Analytics Won’t Save You (This Time)

Recently the Houston Astros got better: In a 5-player swap with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Astros got their hands on right-handed starting pitcher Gerrit Cole — probably a top-20-30 starter in MLB depending on who you ask. Behind SS Carlos Correa, 2B Jose Altuve, CF George Springer and 3B Alex Bregman, Houston has the best core in baseball. Their rotation, already flush with two Cy Young Award winners (Dallas Keuchal and Justin Verlander), only improves with the addition of Cole.

Regardless of anything that were to transpire this offseason, the Astros were going to be the favorites in the AL West in 2018. I don’t mention that for sympathy (since I’m a Texas Rangers fan), and certainly not as some reverse-psychology ploy in hopes that Houston underperforms (which is something I absolutely would do). It’s just a fact. The Astros won 101 games (and a World Series) in 2017, and on paper they are even more talented heading into next season.

This puts Texas in a tough spot, but it’s a spot any Rangers fan who pays attention has been anticipating for at least two years now. The roster is in a weird place where they are juggling prime/post-prime players (like Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Shin-Soo Choo) with pre-prime/prime players (like Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara). The current makeup of the roster has the skeleton of a club that can overachieve and win 85 or 86 games, but to make that happen is akin to hitting on a six-team parlay. If (mostly) every questionable player breaks in the right direction, and performs a couple standard deviations above what is projected, then there is hope to have another miraculous 2016-esque year.

The sick part is, even with all that, in all likelihood it won’t effect who wins the AL West. The Astros look every bit like a terrifying juggernaut who will control the division for the next 2-3 years, and that might arguably be underselling the situation. Houston has such a talented roster, and such a strong farm system, that the games on the field almost feel like a pesky formality.

So this is where we are. I’ve been teasing the question for the last 12-18 months, but at what point does the Rangers front office decide that it’s best for the longterm — the next three to five years — to break it down and start all over? (This is unironically the strategy Houston implemented to build the powerhouse they have now, and what Jon Daniels originally did a decade ago to make the Rangers into a force in the American League.)

If you asked me, I would tell you now is the best time. The Astros are clearly better. The Angels are Mariners figure to be roughly equal to the Rangers in talent. There is not a ton coming up through Texas’s minor league pipeline in the short term. When is going to be a better time?

This is complicated, for a number of reasons. The main one is probably that, even if the Rangers wanted to sell, what could they reasonably expect to receive in return for the players they would move? Shin-Soo Choo is owed more than $20 million per season over the next three years, and his production indicates someone worth about half that. Rougned Odor is still very young, and has proven an ability to put the bat on the ball (his only meaningful skill), but he is coming off one of the worst statistical seasons in the history of baseball. Cole Hamels has a long track record of being a fringe number one starter, but he’s been declining for the last two seasons and is coming off his worst year since he was a rookie. If Texas trades any player from that troika, it won’t net them any significant prospects in return. It will be a salary dump and nothing more.

The only guys who figure to move the needle in such a trade would be Mazara and Gallo, but they are still in their pre-arbitration years and earning next to nothing (in baseball terms, of course). The Rangers aren’t going to ship them off anytime soon.

Texas is in a predicament, since they don’t appear good enough to win 90 games and don’t really have a way of immediately improving via free agency or trade. I mean, they could sign either of the two big free agent starting pitchers — Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta — and still find themselves in third or fourth place in the West in 2018. Perhaps the real impasse, or idea that hamstrings them the most, is they don’t have any trade chips valuable enough to induce the type of return that would breathe life back into the franchise.

The Rangers are on the brink of being irrelevant and, if they maintain the status quo of building 82-win teams and rolling the dice, they could find themselves in an even deeper freeze. The World Series roster of 2011 that included Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli and Elvis Andrus is basically dead. Beltre and Andrus are still around, but they represent the tail end of a dream that was never fully realized. The time is drawing close where the organization will have to hand the keys to Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo and see where they take it.

So while I would advocate for the tried and true teardown-and-rebuild option, it’s worth recognizing just how undesirable an option it happens to be. From where I sit — having grown up through the miserable 2000’s decade, and watched with extreme gratitude during the 2010’s decade — I think the only truly bad option for Jon Daniels is to do nothing. To shoot for 82 wins and hope luck breaks in their favor and carries them into a Wild Card spot.

If this was a poker game, I would push for the Rangers to fold their hand.

But if the Rangers don’t fold, if they want to go out and give it the old college try in 2018, then they should go all-in. Sign Yu Darvish and plug him into the rotation. Sign Lorenzo Cain and have him be the no-doubt-about-it everyday center fielder that Texas has lacked in recent years. They do that, and they give themselves a puncher’s chance at 90 wins.

If they don’t do that, then they ought to begin making preparations for what’s next. (This is a billion-dollar business, so I rest assured knowing the Rangers have already thought through every item I am relaying in this blog, and probably 10-20 times over.) Ask Adrian Beltre which team he would like to chase a World Series ring with. Talk to Elvis Andrus about a new contract extension. Find out how much money they would have to eat in order to trade Cole Hamels or Shin-Soo Choo (or both). These are the important questions.

If the Rangers do nothing — which I believe to be the only incorrect option on the table — they are only delaying an inevitable rebuild. The team on the field (probably) isn’t good enough to make the postseason in 2018, and the longer they wait to tear it down only lengthens the time it would take to turn around what will have to be turned around eventually, anyway.

Did that last sentence make any sense?