SweetSpot: David Murphy

AL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we’d take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our American League look.

AL East

Blue Jays: The transition from J.P. Arencibia to Dioner Navarro behind the plate is likely a wash and there hasn’t been much of an overhaul to this team other than the departure of Rajai Davis (who did have a decent amount of defensive value).
Ryan Goins
The most interesting thing for the Jays will be how Ryan Goins fares as a regular second baseman. Goins racked up a hard-to-believe 12 Defensive Runs Saved (backed up on video review by 21 Good Fielding Plays and only a pair of Defensive Misplays & Errors) in a 32-game stint last season.

Orioles: The biggest issue on defense for the Orioles will be dealing with the loss of Manny Machado’s major-league leading Runs Saved, at least until he returns from injury. Baltimore did make one positive move that should upgrade its outfield defense, getting David Lough from the Royals for utilityman Danny Valencia.

Rays: The Rays made a long-term commitment to James Loney, which bodes well from a defensive perspective, and also made one to catcher Ryan Hanigan, who is considered one of the best base-stealing deterrents and pitch-framers in the sport. He’ll give them a solid alternative to Jose Molina.

Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts will likely step into everyday roles and fill the shoes of Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew. The Red Sox will also have a new catcher, though there isn’t much of a defensive difference between A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Both rate below-average statistically.

Yankees:There have been some pretty notable changes on the defensive side. Brian McCann’s pitch-framing rates well, but he’s not the baserunning deterrent that Chris Stewart was. Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts could split time at second base but neither is the Gold-Glove-caliber glove that Robinson Cano was. Johnson could also wind up full-time at third base, a position at which he’s barely played more than 100 innings, if Alex Rodriguez gets suspended.

The Yankees should be great in center and left with an Ellsbury/Brett Gardner combo. Carlos Beltran has less ground to cover in the Bronx than he did in Busch. That could benefit his achy knees and help his defensive rating.

One smart thing the Yankees did: Hire Brendan Ryan to be their “shortstop closer” for the next two seasons and as much as it will pain Derek Jeter to leave games, it will be for the good of the team to let Ryan finish close games.

AL Central

Indians: The Indians tried to make a right fielder out of center fielder Drew Stubbs in 2013 and it didn’t work. They got themselves an upgrade in free agent David Murphy who rates adequate enough (5 Runs Saved in about a season’s worth of innings in right field) that his D could be a one-win upgrade by itself.

Royals: The best team in baseball, as it comes to Defensive Runs Saved, tinkered a little bit, swapping out Lough for Norichika Aoki in the outfield, which probably rates as a push (they’re both good … fair warning to Royals fans, Aoki likes to play a deep right field), and making an offensive upgrade by getting Omar Infante to fill the hole that was second base.

The one thing the Royals got from their second basemen last season was good defense (18 Runs Saved from the collection of Elliot Johnson, Chris Getz and others). Infante isn’t at that level, but he rates above average more often than not (he did by UZR, but not Runs Saved in 2013) and his offensive work should make up for any drop-off.

Tigers: The Tigers' defensive overhaul has been the biggest of the offseason as the team’s opening-day infield will be entirely different from 2013. Ian Kinsler is a definite upgrade at second base and we’ll see if Jose Iglesias’ wow plays add up over a full season (he has seven Runs Saved in just under 800 career innings at short).

Going from Prince Fielder back to Miguel Cabrera should actually be a slight upgrade.

The big question will be third base where the scouting reports on Nick Castellanos’ defense don’t inspire confidence. But even so, conservatively, the Tigers should be about 25 Runs Saved better in 2014, which takes them from being a lousy defensive infield to an average one.

Twins: The Twins made the career-preserving move of shifting Joe Mauer from behind the plate to first base and signed Kurt Suzuki, who has a good statistical history at the position. Suzuki has rated better than Mauer over the course of his career in Runs Saved, though he’s not as good at throwing out basestealers.

I asked Doug Glanville to assess what Mauer’s challenge will be in making the move to first:

“He is a super athlete and I am sure he will be fine. It will be tough to not be as involved with the game in every single moment. No one can compete with catchers in the leadership it requires to play that position and the need for constant vigilance. He has to sharpen his focus to deal with new lulls in time. I am sure he will.”

White Sox: The White Sox had the third-worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in 2013 and they’ve been overhauled all over the place. Their worst position last season was center field (-19 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013) and they’ll have a new look there with Adam Eaton.

They’ll also be much different at first base with Jose Abreu, whose hitting has been compared to Ryan Howard's (but if his defense is, that’s not good) and third base with adequately-rated Matt Davidson, whom they got for Addison Reed. Will different equal better? They better hope so.

Al West

Angels: The aging of Albert Pujols will continue to be an issue both on offense and defense. Last season broke a run of eight straight seasons in which Pujols ranked in the top five among first basemen in Runs Saved.

Pujols will have a familiar teammate working at the opposite corner with the addition of third baseman David Freese, who had a dreadful season in 2013 per both Runs Saved and UZR, ranking third-worst in the former and second-worst in the latter. That’s something that will need to be dealt with.

Astros: The Astros traded away their second-best defender stats-wise from 2013 in Brandon Barnes to get Dexter Fowler from the Colorado Rockies. Fowler has less ground to cover in the gaps of Minute Maid Park, but has a deeper center field (and Tal’s Hill) to worry about. Fowler has posted a negative Runs Saved rating in four of his six seasons, but has fared well at handling balls hit to the deepest parts of the park.

Athletics: The Athletics made two moves that should definitely help their defense in 2014.
Craig Gentry
By adding Craig Gentry in a trade from the Rangers, they’ve obtained one of the game’s premier outfield defenders and one who could fit in well both in left field (to make Yoenis Cespedes a DH) and center (to give Coco Crisp a breather) very well.

The Athletics also added a valuable utility piece in Nick Punto, who could start at second base (ahead of Eric Sogard) or close games at shortstop (replacing Jed Lowrie, who rates as a poor defender). Either way, he’s a big upgrade over what they had.

Mariners:The Mariners now have a Gold Glove-caliber defender at second in Cano. He’ll need to cover more ground to his left than he did in New York, because the Mariners’ first-base options (Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart) do not rate well. Morrison is going to present an issue wherever they put him. He’s not quite at the level of Michael Morse, but his ratings historically have been poor.

Rangers: The difference between Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland at first base is a sizable one, potentially 15 runs over the course of a season, so if the Rangers do decide to hang on to Moreland, they'd be best off playing him at first base and having Fielder DH. The Rangers could use a good defender at first, since Jurickson Profar is basically going to learn on the job at second base. Texas will also have some outfield concerns with Shin-Soo Choo having limited experience in left field and the team no longer having the security blanket of Gentry (traded to Athletics).

Can David Murphy rebound? To the video ...

November, 21, 2013
This offseason, I thought that David Murphy -- who agreed to a reported two-year, $12 million deal with the Indians -- made for one of the more intriguing free agents, at least from a statistical perspective because of the nosedive his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) took last season.

BABIP is often thought of as a stat that measures luck, but as Tristan Cockcroft has articulated annually in our Fantasy section, there is much more to it than that.

Luck is a factor, but so is the type of batted balls the hitter hits, the speed of the batter, the positioning of the defense and even things such as scorekeeping decisions (did the batter reach on a hit or error).

When it comes to Murphy specifically, one of the points of interest was how he fared when he hits a groundball.

Different data sources have slightly different numbers, but by our tally, Murphy hit 165 groundballs in 2012 and netted 44 hits, good for a .267 batting average. This past season, he hit almost an identical number of grounders (166), but had only 28 hits (a .169 batting average).

What was the 16-hit decline worth? About 37 points on both his batting average and slugging percentage and 33 points to his on-base percentage.

In other words, instead of the .220/.282/.374 slashline he delivered, he'd have been .257/.315/.411. And that's not factoring in anything else. There's a big difference in how you'd view the former compared to the latter.

