The Incrementalism of the Texas Rangers, 2018 and Beyond

There are several reasons why my heart isn’t in the 2018 baseball season (yet). Among them are:

  1. My favorite team, the Texas Rangers, doesn’t appear interested in contending for a playoff berth;
  2. Whether or not baseball writers want to admit it, some level of collusion among the owners has to have taken place this winter or else it wouldn’t be the middle of March with so many free agents left unsigned;
  3. There might only be seven legitimately “good” baseball teams on paper — off the top of my head I can name the Astros, Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Dodgers, Nationals and Cubs. Every other team seems content to hover between 75-85 wins;
  4. Commissioner Rob Manfred seems fixated on pace-of-play, and fixing a problem that isn’t really there;
  5. Manfred, despite all evidence to the contrary, will not admit that MLB has changed the dimensions of the baseballs, resulting in the obvious spike in home runs over the last two seasons;
  6. It’s still spring training;
  7. Spring training sucks.

I’m big on setting realistic expectations. Over the last ten years there has been a lot to be excited about when it comes to the Rangers, because it’s undeniable they have been one of MLB’s best franchises in that span. Since 2010 they have won four American League West titles, have played beyond Game 162 six times, and have made the World Series twice.

I doubt very much they will come within sniffing distance of any of those benchmarks in 2018, since it doesn’t appear like that was ever really the goal this winter. The Rangers entered the offseason with a severe need for starting pitching, and to satisfy this need they went out and collected a hodgepodge of cheap, mid-level talent. They acquired reclamation project Matt Moore from the San Francisco Giants; they picked up 44 year-old Bartolo Colon off the scrapheap; they even signed from obscurity former Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum (though they have no intention of using him as a starter).

Texas’s biggest free agent addition this winter came in the form of LHP Mike Minor, a multi-inning reliever who they plan on starting, for 3 years and $30 million. Never mind their need to replace Carlos Gomez in center field, and never mind the need to sign a right-handed 1B/DH to make the lineup less lefty-dominant. Zero dollars were spent rounding out the depth in the position player department.

If this sounds like sour grapes, it’s because in some way that’s what they are. I wrote in November about the sticky situation the Rangers are in, where they don’t have the roster talent to compete with the Astros in the West and don’t really have enough talent at the upper levels of their farm system to improve anytime soon from within. I felt like they had a binary choice this winter — either sign a couple free agents and try to win, or blow up the roster and build for 2019 — and they failed to do either.

So I guess I’m stuck, wondering why Jon Daniels and the Rangers’ front office would take such a line. That is to say: opting to do basically nothing. Could it really be as simple as saving as much money as they can for next year’s historic free agent class? Am I undervaluing the players on the Rangers, or in their farm system? Is Daniels overvaluing them?

The only thing I know for sure is Texas’s braintrust has already thought out every possible avenue, so for me to hypothesize about their motivations is a useless exercise. All I can do is what I have advocated strongly for over the last few years, which is to have a little bit of faith in the process. I can’t on the one hand acknowledge how strong the Rangers have been over the last 10 years, while on the other complain that right now they aren’t doing what I think they should be doing. It wasn’t my ideas that built the Rangers; it was the ideas of the people currently running the team.

For what it’s worth — and on this blog it’s worth a helluva lot — Las Vegas set Texas’s over/under win total at 77.5. Their odds of winning the World Series are a remarkable 200-to-1.

As a betting person I would take the under, but only because I believe there’s a better chance the Rangers underperform and shed some players in July — like Cole Hamels, Shin-Soo Choo, and (hopefully not but probably) Adrian Beltre — than they do of over-performing and trading for a couple studs at the trade deadline. To me, this isn’t a question of whether or not Texas has enough talent to win 78 games. I think they do. Instead, it’s a matter of whether or not that talent will be playing together for an entire season.

For all the glass-half-empty talk, there are plenty of individual players I’m excited about in 2018. I have real optimism that this is the year Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo will take the reins of the franchise; without any evidence to speak of I could see Rougned Odor bouncing back in a big way; I’m looking forward to watching Willie Calhoun hit.

I’m a lot less enthused about the pitching staff, which is the true crux of the club. Cole Hamels is supposed to be the anchor of the rotation, but his best days are behind him and at this point I would be kind of surprised to see him perform at the level of a #2 starter. I’ve always liked Matt Moore, but what beyond a 4.50 ERA and 180 innings pitched can one really hope for from him? Martin Perez, ditto. Mike Minor? I think you see where I’m at with this.

In a way, this season is a throwback to those Rangers’ teams of my youth — the ones that generally stunk up the joint but had their redeeming qualities. I’m a die hard so it wouldn’t matter if Texas was at the top of the mountain or down for the count, I would still be there to watch and listen. The goal now, as it will be for the next 12-18 months, is to build a club to compete in the West in 2020 and beyond. Right now it’s the Astros time.

But a lot does grow in the dark, and some of my favorite moments as a fan of this perpetual loser franchise have come when most others stopped paying any attention. We all know how easy and fun it is to root for a winning team. It’s when the going gets tough, when the casual fans return to hibernation waiting on brighter days, that separates the true from the convenience of fair-weather.