No reasonably-priced starting pitching? No problem, at least if you ask the Texas Rangers.
For weeks I’ve been peddling this idea that the trade deadline was their time to procure a starting pitcher — maybe Chris Sale, maybe Matt Moore, or Vince Velasquez — but on August 1st it became apparent that a deal wasn’t to be had. The price for starting pitching — whether it was Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo and then some for Sale, or Gallo for Moore, or Mazara and Gallo for Velasquez — was beyond Texas’s comfort level.
Which, in a seller’s market, actually makes a lot of sense. When the demand dwarfs so excessively over the supply, it behooves the clubs that do have valuable, tradable assets to hold out for the offer they want. And the Rangers weren’t willing to meet the asking prices for starting pitchers, so they chose a different route.
Rather than bulking up on rotation help they acted on the opposite: The blueprint of the post-deadline Rangers will be to bludgeon their opponents to death with offense.
Rangers finally ascertain elusive catching talent
In the more notable of Texas’s two trades on Monday, they acquired catcher Jonathan Lucroy and RHP Jeremy Jeffress from the Brewers for CF prospect Lewis Brinson and RHP Luis Ortiz.
Lucroy, 30, has been one of MLB’s most valuable backstops since breaking into the league in 2011. In that time frame he ranks third among all catchers in FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) at +18.4, trailing only Buster Posey (+28.8) and Yadier Molina (+21.1). Known as an above average defender and pitch framer, ESPN’s Keith Law (Insider required) surmises Lucroy could be worth “maybe two wins for the rest of this season.”
But this move wasn’t only for the stretch run in 2016; Lucroy also has a cheap $5.25 million option that Texas will undoubtedly exercise in 2017 as well. The Rangers essentially purchased a year and two months of a peak All Star catcher for about $7 million, along with Brinson and Ortiz.
And make no mistake, there is a solid chance that either, or both, end up biting the Rangers in the ass in a few years. The Rangers drafted Brinson 29th overall — ten picks before selecting Joey Gallo — in the first round of the 2012 Amateur Draft, and at worst he has the future of a 4th outfielder, possessing Gold Glove-caliber defense and legitimate 25-30 HR power. More realistically, he ends up as a low-OBP center fielder who hits his fair share of home runs, with the ceiling of an All Star.
Luis Ortiz, like Brinson, was selected in the first round of the 2014 draft. He has a big fastball and a solid slider/change up mix, and profiles as a mid-rotation starter with #2 upside. In parts of three professional seasons, spread across four minor league levels, Ortiz has a 130:29 strikeout-to-walk ratio (better than 4:1) in 142.2 IP; exceptional for a guy who won’t be able to legally purchase a beer for another couple of months. Perhaps more impressively he’s allowed just 9 HRs in his minor league career, about one every 16 innings pitched.
Jeremy Jeffress, 28, won’t be a free agent until after the 2019 season. Meaning the Rangers control his rights for three more years after this one, a move designed to add depth to the current bullpen, and keep it fresh beyond this current playoff push. According to FanGraphs his fastball has averaged 95.6 mph in 2016, which make his average strikeout rate (18.4%) a bit surprising. Part of his allure is a strong ground ball rate (57.7%), meaning only about a quarter of his outs are of the fly ball variety.
Carlos Beltran, and adding length to the lineup
The more surprising trade, at least as far as it coming out of nowhere, was the Rangers trading 2015 first round pick, RHP Dillon Tate, to the Yankees for DH/COF Carlos Beltran.
We have a tendency of looking at “first round pick” and thinking it means something, like in the NFL or NBA, but it’s different in baseball. Tate was the chalk #4 overall pick last year, a guy with top-of-the-rotation stuff, but he’s struggled mightily in the minors. In 65 IP this year he sits with a 55/27 K/BB ratio, which doesn’t seem as bad until you throw in 9 hit batsman and the fact that he’s facing players his age or younger.
Tate’s stock has dropped so much over the last year that he was moved as basically a lottery ticket for two months worth of a 39 year-old about to hit free agency. If the Yankees had done nothing with Beltran, they would have received nothing for him in the offseason. The Rangers gave away their #4 pick for maybe 200 plate appearances of a designated hitter.
But since we’re talking about him, Carlos Beltran has been exceptional in 2016. In almost 400 PAs he’s slashing .304/.344/.546 (134 wRC+) with 22 HRs. Because he’s filling a dead roster spot, recently vacated by the injured Prince Fielder, there is every reason to expect him to be worth a win, perhaps as many as two if we’re comparing him to Fielder, between now and the end of the year.
And when you look at the lineup the Rangers toted out against Baltimore this evening, you’re hard-pressed to find a real weak spot:
1 Profar 2 Desmond 3 Beltran 4 Beltre 5 Odor 6 Lucroy 7 Mazara 8 Moreland 9 Andrus
I mean, sure, Nomar Mazara hasn’t been the threat he was when he was first called up, and Shin-Soo Choo remains on the DL. But all things considered it immediately moves into the top couple lineups in the American League, if not all of baseball. (I see you, Red Sox.)
The Rangers did not get a starting pitcher, but they upgraded their lineup at two different positions — which could be worth 3 or more wins between now and October — and did it without giving up any of its young stars, be it Jurickson Profar or Joey Gallo or Nomar Mazara.
There may come a time this winter when they ship one or two of them off for a frontline starting pitcher, but for now it keeps their options open.
As Dan Szymborski, the creator of the forecasting model ZiPS, writes (Insider required):
As for the Houston Astros, they showed themselves mostly content to ride their post-April wave, but their chances of catching Texas necessitated them being better than Texas overall — once Texas upgraded the roster to pull even and arguably assemble a stronger team, it has moved Houston to a wild-card contender. The Rangers’ lead isn’t impossible to close, but six-game leads at this time of the year hold up far more often than they don’t.
Even if starting pitching remains at the top of Texas’s wish list, the math is clearly on their side right now.
If the Rangers play .500 baseball the rest of the year, they’ll finish the season 89-73. For the Astros to tie, they would need to finish the year 33-23 (.589), which isn’t unreasonable.
If the Rangers play .550 baseball the rest of the year, they’ll finish the season 92-70. For the Astros to tie, they would need to finish the year 36-20 (.643), which is less reasonable.
If the Rangers play .600 baseball the rest of the year, they’ll finish the season 95-67. For the Astros to tie, they would need to finish the year 39-17 (.696), which isn’t reasonable at all.