With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to study Murphy's groundballs, to look a little deeper into the reasons for the drop. So I watched two years' worth of grounders, studied the data and solicited the thoughts of a few scouts and talent evaluators (with some help from ESPN.com's reporters).

What came from this? Here are a few observations.

Murphy's groundball "power" dropped
The first groundball I watched from each season was one I would describe as "laced" -- one against then-White Sox starter Jake Peavy, the other against then-Astros starter Bud Norris.

In 2012, I saw that type of smash with reasonable frequency. But it didn't come up often in the 2013 viewing. It disappeared against both lefties (which wasn't surprising given Murphy's history) and righties (which was surprising).

Our data provider classifies batted balls into three categories -- hard, medium and soft. The chart on the right shows Murphy's distribution. From 2010 to 2012, Murphy averaged 111 softly-hit grounders and 20 hard-hit ones. In 2013, that split was 124 and five.

One scout shared that his data set showed the speed of the ball off Murphy's bat was down from his 2012 numbers.

Given that Murphy's history is as someone with modest foot speed (seven to 14 steals a year from 2008 to 2012, though only one in 2013), and that Murphy typically got hits on about 60 percent of his hard-hit grounders and 15 percent of his soft ones, it behooves him to hit the ball hard when he hits it on the ground.

Murphy was very "predictable" in 2013
There was a point in the 2013 video viewing in which it felt like Murphy was repeating the same at-bat time and again. He'd hit a four-hop grounder to second, the second baseman would barely move, and he'd throw Murphy out easily.

[+] EnlargeDavid Murphy
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe 4-3 rollover groundout was a common occurrence for David Murphy in 2013.
Murphy had 55 4-3 groundouts in 2012. He had 70 in 2013. And it wasn't like players were defending him better. I asterisked what I judged to be defensive plays that ranked from very good to excellent. I counted four asterisks on plays by second basemen in 2012, three in 2013.

This trend was something on which stats and scouts agreed. We checked in with two talent evaluators and each echoed the other's thoughts.

"[Murphy] has an open stance, and was getting a bit leaky and starting early with the front side, causing him to roll over a lot, hurting his ability to use the whole field with a line drive approach, which had been his trademark," one scout wrote via e-mail.

When asked whether opponents picked up on that and took advantage of it, an AL executive replied "Absolutely."

Maybe defense had a little to do with it
What was noted above is not to say that Murphy wasn't the victim of some good infield defense against him.

Baseball Info Solutions, which charts every batted ball and categorizes plays as Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays for teams and media sent us their data.

In 2012, Murphy was denied hits by eight groundballs that rated as Good Fielding Plays and benefited with the awarding of hits on four on which they awarded a Defensive Misplay. In 2013, BIS had Murphy being "robbed" 14 times and benefiting none from his groundballs.

Factor that in and there's some argument that Murphy was unlucky, and just how much depends on how much you wish to value those plays. But even if you give Murphy a hit for every time he was robbed, and take a hit away for every one he was rewarded one due to a misplay, Murphy still comes out at least six hits better in 2012.

One other note: Murphy reached once via error in 2012 and four times in 2013. However, only one of the reaches last season was debatable as to whether it was hit or error, so Murphy wasn't significantly penalized by scorekeeping.

What about the shift?
From what we could see, three teams noticed enough from Murphy to warrant significantly shifting their defense -- the Orioles, Royals and Astros.

But if anything, the shift helped him. BIS charted him as 9-for-19 when hitting a grounder (or soft line drive) against it.

Looking ahead to 2014
So what does this all mean for Murphy moving forward? A scout shared that Murphy probably wasn't as good as he was in 2012 or as bad as he was in 2013. There's likely a middle ground, accepting that he's a couple years older now.

It would seem that there are two things for the Indians to work on with regards to Murphy as they relate to groundballs. There's the physical side, to fix whatever is causing him to roll over and the mental side to make him realize that some of what happened last season was beyond his control.

They felt confident enough to pay $12 million over two years to try.

Jesse Chavez is essentially the 25th man on the Oakland A's roster. He started the year in Triple-A, got called up, got sent down, got called back up and is working as the low-leverage guy out of the bullpen. Before Thursday, he hadn't pitched since June 5, and the final scores of games he'd appeared in (without a decision) were 6-1, 10-2, 11-5, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3, 10-2, 9-6 and 8-1.

Chavez is the definition of a journeyman right-hander, having pitched for the Pirates, Braves, Royals and Blue Jays before the A's purchased him from Toronto last August. He was a typical Billy Beane acquisition: He has a pretty good arm, fastball in the low 90s, but what Chavez hadn't had was much success at the major league level, with a 5.74 ERA over 191 career innings.

But sometimes you need that 25th guy to come through, and Chavez's other asset is that he had started for Triple-A Sacramento. That ability to pitch multiple innings came into play in Thursday's 18-inning marathon in Oakland, the A's finally pushing across the winning run with a blooper and broken-bat flare off Mariano Rivera, winning 3-2. Chavez was the big hero, however, pitching 5.2 innings of one-hit, scoreless relief. He has a starter's repertoire, with a cutter, curve and changeup. He got two big outs when he entered with two runners on in the 13th, striking out Kevin Youkilis and Vernon Wells on curveballs.

In the 14th, A's manager Bob Melvin had the guts to intentionally walk Robinson Cano with runners on first and second; Mark Teixeira popped out to shortstop, missing a hittable fastball. From there it was smooth sailing, as Chavez retired the side in order in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th innings. Not bad for your garbage-time reliever.

[+] EnlargeJesse Chavez
AP Photo/Eric RisbergJesse Chavez got the win for the A's in 5.2 innings of scoreless relief, with one hit and seven strikeouts.
"The last guy they threw was the best guy we faced all day," Teixeira told MLB.com. "That guy is nasty."

It's one of those games that will be remembered if the A's end up winning the American League West. It's that kind of bullpen depth that fueled their second-half surge last season and has fueled their strong start this season. The A's are 33-0 when leading heading into the ninth inning. They're 6-2 in extra innings. When tied through seven innings they're 8-1. This is a tough team to beat late in a game.

The A's have won 11 consecutive games at home and 21 of their past 26, and while they were 7 games behind the Rangers in mid-May, they now lead the division by two games, after the Blue Jays beat Yu Darvish and the Rangers 3-1, dropping the Rangers to 4-8 in June. Injuries to Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland have hurt, but that gets us back to roster depth.

Who is the favorite to win the West? Here's a quick rundown comparing the two teams.

Oakland: .246/.328/.397
Texas: .264/.327/.436

Entering Thursday's games, the Rangers had the higher wOBA, but the A's had the slightly better park-adjusted offense. The A's have gotten huge performances from Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp, and while some regression might be in order, Donaldson also looks like a much-improved hitter from last season, as Jerry Crasnick wrote. On the other hand, Josh Reddick (.187) and Chris Young (.169) should improve.

For the Rangers, the offense is trending downward. In 2011, they averaged 5.3 runs per game; in 2012, 5.0; this year, 4.4. Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz are doing Adrian Beltre- and Nelson Cruz-type things, but Elvis Andrus and David Murphy are struggling right now. If Murphy doesn't pick it up, the Rangers might look to add an outfielder.

Advantage: A's.

Starting pitching
Oakland: 29-24, 4.01 ERA; .249/.298/.398; 6.1 innings per start
Texas: 25-21, 3.77 ERA; .251/.311/.391; 5.9 innings per start

The rotations have posted similar numbers, but once you adjust for ballpark, the Rangers' staff has performed better, led by Darvish and Derek Holland. FanGraphs WAR rates the Rangers' starters at 8.6 Wins Above Replacement, third-best in the majors, and the A's 12th-best at 5.0.

The good news for the A's is that Jarrod Parker pitched well again Thursday. After posting a 7.34 ERA through his first seven starts, he's gone 4-1 with a 2.40 ERA over his past seven, with a .183 average allowed and WHIP under 1.00. His changeup is back to the deadly weapon it was last year, as batters have hit .118 against it in those most recent seven games.


