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Behind Enemy Lines: Hunter Pence is good again?

We talk to Lone Star Ball about the Rangers surprising season.

Texas Rangers v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Raise your hand if mention of the Texas Rangers still gives you flashbacks to 2011, and those cursed late-innings home runs Nelson Cruz managed to pull out of nowhere?

For a lot of Tigers fans, the Rangers were the thing that stood between Detroit and a 2006 World Series rematch with the Cardinals.

The team no longer resembles that 2011 squad, with Cruz now in a Twins uniform, and Adrian Beltre having retired over the offseason. So we decided to set aside our eight years long grudge and talk to Adam J. Morris, managing editor of the SB Nation Rangers site Lone Star Ball, about what to expect of this new version of the Rangers. We asked him about Hunter Pence’s second wind, and the surprisingly adept pitching staff the Tigers will see this week.

BYB: How do you feel about the Rangers current place in the standings. They’re not far behind the Astros, and with Houston going 3-7 over their last 10, you have to feel like there might be an opportunity for the Rangers to close that gap. Do you think, as we approach the halfway mark, that the Rangers have what to takes to make a push for first place in the AL West?

AM: I think most Rangers fans are very pleasantly surprised about where the Rangers are in the standings right now. I mean, there are a few people who wanted to completely tank and claim to be upset that the team isn’t in a position to get a good draft pick, but watching a team win more often than it loses is more fun than the alternative, and this has been an entertaining team to watch this year. I’d be shocked if the Rangers made a legitimate run at first place, and honestly, I’ll be pretty surprised if they even claim a Wild Card berth...but hanging in the race and having some meaningful September games seems realistic, and would be a good thing.

On that note... what is going on with the team? They’re competitive but it also feels like they were entering rebuild mode. Is their success this season a fluke or a result of smart work by the front office?

This is a team that is in rebuilding mode, but not tank mode -- the Rangers front office wasn’t expecting to be a contender this year, but also wasn’t in a position where it was an expectation there would be 100+ losses. None of the three reclamation case starting pitchers they got on one year deals -- Edinson Volquez, Drew Smyly and Shelby Miller -- have worked out, but Lance Lynn was been terrific, several veterans asked to be role players have had really good years, and Joey Gallo was playing like an MVP before his injury.

What the heck did you do guys do to Hunter Pence? He’s having one of his best seasons in years and is an All-Star finalist. Last year there were rumors he might retire. Now he’s basically 26 again. Explain this devilry.

I’ve given up trying to figure out Hunter Pence. I scoffed at all the attention the signing got over the offseason, saying there was little chance he would stick, and was skeptical when he made the team. But he’s been incredible -- his hard hit rate is among the highest in the league, and his sprint speed is also very high, so he’s not your typical aging vet. He played winter ball in the D.R. to re-work his swing, and the folks around the club rave about his energy and his presence in the clubhouse. As good as he’s been on the field, folks say he’s even better off the field.

Who would you consider to be a player on the Rangers that has had a stellar season so far that perhaps the general baseball public might not be aware of.

Adrian Sampson was an unheralded pitcher traded to Seattle by the Pirates for J.A. Happ, who was then claimed on waivers by the Rangers in November, 2016. He missed most of 2017 with injury, and was non-tendered by the Rangers after 2018, and re-signed to a minor league deal. He was supposed to be minor league depth, but he was added to the major league roster the first week of the season, and has been a key part of the Ranger rotation, putting up a 4.14 ERA (a 120 ERA+ in the hitter-friendly Rangers home park) and a 2.3 bWAR. I’m not sure he can keep up his early success, but he’s someone no one has heard of who has been critical for Texas.

The trade deadline is looming, what are the Rangers biggest wants right now, and what do you think they’d be willing to part with?

Jon Daniels has always shown a willingness to be creative at the trade deadline -- he bought with Cole Hamels in 2015, despite the team being under .500 at the time, and sold with Yu Darvish in 2017, despite the Rangers being in the playoff hunt. While I think they’d have interest in a controllable pitcher who has upside and wouldn’t require a significant prospect package (Danny Duffy comes to mind), I think the Rangers would be more likely to be sellers. Asdrubal Cabrera could find himself forced out of a spot, and he could be a valuable bench piece for a contender. Shawn Kelley is a useful bullpen arm on a one year deal. And the big trade chip is Mike Minor...he’s pitched like a Cy Young candidate this year and is under contract for cheap through 2020. The Rangers will have a difficult call to make in regards to whether they should look to move Minor and try to get a huge haul back, or hold onto Minor and try to extend him past 2020.

Which Tigers player do you think is going to pose the biggest problem for the Rangers this series?

Hmmm...I’m going to say Nick Castellanos is the guy who could create problems for the Rangers. No particular reason other than he’s a quality hitter who hasn’t gotten off to a great start, and just seems like the type of guy who ends up having a big series against Texas.

Wednesday’s pitching match up of Boyd and Minor looks to be a solid battle of the best. Minor missed a few seasons in 2015 and 2016 but looks unblievably sharp this year. Has he been doing anything differently, or is he just this good?

Mike Minor has been a spin rate hero this year, using a middling-velocity high-spin four seamer to get swings and misses and pop-ups. Really, though, the main thing with Minor is that he’s mixed his pitches well -- in May, the Rangers R&D folks determined the Ranger pitchers had been extremely predictable the first month, and efforts were made to mix things up more -- and he’s healthy. Minor is, after all, a former #7 overall pick, and was really good for Atlanta before injuries waylaid him.

Many thanks to Adam for taking the time to talk to us. You can find more of his work at Lone Star Ball.