Wallowing in Schadenfreude on a Rangers Travel Day

Suffice it to say that the Rangers exceeded the best of expectations with a 6-0 start by sweeping Boston and the Good Ship Mariner in the opening homestand. Moderately unexpected was the performance of a lineup that has the relentless feel of onrushing water even when Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre are experiencing slow starts. Unexpected: the strong performance of 3-4-5 starters Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Alexi "I don’t need no stinking visa" Ogando.

That said, the opening streak is also fueling enough pumping from a dangerously small sample to give every Ranger fan the blue balls waiting for October. Slow down, kids. The impending 10-day road trip provides a good early-season test: 3-game sets in Baltimore and Detroit followed by the season’s first engagement with the Federal Reserve Bank of the New York Yankees. In the meantime, let’s live in the moment by indulging in a guilty pleasure seldom afforded to Ranger fans—celebrating the misery of others.

The schadenfreude dish of the day comes courtesy of the presumptive AL favorites, the Boston Red Sox, who just had their dicks slammed in a car door with a 1-0 loss to the Warriors of the Cuyahoga. It was Boston’s 6th straight loss to open the season—the worst start in franchise history since a war-torn roster opened the 1945 season 0-8. The Sox had an excuse then; Teddy MFing Ballgame was flying fighters for the Marine Corps. They have absolutely no excuse now.

This game must have been a 2 ½ hour syphllitic needle pisser for all New England. Staff ace John Lester pitched like a man who appreciated the narrow margin of error afforded by a team hitting .190 behind him: 7 innings, no runs on 3 hits and 9 strikeouts. But alas, fate had rediscovered the joy of donkey-punching the Red Sox, and he was nowhere near ready for a breather.

Toeing the bump for the opposition was Indians future Hall of Famer Fausto Carmona, hell bent on continuing his quest for a career .500 record (with a win today, old Fausto would only be 5 under). No doubt urged on by the ghost of Bob Feller, Carmona stymied the Bostons with 7 shutout innings of his own, yielding but 2 hits. Mind you, this would be the same Fausto Carmona who set a major league record one week ago by giving up 10 runs -- TEN GODDAM RUNS -- to the Chicago White Sox on opening day. To be fair, it should be noted that Terry Francona did field one producer today. Shortstop Marco "The Bambino" Scutaro did his part for the honor of the Old Towne Nine with a pair of singles and a walk from the 9-hole. But hang on ... this gets even better.

The Tribe scored the lone run of the game in the bottom of the 8th on a squeeze play, and then ended the affair in the top of the 9th by trapping pinch runner Darnell McDonald off second base for the final out. As soon as you finish reading this, do yourself a favor: click over to the WEEI radio feed and let the apoplectic hysteria of Red Sox Nation cascade over you like perfumed stripper lotion with glitter. Dee-lish.

Remember what it felt like around here last fall when we saw the 5-7 collapse coming after, say, UCLA? To appreciate what Sox fans are feeling right now, multiply that by three and add the effects of a deep pre-existing psychosis that stems from being the Aggies of the AL East. Here’s a feeble attempt at allegorical deployment to describe the psychological evolution of Red Sox Nation: consider a loyal wife who has accepted her mediocre station in life but loves her husband; she’s spurned by said husband who was rodeoing a gal from the Macy’s perfume counter with after-market tits (who he met while buying a gift for the wife). Then, a couple of years later, she’s the envy of her gal pals after being swept off her feet by megabucks dude new to town ... mansion, servants, European shopping jaunts, the whole nine yards. But she secretly pines for number one, and occasionally sees him about town, remainding her of the river of insecurity that threatens to overflow the banks of her soul, always lurking just below a scab that she just can’t stop picking.

By the way, guess who the Sox face tomorrow in their Fenway opener? That’s right. Them.

Baseball’s version of the Second Ivorian Civil War, or ongoing disasters that John Q. Public files away under "who gives a shit." The Tampa Bay Rays won 96 games last year and a second AL ESPN Division title in three years (a run including the 2008 AL pennant). Ownership rewarded this success by (1) slashing payroll, (2) helping Carl Crawford pack for Boston, and (3) jettisoning virtually the entire bullpen. The Rays then tossed a Kleenex over their ruptured Carotid artery of a ballclub by signing Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, whose defensive efforts in left field resemble a catfish masturbating. Following this afternoon’s 5-1 loss to the Chi Sox, Tampa owns a 0-6 record that doesn’t do justice to its futility. Tampa, which has yet to enjoy a lead in any game thus far, is hitting a collective .136 (.111 w/ RISP) with only eight runs and 27 hits in six games. This is actually a pretty sad story, but a handful of distressed squatters in Rays Hamlet can’t compete with the fury of Red Sox Nation. The only way to get Tampa’s "fan base" fired up is to double the price of the Lu Ann Platter.

Why the blue water may be really swirling for the Rays franchise. The Rays are a classic case of how hard it is for a franchise to take root in a transplant metropolis populated with an older demographic. I haven’t mined data to support this, but I surmise that a majority of the heavy wallet baseball fans in that area have historic ties to teams in their hometowns, or to the clubs they’ve been watching in spring training for decades. Hell, the Yankees are a bigger presence in Tampa/St. Pete than the Rays—there’s got to be a half dozen buildings in town named after a Steinbrenner. Lower-market cousins like the Pirates at least have the chance to lose in luxury by playing in parks that are a bit of a draw in and of themselves, while the Rays play in a blown up version of the Bell County Expo Center. The Trop makes the Astrodome seem like Wrigley Freaking Field.