Which team will win the AL West


Discuss (Total votes: 2,957)

The Rangers have succeeded even though Matt Harrison has spent most of the season and the disabled list and Colby Lewis all of it. Alexi Ogando is also out again with shoulder inflammation. The Rangers received some solid work from Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm early on, but those two haven't been quite as strong lately, and you have to wonder if the injuries won't catch up to the rotation at some point, at least until Lewis and Harrison return.

Edge: Even. The Rangers have been better so far, but moving forward I think the A's close the gap.

Oakland: 12-3, 2.89 ERA; .227/.289/.358
Texas: 13-7, 3.29 ERA; .240/.313/.368

The Texas bullpen has also been outstanding, especially the back three of Joe Nathan, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross. Neal Cotts has added some depth as well. Scheppers has been the big surprise, with a fastball that sits at 94-96 mph and touches 98; he's always had a good arm but might finally be putting it together. He doesn't have a big strikeout rate (21 in 32.1 innings), and I do wonder if he keeps pitching this well. Batters are hitting just .170 off his fastball even though Scheppers' strikeout/walk ratio with the pitch is just 10.9.

Edge: A's. The Rangers have a good pen, but once you get into the fifth, sixth and seventh guys, I think the A's have the advantage.

Oakland: minus-20 Defensive Runs Saved
Texas: plus-8 Defensive Runs Saved

Ultimate Zone Rating has the clubs essentially even -- Texas at minus-0.3, Oakland at minus-1.3. The big problem area for the A's has been shortstop Jed Lowrie at minus-8 DRS. Chris Young, who usually rates very well in the outfield, has also rated poorly at minus-5 DRS. Of course, if he doesn't start hitting, he's not going to get much playing anyway behind Crisp, Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

Edge: Rangers.

The A's were my preseason pick to win the division, and they look like the better team right now. What do you think?

The Atlanta Braves playing a wild-card game where they committed three throwing errors, got burned on a controversial umpire’s call, and saw their fans delay the game after littering the field with debris?

Sure, I can envision all that happening.

But Joe Saunders doing this? Delivering 77 pitches of one-run baseball in his own personal house of horrors against a lineup that should devour a pitcher like him?

No way did I see that coming.

Welcome to postseason baseball. You just never know.

Here’s what the numbers said about Saunders: 0-6 in six career starts in Arlington with a 9.38 ERA. In 2012, right-handed batters hit .307/.349/.500 off him, meaning the typical righty becomes something akin to Albert Pujols or Adam Jones against Saunders. All 21 home runs he allowed were hit by right-handers.

The Rangers had eight right-handed batters in their lineup. Most with power.

So of course the Orioles eliminated the Rangers 5-1, on a night where Yu Darvish pitched well but received no support.

What I liked about Buck Showalter’s approach in this game is he clearly he had a plan. Certainly, it becomes it easier to execute that plan when your players perform. But he knew that given a tight game, Saunders wouldn’t pitch past Josh Hamilton (lefty on lefty, and Saunders crushed lefties this season) and Adrian Beltre (who hit much better against righties). So when Nelson Cruz came up with two out and nobody on with the Orioles leading 2-1 in the sixth, that was it for Saunders. No gambling by Showalter. No leaving in Saunders to give up a game-tying home run.

[+] EnlargeJoe Saunders
Tim Heitman/US PresswireJoe Saunders held the potent Rangers offense to a single run in its home park.
In the eighth, he knew he had another lefty waiting for Hamilton and Brian Matusz blew him away on three pitches. But he also left in Darren O'Day to start the inning -- instead of going to Pedro Strop -- because O'Day had cruised through four batters with just 14 pitches. O'Day ended up pitching two innings of one-hit relief.

Showalter had the bullpen stirring in the first inning when Saunders ran into trouble. He wasn’t going to let the game get away early from the Orioles. And you know Showalter had a plan if he needed to remove Saunders in the third inning or the fifth inning. Compare that to Fredi Gonzalez, who couldn’t figure out how to get Craig Kimbrel, who had the most dominant relief season in history, into the game until the Braves already trailed 6-3. Gonzalez had only one contingency plan for Kimbrel: Use him in a save situation.

Or compare to Ron Washington, who started Geovany Soto at catcher and Mike Napoli at designated hitter, but then lost his DH spot when he pinch-hit for Soto and inserted Napoli behind the plate. This potential problem could have been avoided by simply starting Napoli at first base and Michael Young at DH. The defensive advantage wasn’t so great as to be concern; Young ended up making a crucial first-inning error that led to an unearned run anyway.

Let’s not give too much credit to Showalter, however. Give it to Saunders, of course, for battling his way through 5 2/3 innings. After that, it wasn’t a surprise the Baltimore bullpen closed it out. That’s been the strength all season for a team that was 74-0 when leading after seven innings and 75-1 when leading after eight innings. Closer Jim Johnson's job got a little easier in ninth when the Orioles scored twice off Joe Nathan to pad their 3-1 lead. As is, the Rangers got the tying run to the plate with two out but Johnson got David Murphy to fly out to end it.

For the Rangers, it was the finale of a fairly epic collapse, leading the American League West by five games with nine to play, yet going 4-9 down the stretch and losing the division title on the final day of the season. The Rangers have shown us just how tough it is to win a World Series: They lost it in 2010, were one strike away in 2011 and now go home in bitter disappointment.

This anger was summed up when the fans booed Hamilton after he struck out in the eighth. Think about it: Miguel Cabrera hit 44 home runs and drove in 139 runs and Tigers fans think he had the greatest season of all time. Hamilton hit 43 home runs and drove in 128 and he gets booed. I know Hamilton had a strange season, but if that was his final game with Rangers, it seems a sad way to go out considering all the great memories he’s given Rangers fans.

For the Orioles, the miracle run continues against the hated Yankees. The best part of all this: Orioles fans will get a home playoff game, their first since 1997. The Orioles actually clinched a playoff spot on a plane ride to Tampa, so this will be a chance to acknowledge their fans and for the fans to acknowledge this magical season.

Not to mention the chance to beat the Yankees.
Sure, in this ERA of OPS, VORP, wRC, WAR and other advanced metrics, a batting title doesn't mean what it used to, at least to the more sabermetrically inclined fan.

But it's still fun to follow the races, and the Rangers' David Murphy is third in the AL race with his .321 average (Mike Trout leads at .333 and Miguel Cabrera is at .330). Murphy has hit .363 in the second half and Ron Washington has even started playing him against left-handers (Murphy is hitting .400 against lefties in 60 at-bats), allowing Murphy to acquire enough plate appearances to join the league leaders list.

If Murphy somehow catches Trout and Cabrera, he'd certainly rank as one of the more surprising batting title winners in history, considering his .280 career average entering 2012 and his platoon status (he's never received the required 502 plate appearances in a season).

The most unlikely batting average champ in recent years was Pittsburgh's Freddy Sanchez in 2006, when he hit .344 as a 28-year-old vet in just his second full season in the majors. While a bit of an outlier compared to the rest of his career, Sanchez is still a .297 career hitter and hit .304 the following season.

In 2003, Boston's Bill Mueller hit .326 to win the AL title, the only time he hit .300 over a full season (he hit in the .290s five times, however, so a leap to .326, especially in Fenway, isn't necessarily a huge fluke).

Going back a bit further, Terry Pendleton led the NL with a .319 mark in 1991. Pendleton had signed with the Braves that year after seven seasons in St. Louis, where he compiled a .259 average. Pendleton won the batting title and MVP Award that year, which also makes him one of the least likeliest MVP winners. People do forget that he followed that season by finishing second in the MVP voting in 1992 as he hit .311 and drove in 105 runs. After those two big seasons he basically returned to being Terry Pendleton, a brief ray of excellence on our historical radar.

The odds are against Murphy, but he's in the right park to win a title. Murphy isn't focusing on that, however.

