Rangers a slight underdog heading into 2017

I haven’t needed to write a lot about the Rangers this offseason, and it’s true the organization hasn’t made a splash all that worthy of words. Me personally, I would argue that there was never a splash to make to begin with. The only two contracts they’ve dished out have been of the one-year variety, to RHP Andrew Cashner ($10 million) and CF Carlos Gomez ($11.5 million).

And that’s fine. I didn’t go into this winter thinking the Rangers would be super active, since they don’t have that much money to spend and they don’t have many prospects left to trade. While the 2017 Rangers will have every opportunity to compete for the West, it seems to me that the next two or three years will be something of a transition. As such, acquiring players on multi-year deals doesn’t appear to be the club’s priority.

Heading into the offseason the Rangers had a clear understanding of what they needed — a center fielder, a 1st baseman (or DH), and two starting pitchers. Based on payroll, they had about $30 million to spend. To satisfy four needs on $30 million is like grocery shopping on a shoestring budget: it’s harder to splurge on the name brands.

And that is assuming there were that many name brands in play, anyway. Which there weren’t. Unsurprisingly, after what Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen recently accomplished during the playoffs, this has been the offseason of the relief pitcher. And Texas already has plenty of those.

Until this point the Rangers have lost two position players to free agency from the 2016 squad. The first was Mitch Moreland, who signed with the Red Sox for $5.5 million. The second was Ian Desmond, who signed with the Rockies for a puzzling 5 years and $70 million. I don’t believe it was seriously in the plans to have either back.

Rather than dropping $70 million on Ian Desmond, Texas instead signed Carlos Gomez — who most people would probably take pound for pound over Desmond right now — for 20% of the years and 16.4% of the money the Rockies are staked to. To make it more juicy, the Rangers also received a draft pick out of the deal as compensation. (I originally wrote that it would be the 11th overall, but it’s actually a supplemental pick. So something in the 30-ish range.)

The Texas Rangers got the better player for one year and substantially less money, and a pretty high draft pick to boot. And there is a strong potential that they do the same thing with Gomez next offseason as they just did with Desmond.

Along with Andrew Cashner, the Rangers also added three other pitchers:

  1. RHP Michael Hauschild (from Houston in the Rule 5 Draft)
  2. RHP Tyrell Jenkins (From Atlanta in a trade for Luke Jackson)
  3. LHP Brady Feigl (From Atlanta in a trade for Luke Jackson)

These are all options for the 5th starter, as Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, Martin Perez and Andrew Cashner are all cement by now.

Because the Rangers have already invested $21.5 million in Cashner and Gomez, there isn’t a lot of room left to improve the roster. Especially if we are to believe in the purported payroll the Rangers plan to operate under next year. And that is OK. I feel like there was some expectation, at least how the national media and some of the fan base reason with it, that Texas needed to do something big this winter. Where I’m at, I was expecting it to be uneventful. There just weren’t any gaping holes in need of fixing.

This feels like a good problem to have.

So with around $8.5 million — let’s call it $10 million — remaining in the budget, the Rangers have the assumed task of acquiring a 1st baseman and/or a starting pitcher. For all intents Edwin Encarnacion is off the table; Texas didn’t have the prospects to get Chris Sale; Mark Trumbo isn’t going to happen and I pity the team who does have to pay his next contract; so I ask: what is out there to get?

If I’m Jon Daniels, I go according to filling out the roster completely, and use the remaining auxiliary pieces to fill in the gap(s). I think it’s just assumed that Colby Lewis is going to come back, for something in the one-year, $7 million range if I had to guess. That will just about max out the anticipated budget.

With the remaining funds, or lack of funds, if I was GM I’d look to the trade market for a real center fielder. Maybe it’s the Royals’ Jarrod Dyson? Or the Padres’ Travis Janikowski? Just give me a dude who can run around and catch the fucking ball and bat 9th in the lineup. If Texas can win despite Prince Fielder absorbing empty plate appearances like a black hole, batting 3rd, then they can afford to do the same with a guy who actually adds value on defense.

This, to me, is the key to unlocking the potential of the 2017 roster: by adding a defense-oriented center fielder, the Rangers can then shift Carlos Gomez (the projected CF) to left, Nomar Mazara (the projected LF) to right, and Shin-Soo Choo (the projected RF) to designated hitter. This would improve Texas’s outfield defense at three separate positions, and upgrade whoever the DH would be with Choo’s on-base ability. It’s an all-around win.

To fill the vacancy left by Mitch Moreland at 1st base, you go with a platoon of internal options. Start Jurickson Profar against right-handed pitchers, and Ryan Rua against lefties. My baseless intuition tells me that this will be The Year Of Joey Gallo, so I believe 1st base will be his by July or so. And if Gallo is performing at a reasonable level — say, a .230 average with a bunch of walks, strikeouts, and home runs — then I think you roll with him and adjust accordingly.

