — then Darvish is arguably a one-year substitute for Archer. And if they don’t win in 2017, they can flip Darvish in July for another three or four blue-chip prospects, and effectively will have turned Archer into six or eight big-time building blocks.
Downside for Texas: Obviously, the upside of Darvish in his second year off Tommy John surgery — and in a contract year — is hard to imagine passing on, and moving Gallo and Profar (plus Leclerc and Yrizzari) would further decimate this team’s stable of young players. But Gallo and Profar should be done with the minor leagues soon, and if not there’s reason to consider moving them now before they won’t be able to help carry a blockbuster deal.
Downside for Tampa Bay: Moving a commodity like Archer for a one-year asset and two young players who carry question marks is very risky, especially for a franchise not equipped to outspend its mistakes.
Okey doke. This screw-loose trade spitball will self destruct in . . .
The rotation will front the Rangers’ to-do list this winter, but there’s more.
Texas went to camp eight months ago with Delino DeShields as the odds-on favorite to hold down center field, Lewis Brinson in the wings, and Drew Stubbs and Justin Ruggiano and James Jones as candidates to bridge the gap.
They finished the season with Desmond and Gomez.
Desmond, repurposed — extraordinarily — like a Westworld host.
Gomez, like the prototype Westworld guest that Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Ford visualizes: “They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before. Something they fall in love with. . . . They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”
Said Gomez to Ben Rogers (105.3 The Fan) about his time here: “They changed me and made me a better player, a better person, a better human being. . . . This month and a half changed my career completely. . . . Of course I want to come back.”
And Desmond, minutes after Game Three had ended, reflecting on his decision to move his career to Texas: “I learned there’s another way to play the game.”
If you saw the whole interview, you know he wasn’t talking about a new defensive assignment.
What an impact pickup that guy was.
But now Desmond and Gomez are free agents, Brinson is a Brewer, Stubbs (Orioles) is a free agent, Ruggiano is a Met, and Jones is a pitcher.
There’s a real chance that, years from now, we will glorify that one year Ian Desmond was a Texas Ranger, and that Carlos Gomez was, too — not on a Cliff Lee level, but right in line with one-year Ranger Vladimir Guerrero, though the difference between Guerrero on the one hand and Desmond and Gomez on the other is not only that Guerrero played in a World Series, but also that Desmond and Gomez dramatically resurrected careers here, after several seasons of gradual decline.
Maybe one of Desmond or Gomez will be back to roam center field. I’m sure there’s legitimate interest on the part of both club and player in each case to extend the relationship, but this is business and there will be hurdles, possibly insurmountable to one side or the other.
As for first base, Moreland is a free agent, too, and the likelihood is that the 31-year-old lands the biggest contract of his career somewhere else, just from a budgetary standpoint. If that’s where this goes, he will be missed.
In that case, would first base go to Gallo, who looked overmatched with the bat in the big leagues this summer?
To Ryan Rua, who’s probably more valuable when his versatility is capitalized on?
To Profar, whose bat doesn’t really profile on a corner, at least not now?
Beltran, who has five career innings at first base? Choo, who has none?
Texas has work to do this winter, and as Daniels acknowledged, the rotation and center field and first base probably head the priority list.
Catcher is no longer a need spot, with Lucroy in place for at least another year, Robinson Chirinos under control for two, and Brett Nicholas around as depth. There’s no reasonable argument to be made that the Rangers have been this settled behind the plate since Pudge’s prime 15 years ago.
The bullpen — with exactly zero key contributors who were acquired loudly — will likely be supplemented, but even if not, the Rangers are in good shape.
Texas has done a tremendous job building a very good pen unconventionally. Sam Dyson was picked up in a virtually anonymous trade for a pair of fringe prospects. Diekman and Jeremy Jeffress were sweeteners in large deals for other players. Barnette was signed out of Japan, where he’d spent six seasons after a minor league run with the Diamondbacks that stalled in AAA. Shawn Tolleson was a waiver claim. Alex Claudio was a 27th-round pick who arrived in pro ball with a standard-issue arm slot. Keone Kela was drafted late on Day Two (12th round), and less than three years later was a big leaguer. Tanner Scheppers had the highest profile when acquired, but his career had moved largely to the training room the last few years before he reannounced his presence in September.