"To focus on that [a batting title] and not focus on the team would be pretty selfish," Murphy told ESPN Dallas the other day. "It would take away from what each guy in here brings to the table. There’s no guarantee that because I qualify on Sept. 3 that I’m going to qualify after game 162. But it’s not like it really matters."
Yu DarvishAP Photo/LM OteroThe signing of Yu Darvish is another example of Jon Daniels not being afraid to take a risk.
Jon Daniels became the Texas Rangers' general manager following the 2005 season. The Rangers weren't a complete mess at the time; they'd won 79 games in 2005 and the year before they'd won 89. But that '05 team really did only one thing well: It hit 260 home runs, with seven players hitting 20 or more. Kenny Rogers and Chris Young were the only two good starters and Rogers was about to depart as a free agent. The farm system wasn't barren, but wasn't in great shape. In Baseball America's list of the top 100 prospects entering 2006, no Rangers were ranked in the top 50, although pitchers Edinson Volquez, John Danks and Thomas Diamond did crack the top 75. The team was still paying off part of Alex Rodriguez's contract even though he was playing for the Yankees and attendance had ranked sixth in the American League.

Complete disaster? No. World Series contenders? Definitely not.

So how did the Rangers turn into one of baseball's elite franchises? Unlike the Tampa Bay Rays, the Rangers never hit rock bottom and profited from early picks in the draft like Tampa did with David Price, Evan Longoria, Jeff Niemann, Delmon Young and B.J. Upton, all top-five picks.

To make matters worse, Daniels' first two major moves proved disasters: (1) He traded Alfonso Soriano to the Nationals for Brad Wilkerson and Armando Galarraga; (2) Later that offseason he traded Young and a disappointing prospect named Adrian Gonzalez to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka.

The Rangers haven't had too many misfires since then. Here are 10 key moves in chronological order that turned around the franchise.

1. Alexi Ogando: Selected from A's in 2005 Rule 5 draft.

Why it was smart: Ogando had been an outfielder in the Oakland system but Rangers scouts saw the arm strength and envisioned a pitcher. Thinking outside the box. Ogando had to remain in the Dominican for several years after being denied a visa. Allowed back in 2010, he quickly reached the majors. And then the Rangers showed more outside-the box thinking by moving him to the rotation in 2011.

2. Derek Holland: Selected in 25th round of 2006 draft.

Why it was smart: More kudos to the Rangers' scouting department. He was a draft-and-follow selection out of Wallace State CC in Alabama and signed the following spring for $200,000 after his fastball velocity increased to 91 mph. In the minors, it jumped even more to 94 and then 96. Suddenly he was one of the hottest prospects in the game. But credit the Rangers for showing patience after he disappointed with a 6.21 ERA as a rookie in 2009.

3. July 28, 2006: Acquired Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz from Brewers for Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix.

Why it was smart: The Rangers were just .500 at the time, but sat 1.5 games out of first place. Lee was the main guy they wanted but Daniels also got Cruz, a guy who had put up big power numbers in the minors. They lost Lee to free agency after the season but the pick acquired from the Astros was used on Blake Beaven, one of the players sent to Seattle in the Cliff Lee trade. (Granted, there was an additional stroke of luck here: The Rangers actually designated Cruz for assignment in 2008, but no other team picked him up.)

4. July 31, 2007: Traded Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay to the Braves for Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Why it was smart: Daniels was one of the first GMs to trade his star free agent a year before free agency. As a result, he was able to secure a premium package of prospects.

5. July 31, 2007: David Murphy for Eric Gagne.

Why it was smart: Traded a fungible, mediocre middle reliever for a quality major league hitter. Murphy isn't a star but has been one of the best fourth outfielders in the majors the past few seasons.

5. Dec. 21 2007: Traded Edinson Volquez to Reds for Josh Hamilton.

Why it was smart: Traded an unknown quantity (a pitching prospect) for a proven major league center fielder. Yes, Hamilton carried risk considering his background, but as a pitching prospect -- especially one without refined control of his pitches -- Volquez was probably a bigger risk. After essentially being out of baseball for four seasons, Hamilton had hit .292/.368/.554 as a rookie with the Reds.

6. 2010: Signed Colby Lewis as a free agent out of Japan.

Why it was smart: A low-cast investment on a guy with a good arm who had put up excellent numbers in Japan. A one-time first-round pick by the Rangers, Lewis had never put it together in major league trials with Texas, Detroit and Oakland. After two years in Japan, the Rangers brought him back for three years and $8.25 million (including the team's 2012 option). Compare that deal to what some free agents got that winter: John Lackey for $82.5 million, Vicente Padilla for one year and $5 million, Ben Sheets for one year and $10 million, Jason Marquis for two years and $15 million.

7. 2010: Moved C.J. Wilson to the rotation.

Why it was smart: Starters are more valuable than relievers. Wilson always had a starter's repertoire of pitches, but most teams are unable to look past a pitcher's label once he acquires it. In the Rangers' case, Wilson had been labeled a middle reliever. Credit pitching coach Mike Maddux (and Wilson, of course), for believing the move could work.

8. 2011: Traded Frank Francisco for Mike Napoli.

Why it was smart: Fungible relief pitcher for that rarest of commodities, a catcher who can hit. Relief pitchers come and go and Francisco wasn't even a top-shelf closer.

9. 2011: Signed Adrian Beltre as a free agent.

Why it was smart: When the Rangers finally made a big investment on the free-agent market, they made a reasonable five-year, $80 million commitment with a good all-around player. The other key: They did this despite having an All-Star third baseman on the roster in Michael Young.

10. 2011: Didn't trade Michael Young after signing Beltre.

Why it was smart: Young still had a valuable role to serve with the team. Look, maybe the Rangers did try to trade Young, especially after he asked for a trade last spring. But give credit to the Daniels for not selling low on Young and accepting him as an overpaid DH/utility infielder. Young responded with one of the best years of his career.

What makes this list of moves so impressive is that any organization could have made these moves (with the possible exception of the Beltre signing). Smart scouting, smart trades, taking some risks ... the Rangers have shown that you don't necessarily have to rebuild by starting over or relying solely upon your farm system to produce a stream of Grade A prospects.

It can be done. In fact, it's this history of moves why I like the Darvish investment. The front office wasn't afraid of a pitcher from Japan; it had seen success happen right in front of it with Lewis. Yes, Darvish cost a lot more, but Lewis' raw stuff doesn't compare. The bigger point: Daniels doesn't operate from the view of worrying about making the wrong move; he's concerned with making the right move. You can trace that mindset back to keeping Ron Washington as manager after he admitted he used cocaine during the 2009 season. Washington made a wrong choice, but was he still the right manager for the club? Daniels believes he was. Two World Series trips later, that belief has been rewarded.

And a third straight World Series appearances could be on the horizon.

Top 10 position changes to watch

February, 6, 2012
Hanley Ramirez/Miguel CabreraUS PresswireHanley Ramirez, left, and Miguel Cabrera will be making high-profile position switches this spring.
Now that we’re waiting for these last few days to pass before pitchers and catchers report, it’s worth remembering that beyond the usual camp fights and reps as players get into regular-season shape, we’ll also see a few players challenged as they never have been: challenged to change positions.

Every club has different motivations for attempting this sort of thing: immediate need, making room for a major free agent or fulfilling a long-term plan for a younger player. What are the 10 most interesting attempted position switches to watch this spring?

1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers, from 1B to 3B: Cabrera’s bulk might seem like a major stumbling block to his making a jump to the hot corner now that Prince Fielder is manning first base. Although Cabrera started at the hot corner for the Marlins, he was a regular there in only two full seasons, 2006 and 2007; Baseball Info Solutions graded his defense 27 runs below average across those two seasons.

Tigers skipper Jim Leyland has plenty of experience with making the best of a bad situation at the hot corner. He tolerated Bobby Bonilla’s fielding at third base for the ’97 Marlins despite long exposure to Bonilla’s bad hands and scattershot arm as a Pirate back in the ’80s, for example. But fundamentally, can Cabrera do it? That seems like a stretch, but over a full season, he might not have to. The Tigers can rotate him or Fielder to DH now and again, and Cabrera also has plenty of experience in left field -- another position where the Tigers don’t have to play any one guy regularly.

