The Texas Rangers payroll situation, and what they need to do this winter

Without freaking out any Texas Rangers fans, one could make a strong argument that the Rangers are in the worst position of any team in the AL West heading into 2018. When you combine current roster talent with a farm system that is still years away from bearing meaningful fruit, Texas teeters on the edge of a rebuild — even though all indications point to trying to compete again next year.

At this moment, the Rangers have roughly $88 million committed to seven players in 2018: Cole Hamels ($23.5 million), Shin-Soo Choo ($20 million), Adrian Beltre ($18 million), Elvis Andrus ($15.25 million), Martin Perez ($6 million), Rougned Odor ($3.33 million), and Keone Kela ($2.25 million). Cots Contracts expects about $10 million to get paid to seven arbitration-eligible players, and another $7.5 million for 11 guys making the league minimum.

Under those estimates, before doing anything this offseason the Rangers are on the hook for about $105 million.  Their Opening Day payroll in 2017 was a shade over $165 million, which makes you think they are a decent bet to add $40-$50 million in payroll via free agency and trade this winter.

Offseason needs: at least two SP’s, CF, 1B/DH

The focus this winter is clear. The Rangers need a lot of pitching. As some have already pointed out, Texas’s pitching staff ranked dead last in strikeout rate in 2017, while every one of the 8 division series playoff teams ranked in the top-8. In this apparent juiced ball era, the teams who pitch most effectively are the ones who eliminate the most contact. Because once the ball is put in play, all bets are off. This isn’t anything new, though.

The quickest path to adding more strikeouts to the pitching staff is to sign free agent Yu Darvish and bring his friend, 23 year-old Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani, to pitch alongside him. That would give the Rangers a front three of Darvish, Ohtani and Hamels, with Martin Perez serving as more of an innings eater at the back-end.

Of course, to satisfy this fantasy scenario, Texas would likely have to pay Darvish something in the neighborhood of $150 million over six years ($25 million AAV), and another $3 million to Ohtani from their international bonus pool allotment. For what it’s worth, Texas can offer the 23 year-old more money than any team in MLB.

I would put the Rangers odds of signing either pitcher around 8:1, and of signing both as a package deal at around 40:1. Basically, a bad bet and a long-shot.

Texas didn’t take my advice last year. In September, 2016 — before he was signed to a five year, $50-plus million extension — I called on the Rangers to trade Rougned Odor during the winter. I also thought it would be a better use of resources to play Carlos Gomez in a corner outfield spot, and sign/trade for a legitimate defensive center fielder. Neither of these things happened.

As a result, Texas got a .255/.340/.462 (110 wRC+) line with average defense (+0.8 UZR) from Gomez in 105 games, and an MLB-worst .204/.252/.397 (61 wRC+) line with below-average defense (-3.1 UZR) from Odor. It was a historically bad year for the Rangers second baseman. Neither of these guys sunk the 78-win Rangers, who were doomed from the start, but they are obvious areas that could use an upgrade.

This winter’s betting favorite to get traded

I happen to love Shin-Soo Choo, but he hasn’t generated the desired results since coming to the Rangers in 2014. In the last four years he has been worth +5.1 fWAR — rendering him basically league average, or replacement level — with a .259/.358/.420 (112 wRC+) slash line and utterly bad defense. The Rangers still owe $62 million to Choo over the next three seasons, which will be his age-36, 37 and 38 years. So this decline is expected to continue.

There is obvious utility in making Shin-Soo the everyday DH in 2018, based on his ability to get on base (which is his only real strength at this stage of his career). Realistically though, we have arrived at the point where Choo’s value to the Rangers is probably exceeded by his value to not be on the Rangers, even if that means they have to eat a healthy portion of his contract over the next three years.

Texas has pitching needs, and certainly anyone they go after via trade would be of the controllable variety. They haven’t showed much interest in recent years of trading for one-year rentals. But even if the Rangers paid $10 million per year to a team in a trade, let’s say, on what is owned to Choo through 2020, it still wouldn’t come close to fetching them a #3 starter who is under club control. If Choo is involved in a deal, he would need to be accompanied by a prospect — like Ronald Guzman — or multiple prospects (which the Rangers are lacking at the upper levels of the farm).

Jon Daniels is a creative General Manager and probably at his best when the Rangers are operating as underdogs. There are teams out there who he could sell the idea of Choo at $10 million per year to, and if you throw in a prospect like Ronald Guzman, or multiple prospects, then there is a path to acquiring a #3 starter who is under control for 2-3 years.