The absence of wherewithal from the owners (who should foot the bill instead of the taxpayers) or the local politicos to follow Miami’s lead and go all-in on a new stadium recently sparked new rumors that MLB would consider contracting the franchise (which Bud Selig denies, if for no other reason than to keep the MLBPA off his ass). Market and facility-wise, this is nothing new; the Rays have been in this position for awhile. For the last several years, however, the Rays were at least making a go of it by attempting to execute the only viable strategy left to them: The Jake Taylor Plan. Sustained winning is the only way for the Tampa franchise to overcome the inherent challenges of that market, and even the success of the last few years left the Rays with only a fingernail grip on viability. Forget the miserable start to the 2011 season; Tampa’s off-season moves alone indicate that ownership isn’t trying very hard to hang on. At least FOX and ESPN will be happy—the prospect of continued Tampa appearances in the playoffs surely left the networks feeling like the Dallas Chamber of Commerce whenever it looked like Cougar High was coming to the Cotton Bowl.

At last, we come to our National League neighbors, the Houston Astros. I started to lead with the Astros, but demurred when guilt tapped on my shoulder. I count many devoted Astros fans among my friends, and I’ve pulled for them myself over the years. But candidly, I didn’t want to bury the lead since Houston finally won a game today, ending the Reds opening streak with a 3-2 win in Cincy.

Unfortunately, wins for the Astros this season will amount to little more than the rare merciful cool breeze through the door vent when forced by nature to conduct extended business in a Port-O-Can. During spring training, I thought that the relative strength of the starting rotation (which grades out pretty fair) would be enough to keep the Astros from losing more than 90 games. The small sample of week 1 notwithstanding, I think Buster Olney is right—this looks like a 100-loss team. I could spin a few lines about "help being on the way" and "good kids coming up" and all that, but it’s just Milo Hamilton-grade bullshit. Not only do the Astros suck this year, they might suck for a while.

Sometimes, a village has to be burned in order to be saved. If that’s the case with the Astros, management has given the franchise a good running start by stocking up on napalm and torches. Every year during spring training, Fangraphs releases its organizational rankings of all 30 major league teams. The key components of the analysis are: (1) present ML roster talent; (2) future talent; (3) financial resources; and (4) baseball operations. The Astros scored "highest" (albeit still in the lowest tier) on financial resources, with a No. 23 ranking boosted by owner Drayton McLane’s robust net worth but restrained by his flighty willingness to spend money (never mind spending it wisely).

But with respect to current roster talent, farm system prospects and the performance of the baseball operations department, the Astros finished a dead last 30th across the board. Overall, the Houston Astros are ranked as the worst franchise in Major League Baseball. In a cruel Texas turnaround, the Rangers have not only become better at doing the right things that the Astros used to do, they’re doing it with Nolan Ryan running the show. Dave Cameron said it better than I can in his Fangraphs analysis (linked above):

Things aren’t going very well down in Houston. In addition to having both the worst rated major league roster and the bleakest future outlook in terms of talent, the Astros also scored the lowest grade of any baseball operations department, and were in the bottom tier of teams in terms of financial resources. There isn’t just one glaring problem here – it’s a collection of wide-ranging issues that harm the team’s chances of winning now or any time in the foreseeable future.

Put simply, it’s hard to find too many things to be optimistic about. Their best asset is probably the somewhat generous payrolls that Drayton McLane has funded, but even that strength is hampered by low quality contracts that are eating away at the team’s effective payroll for the next several years. For instance, they’re paying Roy Oswalt $7 million this year to pitch for the Phillies, and Carlos Lee is earning $19 million in the hopes that he might return to being an average player. That’s $26 million that is basically wasted money off their 2011 payroll, so their actual amount of money to build value with is smaller than it might appear on the surface.

Going forward, things aren’t going to get a whole lot better. Lee’s contract expires at the end of next season, but a good chunk of that money will simply need to be reallocated to Hunter Pence to keep him around as he gets expensive in his final two arbitration seasons. The Astros simply don’t have much in the way of cost-controlled young talent to build around, as the roster is mostly filled with aging expensive players, and the building blocks they do have are all getting to the point where their contracts are nearing market value.

If you’re a die-hard Astros fan, the best thing you can do besides watching grainy J.R. Richard highlights is pray for the sale of the franchise. McLane is looking for a buyer, and Jim Crane is rumored to be among those kicking the tires. (I’m admittedly not a good source of info on this process as I haven’t been following it closely.) But no matter who buys the team, there’s not an express lane out of the deep hole that McLane’s hand-picked management dug for the club. For starters, the baseball operations department should probably be sacked in its entirety. And even if new ownership could hire any GM it wanted, the cupboard is pretty bare in terms of tradable assets that can be used to jump-start the system.

On the bright side, if a federal judge ends the NFL lockout, Houston can look forward to renewing its love affair with Gary Kubiak in July.

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