With Leyland in the dugout, it’s worth keeping in mind that no manager in baseball today is more aggressive when it comes to using defensive replacements -- even if Cabrera acquits himself better than expected, don’t be surprised if Brandon Inge keeps busy as a frequently used substitute.

2. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins, from SS to 3B: Another move made to make room for a free agent. The immediate expectation is that an athletic shortstop like HanRam should be more than capable of jumping to third base. Shortstop is supposed to be harder, after all, so the expectation is that Ramirez might go from a questionable glove at short to a defensive asset at third.

However, it’s worth remembering that not all of these moves turn out well. As Michael Humphreys documents in his excellent "Wizardry: Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Fielders Revealed," Chipper Jones was an example of a former shortstop with tremendous athletic ability moved to third, only to deliver initially awful results in his first several seasons. Humphreys goes on to point out that Alex Rodriguez hasn’t become a great or even a good third baseman since starting out as a competent shortstop, and if your memory goes back to the ’70s and ’80s, neither did Toby Harrah.

So Ramirez’s value at third base is no sure thing, and how well he adapts will be a matter of hard work in camp.

3. Neftali Feliz, Rangers, from closer to starter: We’ve been through this before, as Feliz was prepped to start for the Rangers last spring only to wind up back in the bullpen. This time around, with veteran closer Joe Nathan in the fold, the transition should stick. Feliz has consulted with Pedro Martinez on the nature of the challenge of moving to the rotation -- a move Pedro had to make when the Dodgers distrusted his ability to withstand the workload of starting.

In Feliz’s case -- unlike Pedro’s -- his size or stature has never been a stumbling block, and he’s always had the broad assortment of plus stuff you’d associate with a top starter. Between the plus changeup he added in 2008 and the power breaking stuff he hasn’t had to use as often out of the 'pen, he’ll do more than keep people guessing. Because he’ll be entering his age-24 season, the Rangers will be sure to monitor his workload, but every other light is green on this project.

4. Daniel Bard, Red Sox, from reliever to starter: If Feliz’s transition is part of a grand design, Bard’s seems more a matter of immediate need. However, it’s worth remembering that Bard started out as a starting pitcher prospect and a first-round selection. He didn’t really turn the corner with the slider that now complements his 97 mph fastball until he moved to the ’pen in the minors. Will he be able to throw it as effectively a second or third time through a big league lineup? His changeup might wind up becoming the key off-speed pitch in his arsenal that gets him all the way through 90-100 pitches and into the sixth inning.

5. Mark Trumbo, Angels, from 1B to 3B: This hasn’t gotten nearly the same kind of attention that Cabrera’s has in even less time, but that’s because Trumbo’s success is not a critical component to the Angels’ plans the way Cabrera’s is to the Tigers. General manager Jerry Dipoto is adamant that, after he recovers from a stress fracture in his foot, Trumbo’s move off first base to make way for Albert Pujols won’t be to one position but to a superutility role, playing all four corners and DH as Mike Scioscia tries to find ways to squeeze Bobby Abreu, Vernon Wells, Kendrys Morales and Trumbo into the lineup when there are just two lineup slots they can have to themselves.

Even if Trumbo’s healthy, there’s the question of whether he can really make the jump to third. He’s never played there in the minors, let alone the majors, and he was better known as a top pitcher in high school when the Angels drafted him. As experiments go, this seems desperate and might not survive to see the light of Opening Day.

6. Chris Sale, White Sox, from reliever to starter: This move is more like Feliz’s shift to the rotation than Bard’s, because it was anticipated from the day the White Sox drafted him in 2010 that he had the stuff to eventually start. But his arm was good enough to make the majors in a relief role just weeks after his selection. With Mark Buehrle’s defection via free agency, a slot has opened up, so the Sox can proceed with what they’ve always wanted from Sale: a southpaw tower of power capable of pumping pure gas from the mound. Although 2012 hasn’t been a season to look forward to on Chicago’s South Side, watching Sale every fifth day should be something people pay to see.

7. Jayson Werth, Nationals, from RF to CF: This isn’t guaranteed to happen, but it’s a very likely outcome should top prospect Bryce Harper somehow wind up making the team as the starting right fielder. The argument over whether Harper will be ready is one major hurdle, but whether Werth would be able to handle center field over a full season is another.

In baseball history, only two men as tall as Werth’s 6-foot-5 have ever played anything close to every day as a center fielder: Alex Rios of the White Sox over the past two years and the Phillies’ Von Hayes for big chunks of 1984 and 1985. Werth’s listed weight, 220, is heavier than either Rios' now or Hayes' then -- he’s simply a much bigger guy. Drew Stubbs is another big man in center -- he’s 6-foot-4, but also almost 20 pounds lighter. The Braves’ Dale Murphy was famously big for center, but at 6-4 and a listed weight of 210, he was also smaller than Werth.

If Harper makes a case to the Nats to play on Opening Day, could Werth really handle the pounding of racing gap to gap over a full season? If you have your doubts, you’re not alone, especially in light of GM Mike Rizzo’s recent decision to bring back Rick Ankiel (although on a minor league deal).

8. Jim Thome, Phillies, DH to 1B: As Jayson Stark pointed out last month, Thome’s challenge in moving back to playing a position might be remarkable, but he won’t be the only famous forty-something to have spent time at first base. But because he's played all of four games at first base in the past six seasons, concerns about his durability given his extensive track record for injury -- including two DL stints last season -- come to the fore.

However, even with the initial expectation that Thome will be little more than a Sunday starter and regular pinch hitter, you’ve got the open question about how much playing time in left John Mayberry Jr. might have to log, as well as the dubious proposition that Ty Wigginton will hit enough to handle the spot. Given the uncertainty about his lineup, Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel might well be tempted to take a few chances with Thome.

9. Daniel Murphy, Mets, utility to 2B: It remains to be seen how serious the Mets are about attempting to return Murphy to the keystone after he was knocked out with knee injuries -- while playing second base, no less. He has never been able to handle second base as a regular at any level as a pro, having played just 19 games there in the minors. This is a lot like what the team went through with Keith Miller more than 20 years ago. Even with the “Hal McRae rule” to protect second basemen, a basic level of agility is required at second base -- to protect yourself and to move around the bag effectively -- and there’s reason to doubt Murphy has it after injuries to both knees, if he ever had it in the first place.

10. Sean Doolittle, Athletics, 1B to pitcher: Speaking of knee injuries, bum wheels essentially ruined Doolittle’s shot to stick as a position player. The former supplementary first-rounder from the 2007 draft was a two-way star at Virginia in college. Now the A’s are trying to recoup some value from their investment by putting that arm to good use on the mound. He made an initial effort on the mound last season, throwing an inning in rookie ball. You can never know how these things will turn out, but Sergio Santos is the most recent example of a strong-armed player enjoying an overnight success with a move to the mound; A’s fans might have at least this one small chance to daydream.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
David FreeseRob Carr/Getty ImagesDavid Freese tripled to tie Game 6 of the World Series in the ninth and homered to win it in the 11th.

ST. LOUIS -- At the end of "Ball Four," the greatest book about baseball ever written, pitcher/author Jim Bouton writes, "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."

This sport brings the greatest of joys and then crushes you with pain. It increases its grip on you with game-ending home runs and division titles and playoff victories and rally squirrels. And when the defeats come, it's too late to turn back; you're already in, unable to escape.

Game 6 was a roller coaster for both teams, a laughable parade of Little League errors and miscues, followed by dramatic home runs, a ninth-inning rally, a monumental blast by Josh Hamilton in extra innings, another rally by the Cardinals and finally a David Freese home run into the grass in dead center field that ended this game -- we say game, but it seemed so much more consequential than a mere game -- and sent Busch Stadium into an eruption of hugs, high-fives, tears of happiness and professional athletes jumping up and down at home plate like 8-year-olds being treated to ice cream.

