The conventional book on this club in recent seasons was that it was an offensive juggernaut, but dramatically short on competent pitching.
The 2008 season lived up to this generalization. The Rangers led the Major Leagues in runs scored with an imposing 5.56 per game. But they were dead last in team earned run average at 5.37. The history of baseball suggests that if you're interested in championships, the opposite situation -- terrific pitching, iffy offense -- is a combination more likely to result in success. The '08 Rangers, for all their run production, finished 79-83, a demoralizing 21 games back of the Angels in the American League West.
The long-term hope for this franchise is not that it will score 5.56 runs per game until the end of time. The hope is contained in the impressive amount of talent, particularly pitching talent, that is to be found in the Rangers' Minor League system.
In the meantime, anybody expecting the current Rangers to fulfill the previous pattern of a complete hitting surplus and a total pitching deficit, will be disappointed. Veteran observers of this team contend that climatic conditions at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington have altered, making the place at least somewhat less hitter-friendly. That may be; or the explanation might be found simply in better pitching and less hitting.
One way or the other, the Rangers' pitching/hitting imbalance has been considerably reduced. The offense isn't as scary as it was last season, but the pitching is much more competent. In the long run, the Rangers will be better off this way.
The 2009 Rangers have dropped down to 12th in runs scored, their 4.81 runs per game being just above average. On the other hand, their team ERA has improved dramatically, to 4.38, 19th best in the Majors. This staff has not achieved elite status, but at least it is competitive. The Rangers' defense is also improved. That reinforces the improved pitching and vice versa.
On offense, the Rangers have recently drifted a bit too far from their heavy-hitting stereotype. Their struggles reached a new depth on Sunday night, when they were one-hit by the Padres. Eight of those innings were pitched by Chad Gaudin, who had been released by the Cubs earlier this season.
The Rangers on Monday called up one of their top Minor League prospects, outfielder Julio Borbon. He was immediately inserted into the sixth spot in the Rangers' lineup Monday night, at designated hitter. Borbon was hitless in three at-bats, but it wasn't as though he was supposed to be the savior of the franchise. Rangers manager Ron Washington did the best he could to put Borbon's callup in a routine context. When asked if Borbon was the answer to the Rangers' offensive struggles, Washington responded:
"I don't know if he's the answer. The answer should already be out there in the clubhouse."
To the notion that this move was sending a message to the rest of the lineup Washington replied:
"I'm not trying to send a message to anybody. We brought up one of our top prospects and we didn't bring him up to sit around and watch baseball.
"We brought him up until [Josh] Hamilton gets back. If he asserts himself, that could change."
Ah, Josh Hamilton. His absence due to injury is one of the big reasons the 2009 Rangers' offense doesn't quite resemble that of the '08 Rangers. He has missed 38 games during two stints on the disabled list. Hamilton is a prodigious talent who has been missed. But he appears to be closing in on a return from the most recent injury, an abdominal strain. Hamilton is scheduled to work out with the Rangers on Tuesday.
Then again, Milton Bradley has also been missed. Forget the tales of temper and tempest coming out of the land of the Cubs. Last year with Texas, Bradley led the American League in on-base percentage, at .436. That kind of thing is not easily duplicated, replicated or replaced. In this extremely telling statistic the Rangers rank 26th in the Majors. The Pirates, the Padres, and yes, even the Nationals reach base more frequently than the Rangers. When you're on base less than the Nats, it is official; your hitting is no longer legendary.
The Rangers' new blend was good enough to keep them in first place for seven weeks. They have been overtaken now by the usual AL West winner, the Angels. On Monday night against the Angels, they once again struggled to score, losing 5-2. Texas had a sincerely golden opportunity in the fifth with two on, nobody out and the heart of the lineup due up. A popup and a double play closed that door of opportunity and they went meekly after that.
Is it time to reevaluate the offense, to maybe dial down the run production expectations?
"It's still early," Washington said. "We're going to be fine. We're going to be fine."
There is growing evidence that, over time, the Rangers will, in fact, be fine. But the path they're going to take between here and fine is probably not going to include mercilessly pounding the opposition into the ground with a relentless, all-powerful offense. A more balanced approach will have to suffice, but the Rangers now at least have a hope that they can achieve that balance.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.