And then there’s Bush.
* * *
In the past, Texas converted Alexi Ogando and Jon Edwards and Matt West to the mound (Pedro Strop’s transition got underway on Colorado’s farm before the Rangers swiped him) and they all made it to the big leagues as pitchers. That’s success.
The Rangers nearly did the same with Moreland, but after his second minor league season (2008) ended with a stint at Fall Instructs on the mound, they let him choose what he wanted to do with his career. He chose to stick with the bat, for at least one more season — and a year and a half later he was in the big leagues, hitting World Series home runs.
Texas tried making pitchers out of position players Johan Yan, Leonel (“Macumba”) De Los Santos, Michael Thomas, Che-Hsuan Lin, Salvador Sanchez, and current minor league field coordinator Corey Ragsdale, but those experiments never left the farm.
We’ll see where things go with James Jones and Ronny Carvajal, and while nobody’s taking the bat and corner glove out of Preston Beck’s locker yet, stay tuned.
None of those cases bears any meaningful resemblance to Matt Bush’s career arc.
He was the first pick in the entire draft a dozen years ago, a high school shortstop from San Diego pegged by the hometown Padres with hopes that he’d be far more Joe Mauer than David Clyde.
He hit just .219/.294/.276 over four minor league seasons that peaked in Class A, and made more disappointing news off the field than he did on it. San Diego moved him to the mound during that fourth season, but he tore an elbow ligament in August and had Tommy John surgery, costing him the rest of 2007 and all of 2008.
The Padres designated Bush for assignment days before spring training opened in 2009, and it was reportedly an off-field incident that prompted the move, which led to a trade to Toronto for cash or a player to be named later.
He lasted a month and a half, before another alleged incident led the Blue Jays to release him before the regular season even began.
Nobody else gave him a job in 2009.
Bush spent 2010 on the farm with Tampa Bay, showing enough promise as a pitcher — even though arm issues limited him to 10 Class A appearances — that he ended the year with a spot on the Rays’ 40-man roster. He had an interesting season with their AA club in 2011 (77 strikeouts in 50.1 innings, 4.83 ERA), but late in spring training in 2012, he was driving with an unlawful blood alcohol level when he struck an elderly motorcyclist and fled.
Tampa Bay released Bush that October. Two months later, he was sentenced to prison.
* * *
The story turned around in 2015. Upon his release from prison to a halfway house in Florida late in the year, Bush threw for Rangers officials in the parking lot of a Golden Corral where he was working for an $8.05 (minimum) hourly wage, at the recommendation of Roy Silver, who had mentored Josh Hamilton through his own addiction and legal troubles years before.
Josh Boyd and Mike Daly and Silver marked off 60 feet, six inches in the parking lot, using a parking curb to serve as a pitching rubber. Bush, wearing sweats and tennis shoes and a tracking device on one ankle, registered mid-90s on a Rangers-issue radar gun.
Months after that, another more conventional bullpen session, this time in Texas.
The Rangers were prepared to offer Bush a strictly structured opportunity to pitch in the minor leagues. Before they could lay out their stringent terms, however, Bush told the team, according to an ESPN article, that “he wanted to be contractually restricted from drinking, driving, or living by himself. He wanted a zero-tolerance policy written into his contract that guaranteed his release if he broke certain rules.”
On the same page, Texas offered Bush the chance to revive his baseball career.
The minor league deal included no spring training invite to big league camp. His job in Surprise involved getting work in on the back fields with 17- and 20-year-old pitchers also hoping to earn minor league assignments.
But enough eyes were opened that the Rangers brought him over to the big league side for a few days, and he got into two big league spring training games, facing 12 hitters in front of Banister and his staff and allowing just one of them to hit safely. Two walked, and three went down on strikes. Texas assigned Bush to Frisco as camp closed, even though he hadn’t put on a minor league uniform in five years, back when he was a Class AA player for the first time.
That assignment lasted five weeks.
And not like his short-lived Toronto stint.
Bush was brought to the big club on a day in mid-May when DeShields was sent down, and that night he faced the Blue Jays — the last team he’d faced in spring training in 2012 and the organization that had once given him a chance that didn’t even last through one camp — and he fanned Josh Donaldson before getting Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to pop out on the infield.