In the end, the scoreboard reads: St. Louis Cardinals 10, Texas Rangers 9, in 11 innings. That, of course, hardly tells the story of the exciting, unpredictable and at times unfathomable Game 6 of the World Series, one that will be relived and replayed, analyzed and scrutinized, one that will go down as one of the more remarkable World Series games ever played. Some day, somebody might have to write a book about this one.

So in this season of comebacks and collapses, of the best postseason baseball has witnessed in years, we get a Game 7. The Cardinals, down to their final strike in the ninth inning, down to their final strike in the 10th inning, kept fighting and fighting and fighting, somehow keeping this baseball season going a little longer when Freese became just the fifth player to hit a walk-off home run in Game 6 or 7 of the World Series. "Growing up or whatever, and you see stuff like that happen, those become memories," Freese said. "You know, if it's going to be replayed over and over again, I don't know, but it's really cool to be a part of this and to force a Game 7."

The Rangers, one strike away in the ninth inning, one strike away in the 10th inning, will have to regroup and mentally re-energize for one more game. Ron Washington couldn't say much, other than, "It just wasn't to happen tonight."

No, it didn't happen on this night for the Rangers, so, yes, we'll get at least nine more innings. And, yes, baseball, we are in your grip.

* * * *

Where to begin? With Freese, of course. He hit the two-strike, two-run triple in the ninth inning off Neftali Feliz, a ball lined off the wall in right field, a tough play but one that Nelson Cruz could have made. He was playing deep -- you play "no-doubles" defense at the point of game -- but drifted back too slowly and the ball flew inches over his outstretched glove.

In the 11th, the Rangers brought in Mark Lowe, their eighth pitcher of the night, and not the guy you'd expect to be on the mound with the World Series on the line. Freese led off the inning and crushed a 3-2 changeup to center. "You know, I felt like I was part of a circus out there, bouncing balls off the top of my hat a little bit," Freese said of the Cardinals' three errors, including one by him. "But, man, I just wanted an opportunity -- we tied that up, we had some good ABs and we tied it up and just kept battling. That defines our team, that game."

Ron Washington had elected to pinch-hit for Scott Feldman with Esteban German in the top half of the inning with a runner on first and two out. You can't fault Washington for that, but it was a low-percentage opportunity to score a run. The difference in ability between Feldman and the rarely used Lowe is sizable; he may have been better off letting Feldman bat, hope to keep the game tied, and play for the 12th inning.

Other notes:
    [+] EnlargeTexas' Alexi Ogando
    Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAlexi Ogando reacts after walking Yadier Molina with the bases loaded in the sixth inning.

  • In the end, the wildness of Alexi Ogando and Feliz finally came back to haunt the Rangers. The worst decision of the game was Washington bringing in Ogando in the sixth inning with the bases loaded. Ogando had been terrible in this series, allowing 12 baserunners in just two innings. I wrote earlier that Game 6 of the World Series was no time to be loyal; Washington remained loyal to Ogando, believing in him as his sixth- and seventh-inning guy. But after a long season, he's clearly gassed and never should have been in there. He walked in the tying run and only escaped further damage because Mike Napoli picked Matt Holliday off third base. (And Derek Holland had to be brought in to escape the inning.)

    As for Feliz, his control has been shaky all postseason. He had a chance to close out a 7-5 lead in the ninth inning, but gave up a double to Albert Pujols and then walked Lance Berkman, setting the stage for Freese. The Rangers had gone 5-2 in the postseason when walking five or more batters; that's just not sustainable. When doing that in the regular season, they went 7-19. They walked seven batters in Game 6.
  • Berkman quietly had one of the great individual performances in a World Series game: 3-for-5, four runs, three RBIs, a two-run home run, a big walk in the ninth, a game-tying single with two outs in the 10th, just the the fourth game game-tying hit in World Series history in the ninth or later when a team was one out from elimination (Freese's triple was the third; the others were the Braves' Otis Nixon in 1992 and the Giants' Josh Devore in 1911). "I actually felt pretty good (there)," Berkman said, "because I figured I was in a no-lose situation. If you don't come through right there, it's only one at-bat and it's over with, and they might talk about it for a couple days, but it's not that big a deal. If you come through, it's the greatest, and plus you've built a little bank account of being able to come through, so that if I don't come through tomorrow I can be like, 'Well, I came through in Game 6, what do you want from me?'"
  • Should Washington have left in Feliz to start the 10th? He’d thrown 22 pitches in the ninth, while the Cardinals had the bottom of their order up -- and the pitcher due up third, with no position players left to hit. (Could you imagine if the World Series had ended with a pitcher hitting?) But with lefties Daniel Descalso and Jon Jay up, Washington brought in veteran lefty Darren Oliver. Can’t really fault him too much for that one; it just didn’t work out.
  • Washington also elected to walk Pujols in the 10th inning -- when he was the winning run. Instead of having Feldman go righty-on-righty, he faced Berkman, who hit a soft single into center to tie the game. What have we been saying? You're playing with fire with all those intentional walks and Washington finally got burned. Yes, it's Albert Pujols, but Berkman isn't exactly Mario Mendoza.
  • Napoli once again came up big at the plate -- his RBI single in the fourth inning gave him 10 for the series, only the sixth player in World Series history to drive in that many in one Fall Classic. His pickoff of Holliday looked like it would end up being the key defensive play of the 2011 season.
  • You can't fault Washington for using Holland for two innings, but since he pitched two innings and threw 23 pitches, his availability as a long reliever for Game 7 is now in question. If Game 7 starter Matt Harrison struggles early, that likely makes C.J. Wilson the long man out of the pen for the Rangers.
  • OK, if you watched this game, you know it won't be appearing on any instructional videos. Freese dropped a routine pop fly that any fifth-grader could catch, Holliday dropped an easy fly ball in left field, appearing to yell "You take it" to Rafael Furcal, but realizing too late that Furcal was in a bad position. Both errors led to unearned runs. Two Michael Young errors at first base also led two unearned runs on the Texas ledger.
  • Great cat-and-mouse game in the fifth. Freese's error was followed by Young's RBI double. With Young on third and two out, Napoli was walked. Washington sent in David Murphy to hit for Craig Gentry -- and got Holland up in the pen, hoping it might force La Russa to pitch to Murphy. La Russa didn’t bite; Murphy was pitched around and Washington let Lewis hit (and strike out to leave the bases loaded).
  • For what it's worth, the three most recent games that involved crushing defeats in Game 6 to keep the World Series alive were the Cardinals to the Royals in 1985, the Red Sox to the Mets in 1986 and the Giants to the Angels in 2002. All three teams lost Game 7. Also, the home team has won the past eight Game 7s. It won't be easy for the Rangers.
Ron Washington, Tony LaRussaPaul Sancya/Pool Photo/US PresswireTony La Russa's decision to bring in and stick with Marc Rzepczynski was a key moment in the game.

ST. LOUIS -- Give credit to Lance Berkman for his odd-looking cue-shot hit that bounded past Michael Young for a two-run single in the fourth.

Give credit to Albert Pujols for his diving stop of a Young grounder up the line with a runner on third and two outs in the sixth.

Give credit to Allen Craig for coming off the bench to deliver the go-ahead RBI single in the sixth inning.

Give credit to Marc Rzepczynski for escaping a seventh-inning jam and Chris Carpenter for a solid six-inning effort.

And in this chess match of a Game 1, credit Tony La Russa for the final checkmate, the latest in his string of postseason moves that have made him the stealthiest postseason manager since Connie Mack started Howard Ehmke in Game 1 of 1929 World Series.

The players win and lose, and the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers 3-2 in the opening game of the World Series, but La Russa’s decisions -- and Ron Washington’s mistakes -- played a key component in the outcome.

