Offseason Outlook: Texas Rangers

Despite a disappointing ending to their 2013 season, the Rangers still have a strong, though increasingly expensive, core in place, and they'll likely spend the 2013-14 offseason trying to replace or re-sign some of their many free agents.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)

Contract Options

Free agents: Nelson Cruz, Matt Garza, A.J. Pierzynski, David Murphy, Geovany Soto, Colby Lewis

The Rangers have had five straight winning seasons and four straight with at least 90 wins, but a mood of unease surrounds the club. Despite high-profile summer trades for Matt Garza and Alex Rios, the Rangers posted a 12-16 record in September and missed the playoffs after falling to the Rays in a one-game tiebreaker. CEO Nolan Ryan recently retired after any number of reports of tension between him and president of baseball operations Jon Daniels. The Rangers dismissed bench coach Jackie Moore and first-base coach Dave Anderson after the season ended, even though manager Ron Washington wanted them to stay; Moore speculated that he was dismissed because he was close with Ryan.

Reports have suggested the 2014 Rangers will aim to have a payroll a little lower than their $125MM 2013 figure, but it wouldn't be hard to imagine them going higher. With about $89MM already committed to guaranteed contracts for Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Rios, Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and others, plus the $10MM or so they'll have to pay arbitration-eligible players, the Rangers will have a limited amount of flexibility with which to address a variety of needs. Even with the relatively recent debuts of Jurickson Profar and Martin Perez, the Rangers' core (Kinsler, Beltre, Andrus, Darvish, Harrison, Derek Holland) is getting older and more expensive, as baseball players do, and that could force the Rangers into some tricky decisions in the coming years.

The Rangers will have Rios at one corner outfield position, and they're expected to extend a qualifying offer to Nelson Cruz, who might well fill the other. If Cruz does return, the Rangers could be mostly set in the outfield, despite the possible departure of David Murphy. In center field, Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry lack prototypical outfield power, but they make up for it with outstanding defense, and they can be platooned.

Much of the ihe infield, too, is set, unless the Rangers can find some way to relieve their logjam there. Kinsler, Andrus and Beltre are all signed to huge contracts, leaving no obvious permanent spot for Profar who, despite a somewhat underwhelming rookie season, provides the club with youth and upside it can clearly use. The obvious solution would be to move Kinsler, who is not a top defensive player, to first base or the outfield so that Profar can occupy one of the middle infield spots, but thus far the Rangers haven't done that, as Kinsler has reportedly been reluctant to switch positions.

In any case, the Rangers will look to upgrade at first base and designated hitter this offseason. Lance Berkman is unlikely to return, and Mitch Moreland may not have done enough in 2013 to justify a starting spot. Years ago, the Rangers traded Chris Davis and Justin Smoak to pursue short-term upgrades at other positions, so it's no surprise that they don't now have a clear long-term option at first base. They were connected to Cuban slugger Jose Dariel Abreu, but he's now headed to the White Sox. A return of Mike Napoli to Texas would be the Rangers' other obvious option to upgrade first base. After that, the market is thin, and the Rangers could decide to just go with Moreland and upgrade elsewhere. At designated hitter, one possibility for the Rangers might be to re-sign Cruz, move him to DH, and acquire another outfielder — if they're willing to spend big, Shin-Soo Choo might be a possibility.

With the potential departure of A.J. Pierzynski, the Rangers will also need to address the catcher position. A run at free agent Brian McCann might make sense — the Rangers reportedly asked about McCann at the trade deadline, and McCann would add a power bat that would help the Rangers' lineup.

Darvish and Holland appear set to anchor the Texas rotation, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Perez take a step forward, giving the Rangers an excellent 1-2-3 punch. Harrison, whose 2013 season was ruined by back issues, should be healthy in time for Spring Training as well. Alexi Ogando could take the fifth spot, and Nick Tepesch will likely provide a backup plan, which means the Rangers don't necessarily need to look outside the organization for a replacement for Matt Garza, who is a free agent.

The Rangers aren't sure whether they'll exercise their $9MM 2014 option on closer Joe Nathan, although that's probably a moot point, since Nathan can void the option, a right he earned by finishing more than 55 games in 2013 and 100 between 2012 and 2013. (Tim Dierkes predicts Nathan will earn a two-year, $26MM deal as a free agent.)

Elsewhere in the bullpen, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross are effective and cheap, while Neal Cotts, who enjoyed a velocity bump and an age-33 breakout season in 2013, should still be a bargain in arbitration. Texas also re-signed Jason Frasor to a one-year, $1.75MM deal shortly after the season; he posted a 2.57 ERA with 8.8 K/9 and 3.7 BB/9 in 2013. The Rangers can also hope that Neftali Feliz makes a full recovery following 2012 Tommy John surgery — he returned in September and pitched decently, and the Rangers have him getting extra work in the Dominican this winter. Joakim Soria should factor into the 2014 bullpen as well. If Nathan does not return, Scheppers, Feliz and Soria might all be options at the closer position.

Recent reports have also connected the Rangers with top-flight pitchers like David Price and Masahiro Tanaka, who might be possibilities if Texas decides to make a splash. If the Rangers can't land one of those huge names, though, they will likely focus on their offense this offseason, since most of their biggest holes are position-player spots. Exactly how they do it will depend upon whether, for example, Cruz accepts the qualifying offer he'll likely receive, and whether Nathan returns.

The most likely scenario is that Cruz will return, either by accepting the qualifying offer or reaching some other sort of deal to stay in Texas, while Nathan will depart. If the Rangers plan to have a $125MM payroll, that would leave them very little to play with on the free agent market, and the Rangers need to acquire at least a catcher with that money.

That puts the Rangers in a tough spot, and so, despite reports that the Rangers' payroll will be similar to last year's, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see them either go somewhat higher, or make a trade to free payroll. Dealing Kinsler would make sense, freeing a middle infield spot for Profar and allowing the Rangers to pursue a bat or two.

Underscoring the Rangers' current lineup quandary is the fact that, other than Profar, they don't have any young players ready to step into key roles. Profar, of course, has tremendous upside, and the Rangers' farm system has been good to them in the past several years. But that well appears to be drying, if only temporarily. The Rangers have a ton of interesting talent in the low minors, but top prospects Jorge Alfaro, Luis Sardinas, Rougned Odor and Joey Gallo aren't likely to make an impact in 2014.

The Rangers won't have the payroll flexibility they'd probably like over the next few seasons, and it will be two or three years before the next wave of really talented Rangers prospects starts to make its mark. But with a talented core in place, the Rangers are still well-positioned to contend in 2014 and 2015, at the very least. And with the Astros in rebuilding mode and the Angels and Mariners in disarray, the Rangers have been dealt a strong hand. How they play it this offseason will go a long way toward determining how far they advance in 2014.

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