The way the team could look

If you trade Choo and sign a real center fielder — like Jarrod Dyson, for argument’s sake — then the outfield could be aligned with Mazara in right, Dyson in center, and possibly Joey Gallo in left. Then Texas could maximize the value of Delino DeShields as a 4th outfielder.

People have tried, and people have failed, convincing me that DeShields is a starter on a playoff-caliber team. He just isn’t.

The infield is relatively set with Adrian Beltre at 3rd, Elvis Andrus at shortstop and Rougned Odor at 2nd base. Even though Odor can’t draw a walk to save his life, which was and always has been his Achilles heel, I’m betting the Rangers believe he can right the ship and is due for something of a bounce-back to his 2016 form (which still leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s an improvement). Contrary to the Choo situation, Odor is more valuable to the Rangers than he is as a trade chip, if only because he is basically worthless right now.

First base remains the only real question mark. Texas could slide Gallo there, but to do so would also be to limit his tools both as a runner and as someone with a cannon for an arm. He may end up at first base down the line — scouts probably expect him to — but in his physical prime he should be given every chance to play a position where he can use his arm and legs. Other candidates to play the position are Ryan Rua and Ronald Guzman, the latter of which will probably play the first couple-few months in Triple-A. (Assuming that he isn’t traded, of course.)

Catcher is set with Robinson Chirinos and, for the time being, Brett Nicholas. Chirinos is established as a plus player when he’s not on the DL with a broken wrist, or something weird, while Nicholas is a bat-first guy who is challenged on the defensive side. Most teams prefer to carry a defense-first backup, and as the season goes on there’s a chance the Rangers turn to 24 year-old prospect Jose Trevino, particularly if Texas is out of the race early on.

I won’t make any predictions about which specific pitchers the Rangers will sign in free agency, or acquire via trade, but I think I can say pretty confidently: if they don’t get their hands on at least one #2 starter, and at least one #3 starter, then nothing else matters. There is no path to Texas getting to 90 wins in 2018 with a rotation led by Cole Hamels and Martin Perez, and it probably wouldn’t be enough even if they got their hands on Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn — two pitchers thought to be in the Rangers’ price range.

I think it would be a gutsy move to go after Jake Arrieta, 31, if only because the perception is his stuff has fallen off since his brilliant +7.3 fWAR campaign of 2015, when he finished the year with a 1.77 ERA (2.35 FIP) in 229 innings pitched. I think he could be a buy-low option, maybe 5 years and $110 million, which if the market goes in that direction I could see the Rangers all over him.

Aside from that, I expect Texas to pick up an obligatory arm or two to help the bullpen, though I wouldn’t splurge on any of the big names — like Wade Davis, Greg Holland or Brandon Morrow — since relievers aren’t worth that much. Not unless their last name is Jansen, Miller or Kimbrel.

The best case scenario

I’m an optimist, so when I think of building the 2018 Rangers I am talking about competing with the Astros in the American League West. That means signing either Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta, signing Shohei Ohtani, and getting their hands on a legit center fielder to cover ground at Globe Life Park. You do all of these things, and you have a team you could envision getting to 90 wins.

Realistically, the Astros are built for another 95-win season, so the Rangers don’t have to do very much if they don’t see the West as a possibility. They could sign a couple mid-rotation starters, bring Carlos Gomez back on a two-year deal, and roll the dice with the rest of the American League. It doesn’t take a lot to get into the Wild Card playoff game — maybe only 84 or 85 wins — and it would make a lot of sense if the Rangers just punted this offseason and saved their chips for 2019-2020.

I don’t hate this strategy, but it is pretty boring. I spent basically my entire childhood watching the Rangers in a rebuild, even when it took them about a decade to figure out how to actually do it. This offseason feels more like how the Rangers operated when they were bad: just spending money because they had money to spend. I’m not saying that is what they are going to do, just that it feels like they will.

Even in the best-case scenario, there’s no guarantee that it will make a serious dent in the AL West. There is a very real chance that Rougned Odor is just straight up broken, that Adrian Beltre begins to show signs of aging (which to this point don’t seem to exist), that Elvis Andrus won’t duplicate his career year of 2017, that Cole Hamels continues declining. There are just so many things that need to go right, even if Texas does add 8-10 wins this winter.

That’s okay though, because it’s only November. There are free agents on the Rangers’ radar that I haven’t thought of, and trades they have lined up that I can’t picture. That is why the front office is there, and I am here.

I do think this offseason is simple, but it all depends on the direction Jon Daniels wants to go. Do the Rangers want to compete for the AL West, or do they want to be one of a half-dozen teams slugging it out for one of the Wild Cards? Once we know that, it’ll all make more sense.

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