This was most evident in the top of the seventh inning. Craig’s two-out single had given St. Louis a 3-2 lead. The Rangers had their 5-6-7 hitters up: Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli, aka the heart of the Texas lineup these days. La Russa brought in right-handed reliever Fernando Salas. Cruz singled with one out and Napoli walked on four pitches. You’re up, Tony.

[+] EnlargeLance Berkman
Jeff Curry/Getty ImagesLance Berkman drove in two runs for the Cardinals with a single in the fourth inning.
La Russa brought in the lefty Rzepczynski to face southpaw-swinging David Murphy, a .215 hitter with no home runs in 107 at-bats against left-handers. At this point, it become apparent that the Rangers have one major weakness: the lack of a good right-handed bat off the bench.

Washington sent up Craig Gentry, who is really a defensive speed merchant more than a hitter. He struck out looking on a 1-2 pitch that caught the outside corner. Or was maybe a bit outside. That brought up the pitcher’s spot. La Russa had Octavio Dotel -- .145 against right-handers this season -- warming up in the bullpen.

Washington basically had three options:

1. Hit Yorvit Torrealba, his best right-handed bat left on the bench. Not a good one -- .256 with no homers versus left-handers. But Rzepczynski’s crossfire motion is tough on lefties, so you had to send a righty up there.

2. Hit Esteban German ... a guy who hadn’t had an at-bat since Sept. 25.

3. Hit German and hope La Russa would bring in Dotel. Washington could then hit Mitch Moreland, the lefty-swinging first baseman and the best bat left on the Rangers’ bench.

I don’t know if Washington was thinking La Russa would bite; maybe he thought German was his best option -- all he said after the game was, "I thought he had a good chance against Rzepczynski. ... In German's case, he's a contact hitter. I thought he can handle Rzepcynzski's offspeed stuff." He denied that he expected La Russa to bring in Dotel and stuck to his belief that German was the guy for that situation.

Regardless, La Russa didn’t bite. Afraid of Esteban German? Not quite. Rzepczynski struck out the overmatched German on three pitches.

Washington, on the other hand, was afraid of Nick Punto. Yes, Nick Punto, the guy with the .249 career average and 14 career home runs in nearly 3,000 plate appearances. He intentionally walked him in the fourth inning with two outs to pitch to Chris Carpenter with a runner on second. Not the worst decision -- it used to be commonplace for NL managers to walk the No. 8 hitters 30 or 40 years ago, but you see it less often these days.

That one worked out when the Cardinals failed to score the next inning despite a leadoff walk to Rafael Furcal. Punto came up again in the sixth, with David Freese on third with two outs (after Wilson had fanned the hard-to-strikeout Yadier Molina). Carpenter was on deck. He’d thrown 87 pitches on this cold night and was hardly blowing the Rangers away.

It seemed pretty obvious La Russa would hit for Carpenter. Wilson gave Punto the old unintentional intentional walk on four pitches, a pretty inexplicable decision, even if it did ensure that Carpenter would be removed.

Craig hit. Washington brought in Alexi Ogando. Nothing wrong there, although: Why not just bring in Ogando to face Punto? Craig lined a 1-2 high-octane heater down the right-field line; Cruz dove feet first, but came up short, as the ball fell a few inches in front of him. Maybe with a glove-first dive he could have made the catch. It would have been a higher-risk play to attempt it.

Risk. On this night, that’s how Ron Washington managed. He took a risk in not pitching to Punto. He took a risk in bringing in Esteban German. His risks didn’t work out.

But it’s only Game 1. Maybe he learned something about how La Russa will handle different parts of his lineup. But he shouldn’t feel so bad: A lot of managers have been schooled by La Russa over the years.
Nelson CruzAP Photo/Charlie RiedelNelson Cruz's six home runs and 13 RBIs in the ALCS set postseason records.
The Texas Rangers pitchers started six games in the ALCS and managed to go six innings just one time. They allowed 36 hits, 21 runs and nine home runs in 28.2 innings while posting a 6.59 ERA. They didn't win a game.

But baseball games aren't won by starting pitchers. They're won by teams.

The Rangers had the better lineup, the better depth, the better defense, the better bullpen.

And they had Nelson Cruz.

Cruz put the exclamation point on Saturday night's 15-5 destruction of the Detroit Tigers with a two-run homer in the seventh inning, giving him six home runs and 13 RBIs for the series -- both postseason records for any series. He'd already become just the fourth player in postseason history to hit two extra-inning home runs in a career, and he did it one series.

And this guy hits seventh in the Texas lineup.

There's no need to go overboard analyzing a blowout like this game, but it begins with Max Scherzer's poor start for Detroit. As good as he had looked this postseason, his effort was a reminder of why he had a 4.43 ERA this season. Among 42 qualified American League starters, that ranked 34th. As good as his stuff is, he's still plagued by inconsistency and control problems at times; he had three starts this season where he was knocked out before four innings, six starts where he allowed at least six runs. When he's bad, he's bad. (Of the 18 pitchers this season to allow at least six runs in six or more starts, his 14.23 ERA in those "bad" games was third-worst.) He couldn't fight through his control problems in this game -- he walked four while getting just seven outs -- opening up the floodgates for Texas' nine-run third inning.

Tigers fans will undoubtedly howl at two questionable umpiring calls in that inning. After three runs had already scored to give Texas a 3-2 lead, Cruz checked his swing on a 2-2 pitch; he appeared to go too far, but it was called a ball and Cruz walked on the next pitch, knocking out Scherzer. Later, after David Murphy's two-run single off Daniel Schlereth, Craig Gentry hit a grounder to second baseman Ramon Santiago, a play in which Miguel Cabrera had also attempted to make (for some reason). Santiago tried to get the force at second, even though Rick Porcello was covering the base. Murphy was ruled safe on a bang-bang play. The inning rolled on with Ian Kinsler's two-run single and Michael Young's two-run double.

Tigers fans may also question the decision to bring in Schlereth with the bases loaded and the score still 3-2 to face Murphy. He hadn't appeared in the series, so hadn't pitched in a game in 11 days. Considering he has difficulties throwing strikes as is (5.9 walks per nine innings), it was a tough situation to bring him in for. Tigers manager Jim Leyland wanted the lefty to face the left-handed Murphy, but with the Detroit's season on the line, it seemed a strange time to go to the 11th guy on your staff. Leyland ended up seeing his pitching destroyed without getting Joaquin Benoit in the game in that inning. Saving a guy for the seventh or eighth inning does you no good if you give up nine runs in the third. Detroit pitchers ended up throwing 50 pitches in the bottom half of the third and it took 37 minutes.

Ron Washington didn't have to do much after that, but he didn't hesitate to pull Derek Holland with two outs in the fifth after Austin Jackson hit a two-run homer to make it 9-4. Washington isn't concerned about bruising the egos of his starters; he's trying to win ballgames. Unlike Leyland, he didn't mess around with anyone but his best pitchers; in his case, that means his bullpen. Scott Feldman got the final out of the fifth and then Alexi Ogando came on for two innings. The Rangers became just the second team to win a best-of-7 series without getting a win from its starters, joining the 1997 Cleveland Indians, who won the ALCS that year in six games.

Give Washington credit as well for sticking with Young as his cleanup hitter. Through his first seven postseason games, Young was 3-for-27 without an RBI and there were calls to move him down in the lineup. But he went 1-for-5 with an RBI in Game 4, 2-for-5 with an RBI in Game 5, and 3-for-6 with two doubles and a home run in Game 6. If he's heating up, the Rangers' lineup only looks even more lethal.

Certainly, there will be questions about the Rangers' rotation as the team gets ready for its second straight trip to the World Series, the first American League team to do that since the 2000-01 Yankees. But we have a few days to discuss whether they can win it all without getting a quality start or two in the World Series. For now, the Rangers and their fans (who once again put on a loud, terrific display of support) get to enjoy their American League championship.

And then they can start worrying about those four more wins needed for the first World Series title in franchise history.
Eric Karabell hosts and David Schoenfield pinch-hits for Keith Law on Wednesday's Baseball Today podcast. Topics include:
One of the mantras you'll see repeatedly in this space is that in baseball no one injury usually derails a team. The average fan still overrates the value of a star player. There are no Kobes or LeBrons in this sport.