But for argument’s sake, this is some version of the Opening Day roster I have in my head:

DH – Shin-Soo Choo

C – Jonathan Lucroy

1B – Jurickson Profar

2B – Rougned Odor

3B – Adrian Beltre

SS – Elvis Andrus

LF – Carlos Gomez

CF – Jarrod Dyson

RF – Nomar Mazara

Bench (4) – Ryan Rua, Robinson Chirinos, Hanser Alberto, Jared Hoying

Starting Pitchers (5) – Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, Martin Perez, Andrew Cashner, Colby Lewis

Relievers (7) – Sam Dyson, Matt Bush, Jake Diekman, Tanner Scheppers, Tony Barnette, Alex Claudio, Nick Martinez (or take your pick)

On paper it’s a balanced lineup. Save for my theoretical light-hitting center fielder, along with the question mark that is Jurickson Profar, one could reasonably expect average- to above-average offense from the other 7 spots in the order. Particularly if Elvis Andrus’s bat shows up for an entire year. It’s an offense capable of scoring 800 runs.

On the pitching side, there is reason to believe they could improve upon the 757 runs they allowed in 2016. The bullpen is strong, or about as strong as exists depth-wise in MLB, and could be worth as many as six wins next year. That’s about the same figure I would project from a full season of Yu Darvish, in a contract year no less.

Last year I thought the season would ride on two Texas pitchers: Derek Holland and Martin Perez. I was wrong. Holland only threw 107 innings over 20 starts, and battled injury and ineffectiveness throughout the year. Perez’s season, albeit in the least possible sexy way, could be considered a net-positive. In 198 innings he generated a 4.39 ERA (4.50 FIP) and had a K/UIBB ratio of 103/76. By sheer lack of relevance the season did not come down to those two guys, and that’s a fortunate thing for the Rangers.

That brings me to 2017, and this year I’m only singling out one guy: Cole Hamels.

Last year his effectiveness slipped. A more aggressive sports fan might even say it fell off. Considering his ERA was still 3.32 — which registered as 7th-best in the American League among qualified starters — I’m not exactly running around setting fire to my head. But there were real concerns. Among those concerns:

  • A walk rate that spiked to 9.1%, up from 7.1% in 2015, and 6.5% for his career.
  • A career-worst 14% home run to fly-ball rate, up from 11.3% for his career.
  • A 3.98 FIP, tied for the highest (or worst) of his career.

If the Rangers are serious about executing a three-peat in the AL West, then Cole Hamels will have to pitch closer to a #2 than a #4 — the difference of a few percentage points in BB rate and HR/FB rate. To be sure, Hamels cannot replicate his peripherals from 2016 and expect his ERA to stay at a respectable 3.32.

(As an aside I had a tire blowout on the freeway on my drive home from work tonight, had to pull over to the side of the road. I called AAA and they had a tow truck driver come out; in the meantime I smoked cigarettes on the side of the freeway as traffic brushed a stiff breeze my way. When the tow truck driver showed up, he got out and collected my AAA card and photo I.D. without saying a word. He was a grizzly old feller with no use for sympathy or small talk (which I appreciate in most settings). Then he walked over to the tire in question, shredded as it was, and told me my car was too low to tow. The next hour of my life consisted of driving my car on three wheels to a nearby gas station in a less than reputable area, parking it, and taking an Uber home. Suffice it to say I have had an awesome evening, and have an even more awesome morning ahead of me.)

I feel as if I have been writing the same article about the Rangers for the last three years: If all of these things break just right, in their favor, then I like their chances. 

It still hasn’t let me down.

At the same time, even to spite my optimistic expectations, I can’t help but head into the new baseball year thinking Texas is once again the underdog. It was supposed to be Houston’s year in 2015, but the Rangers made up a huge second-half deficit and won the West. It was supposed to be Houston’s year in 2016, on paper, but then the games actually started and the Rangers went like a zillion and zero in one-run games, and won the West by a bunch.

I believe Texas has a better team to start 2017 than they did at virtually any point of last year’s campaign. One of the problems is Houston has gotten better, too. The great battle being waged in the American League West state of Texas is between the prime- to post-prime Rangers and the pre-prime-to-prime Astros. Eventually you have to think the young guys will overthrow the veterans. It just hasn’t happened yet.

But to put it another way: if I’m looking at who I think will win the West in mathematical terms, I see it something like this:

Astros (45%)
Rangers (35%)
Mariners (15%)
Angels (5%)
Athletics (<1%)

If I was a betting man — which I am, whenever possible — I would take the Astros to win the division because that is the best bet. However, my level of surprise will be minimal if Texas does it again. Or if Seattle finally has their day in the sun. While Houston may be better on paper, and according to the projection systems and forecasting models — and rightfully so — they aren’t better than a coin-flip favorite to win the West.

I’ve wasted a lot of words on here for this one, but since I don’t plan to write an article as comprehensive about the odds of my favorite team, and the roster they have, I figure this will be the piece I generally refer back to over the next 12 months.

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