Two days later, he faced five Toronto hitters, not that anyone other than Bautista will be remembered from that appearance.
Bush hit only one of the 257 batters he faced in 2016. That one.
After an exceptional big league season (.196/.244/.281, 61 strikeouts and 14 walks in 61.2 innings) in which he kept getting better, dispelling realistic concerns that he would eventually run out of gas given the completely uncharted workload territory, Bush was on the mound as the Rangers’ season came to an end, getting the ground ball he needed but staying crouched in the center of the field, stunned, as Donaldson scampered home on the 6-4-3 that wasn’t completed.
Bush finished the year as perhaps the Rangers’ most dominant pitcher, a 30-year-old with six more years of club control and, more extraordinarily, the makings of a standout big league career that looked for years to have been fully squandered.
First overall pick. Washout shortstop. Dominating big league reliever.
* * *
I would guess most of us haven’t experienced the depths and the lows that Matt Bush has and — at least professionally — probably not the highs, either.
But maybe there’s still a lesson we can learn, a lead we can follow. Bush might be as emblematic of the 2016 Texas Rangers as anyone, and not just because he was at the center of some pretty massive moments with the Toronto Blue Jays — an organization that represented part of his ugly past — across the field. He’s certainly not satisfied with how his and his teammates’ season ended, but there was plenty in 2016 to appreciate, to celebrate, to build off of.
For him, and for the team, and for the rest of us.
Maybe 2017 will be even better. Maybe it won’t. All that one-run success could regress to something a little closer to the mean. Injuries could factor in even more than they did this year. Houston could figure out how to win an extra game or two against Texas.
The final strike, as we know too well, isn’t guaranteed. Neither is the final series, or even the playoffs.
But there will be aspects of this team that improve, and the nucleus in place should make us feel good enough about 2017 that we can envision this team playing 162+ for the seventh time in eight years — and maybe still playing baseball games at this time next year.
And the Rangers will make impact additions this winter. And in July, too. They always do.
The window is still very much open. As Daniels, eschewing the concept of windows opening or closing, said early this week, good organizations find a way to win year in and year out. This is a very good organization.
You can’t always choose your own adventure whether you play the game or go all in as a fan. Most of the time the stories change but ultimately find the same end.
But that’s not inevitable. One of these years, soon, Texas won’t be one of the 29 teams eliminated.
It’s been pointed out this week that, since Cliff Lee beat David Price in Game Five in Tampa Bay in the 2010 ALDS, Texas has lost five straight win-or-go-home playoff games.
It should also be noted that starting with that 2010 season, the Rangers have played in nine playoff rounds (not counting the 2013 Wild Card Tie-Breaker Game). No other American League team has played that many.
The job is to put your team in a position to win.
Voice of the Cowboys Brad Sham, who shared the Rangers booth with Eric Nadel in the mid-’90s, wrote this a few days ago:
This is for not only my fellow Rangers and Cubs fans, but all sports fans. But these teams’ fans especially. These teams do not owe us results. For our money and emotional investment, they owe us their best effort. These two teams have already over-delivered this year. We should thank them and congratulate them. Be very happy if they win. Be as sad as we wish if they lose. But they’re doing their best against other professionals, as they have since February. Let there be no sniping or acrimony from us. We have struck out no one, we have delivered no hits nor run down one screaming liner in the gap. We have sat and cheered. Thank you, Rangers. Thank you, Cubs. You are examples and inspirations whatever happens next.
Thank you, Texas Rangers baseball, for 2016.
Thank you, Adrian and Colby. Elvis and Rougie. Cole and Yu. Desi and Luc. Carlos and Carlos. Nomar and Mitch.
Thank you, Sam and Jake and Tony and Matt.
Thank you, JD and Banny.
Thank you, Beas. See you in 2017.
Thank you, Prince.
There was a half-week nightmare that ended the dream this year — three, two, one — but these seasons almost never end truly happily. We know that going in. They can end with 162, and sometimes, effectively, well before that point. They can end abruptly after that, as 2016 did for Texas, or they can end with just as much heartache, if not more, the further down the road the post-season takes us.
It’s routinely flawed. But we watch.
And we count on it.