Yes, losing an ace like Adam Wainwright for the entire season is a major blow; losing Josh Hamilton for two months with a broken arm is more like a bump in the road for the Rangers -- bigger than a pothole, but one that can be navigated.

Earlier today, Dan Szymborski wrote on ESPN Insider that the Rangers -- after starting 9-1 -- were now projected to win the AL West by eight games. Last season, FanGraphs had Josh Hamilton with a WAR of 8.0 -- eight wins better than a Triple-A level replacement. His projected WAR for 2011 wasn't that high -- after all, 2010 was a career year and he's battled injuries in the past. Projection systems, by nature, are conservative. Baseball Prospectus' version of WAR had Hamilton as a 3.8-win player in 2011. Even if we're more generous and say Hamilton would have been a 6-win player in 2011 that would still give the Rangers cushion for a long-term Hamilton injury.

Except the Rangers won't be replacing Hamilton with a replacement-level player. David Murphy, one of the best fourth outfielders in baseball, takes over the starting position. He hit .291/.358/.449 in 2010. He isn't that great against lefties (.692 career OPS), but not a complete disaster. The team could also move Mitch Moreland to right field (where he played a lot in the minors), move Nelson Cruz to left and insert Michael Young or Mike Napoli at first base. That weakens the defense, but it still leaves Ron Washington with some lineup flexibility.

Anyway, it all adds to a small hurdle for the Rangers, maybe two wins. They're still the heavy favorites in the West. It's just a shame it happened when this team was running on all cylinders, playing quality defense, the front office and Washington looking like forward-thinking risk-takers with the Alexi Ogando-to-the-rotation move, and winning despite a mediocre start from Hamilton.

The bigger issue: Hamilton is signed through 2012, when he becomes a free agent. What kind of offer do you make to a 31-year-old outfielder who will have missed significant time with injuries in 2009, 2010 and 2011?

Ron Washington's easy Game 2 choice

October, 28, 2010
Let's be real clear about this ... David Murphy is not some raw scrub who's likely to wilt under the pressure of actually playing. For most of the past three years, he's been playing when the other team starts a right-handed pitcher (which is most of the time).

Is Murphy a great hitter? No. He is adequate. He's got a career .288/.354/.487 line against right-handed pitchers. Which (again) isn't great.

It's not nearly as good as Vladimir Guerrero's, which shouldn't be a surprise.

But Guerrero is old. Well, actually he's middle-aged. It's his knees that are old. Whichever parts of his body you prefer, he simply isn't the hitter he once was. Guerrero's got a .301/.349/.501 line against righties over the past three seasons. Toss in Guerrero's 35 birthdays (compared to 29 for Murphy), and it's very, very, very difficult to convincingly argue that Guerrero, right now, is a measurably better hitter than Murphy.

Against right-handed pitchers, I mean. Like Matt Cain, for example.

Of course, Vladimir Guerrero's walking a one-way path to Cooperstown. David Murphy isn't. In the event of a tie, you have to go with the Hall of Famer.

But it's not a tie. It's not remotely a tie.

Because fielding counts, too. David Murphy is a pretty good outfielder. At this point in his career, Vladimir Guerrero is a terrible outfielder when well-practiced; at the moment, he's ill-practiced.

This is actually a pretty easy call. In the National League park with a right-hander starting for the Giants, David Murphy is the obvious choice, with Guerrero ready to come off the bench as one of the more talented pinch-hitters in World Series history.

In Game 1, Guerrero's two errors didn't really matter. If he plays right field again in Game 2, he probably won't make two errors. He probably won't make one error. If he does make an error, or doesn't make an error but doesn't get to a ball that Murphy would have, it probably won't matter much.

But what if it does? What if Guerrero makes an error that lets in a run or two, in a one-run game? Doesn't that rank among the great managerial blunders of the 21st century?

Shortly after Game 1, Ron Washington showed little inclination to bench Guerrero in Game 2. But he was probably in a bit of shock. He'd just seen his team give up more than 10 runs for only the third time all year. Maybe he wound up getting a solid night of sleep, woke up refreshed, and came to his senses. Maybe the Rangers will have a real right fielder Thursday night.

Rangers have three ways to lose

October, 27, 2010
From Joe Sheehan's (subscriber-only) newsletter, just a bit of his cogent pre-Series analysis:
    Ron Washington seems intent on starting Vladimir Guerrero in right field in games played without a DH, a decision that makes his team worse. Guerrero was once an athletic, if error-prone, right fielder and a dominant lineup force. Now, he's a creaky 35-year-old who hasn't hit much since June and who had just a .287/.328/.482 line against righties this year. David Murphy is a tougher out against the Giants' righties (.288/.354/.487 career, a little better than that in 2010) and a stronger defensive player. To win any one game against a right-hander this year, you would take Murphy.

    The decision is particularly risky because of the park. AT&T Park has a very complicated right field, all angles and mixed elements (brick facade, fencing, scoreboard), with a deep alley. The game's early innings will be played as the sun is setting, making the play of fly balls a challenge. There's a great likelihood of a close game, one in which converting balls in play into outs, not giving up extra bases on hits, will be critical. Trading defense for offense can be a good play; the Rangers are trading defense for legend.


    I'm reluctant to make a prediction. The edges each team has are small, save for the Giants' bullpen, which i think is well ahead of that of the Rangers, especially given Washington's bizarre Neftail Rules. Washington, in fact, is nearly enough to swing the whole thing for me. His leader-of-men skills may well be fantastic, but men become chess pieces in the World Series, and he doesn't seem to play chess well. Bochy has his peccadilloes, but he's not the guy shoving Vladimir Guerrero's back and legs into a difficult position so he can get a bad matchup into his cleanup spot.

The Giants have three ways to win:

1. Play better,

2. Get lucky, or

3. Grab a couple of games through Bruce Bochy out-managing Ron Washington.

On paper, there's a deficit between the Rangers and the Giants, and that deficit favors the Rangers.

It's not a particularly large deficit, though. It could easily be made up by one of those three things, or some combination of them.

Barring a sweep, though, No. 3 is the only one that's going to get much attention. After every close game, we're going to analyze every move these guys make to death. Maybe Washington will surprise us. But he doesn't seem to be off to a great start.

Rangers looking to boost outfield

August, 31, 2010
This one made me scratch my chin and furrow my brow, at first. BBTIA:

    Per ESPN New York's Adam Rubin (h/t AJM), the Rangers are interested in acquiring outfielder Jeff Francoeur from the Mets, and have a very narrow window in which they would have to complete a transaction, as he would not be eligible to make the post-season roster if not acquired by 11:00 p.m. CDT.


    Where the problems would arise would be if Francoeur performed well against lefties and the coaching staff started giving him plate appearances against right-handers (an absolutely terrible idea), or if he continues to raise a stink about wanting more playing time and rubs somebody the wrong way. Otherwise, there's some reason to believe that you could pair him with David Murphy and give yourself a respectable COF platoon setup.

Leaving aside Frenchy's obvious limitations, my first reaction is to wonder what the Rangers would want with a Murphy/Francoeuer platoon when they've gotten along just fine this season without one.

Except, well ... The Rangers do have some moderately serious outfield issues. Their right fielder, Nelson Cruz, has played only 78 games and been on the DL twice because of hamstring problems. Their center fielder for much of the season, Julio Borbon, has a .301 on-base percentage. Their left fielder for much of the season, Josh Hamilton -- who's recently been their center fielder -- has a sore knee that might get worse before it's gets better.

Oddly, David Murphy might be the Rangers' most reliable outfielder. Except he can't really hit left-handed pitchers, and the Rangers are going to face some pretty good left-handed pitchers in October. Management's got no faith in Brandon Boggs, their best in-house option. Which leaves them looking for -- you got it -- a righty-hitting outfielder with some defensive skills who can be gotten on the cheap.