Despite losing ace Yu Darvish to Tommy John surgery in Spring Training, the Rangers shocked everyone with a return to the postseason. Now, they’ll look to build toward a 2016 return despite possibly losing a few key contributors to free agency.
- Prince Fielder, 1B/DH: $120MM through 2020 ($6MM paid annually by Tigers)
- Elvis Andrus, SS: $103MM through 2022 (can opt out after 2018 or 2019 seasons)
- Shin-Soo Choo, OF: $102MM through 2020
- Cole Hamels, SP: $73.5MM through 2018
- Yu Darvish, SP: $21MM through 2017
- Adrian Beltre, 3B: $18MM through 2016
- Derek Holland, $11.5MM through 2016 (includes buyout of 2017 option)
- Martin Perez, SP: $9.75MM through 2017 (includes buyout of 2018 option)
- Josh Hamilton, OF: About $6MM through 2017 (can opt out after 2016 season)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Mitch Moreland (5.067) – $5.6MM
- Tom Wilhelmsen (4.089) – $3.0MM
- Chris Gimenez (3.163) – $1.0MM
- Shawn Tolleson (3.122) – $2.6MM
- Tanner Scheppers (3.111) – $800K
- Robinson Chirinos (3.103) – $1.4MM
- Jake Diekman (3.049) – $1.0MM
- Jurickson Profar (2.167) – $508K
- Nick Tepesch (2.136) – $508K
Most pundits were throwing dirt on the Rangers’ grave as early as March. The news of Yu Darvish’s Tommy John surgery and pre-existing injuries to Derek Holland, Martin Perez and others led observers to wonder how Texas could conceivably contend in a tough AL West — especially considering no one knew what to expect from Prince Fielder coming off 2014 neck surgery.
As we know now, the story played out quite differently. Fielder returned with a flourish, earning American League Comeback Player of the Year honors. The club rode early, albeit unsustainable hot streaks from the likes of Nick Martinez and Wandy Rodriguez, each of whom helped bridge the gap to the return of Holland and Perez. Shawn Tolleson stepped up and solidified the ninth inning after former Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz was designated for assignment and released. Everything seemed to click for the Rangers, whose outlook heading into 2016 already looks vastly improved.
That’s due, in large part, to the fact that the Rangers effectively did some of their offseason shopping in July. The loss of the five prospects with which GM Jon Daniels parted to acquire Hamels undoubtedly stung, but the Rangers softened the blow by convincing the Phillies to surrender live-armed lefty setup man Jake Diekman, take on the remainder of Matt Harrison’s contract and include $9.5MM in cash. Hamels will probably be the Opening Day starter for Texas next season unless Darvish is ready to go for the opener. Regardless of their ordering, that duo will create a formidable one-two punch for second-year manager Jeff Banister.
The Rangers have Holland, Perez, Martinez, former first-rounder Chi Chi Gonzalez and Nick Tepesch as internal rotation options to fill in behind the co-aces, but there’s still interest in re-signing Colby Lewis, and a reunion with Fort Worth native Yovani Gallardo can’t be ruled out. Gallardo should command at least a three-year deal, if not four, but the Rangers made sure to recoup some value by a qualifying offer to the right-hander, so they’ll secure a 2016 draft pick if he’s not retained.
Adding a starting pitcher is said to be a priority for the Rangers, and I’d imagine they’ll look to add an arm even if a new pact with Lewis is reached. Lewis delivered 204 innings for an injury-hampered club, but he turned 36 in August and logged a 4.66 ERA (4.17 FIP) this season. If he can be had on a one-year deal, it could make sense to lock down those innings but still bring in a younger arm that can be relied upon for better results.
It’s not clear whether the Rangers would be open to free agents that require draft pick forfeiture, but reports early in the offseason indicated that they’d only be interested in Matt Wieters if the Orioles’ catcher did not receive a QO. (Of course, Wieters did receive one and made the surprising decision to accept, so he’s not a consideration anymore.) If the team is intent upon keeping its pick, then the free agent pitching options could include names like J.A. Happ, Scott Kazmir, Rich Hill, Mike Leake, Mike Pelfrey, and Chris Young.
Of course, that prior report on Wieters also seems to indicate an openness to upgrading at catcher. Daniels has expressed a willingness to do so this winter, but the need isn’t as strong as many would think. Robinson Chirinos is far from a household name, but the 31-year-old batted .232/.325/.438 with 13 homers this season to go along with more or less average pitch-framing numbers and a solid 29 percent caught-stealing rate. He’s not a defensive wizard nor is he an elite slugger, but his bat is above-average for a catcher, he’s a competent defender and he can be had for little more than the league-minimum. Wins above replacement pegs Chirinos at about four wins over the past two seasons (4.2 rWAR, 3.8 fWAR). That’s a useful starter, especially at his price, and clear free-agent upgrades aren’t readily available, especially with Wieters and A.J. Pierzynski off the market. Jonathan Lucroy could potentially be a sizable upgrade, but he finished the year battling post-concussion symptoms, casting some doubt on his ability to get behind the dish every day. (He played only first base upon return from the disabled list.) The Brewers would probably be open to moving him for a significant return, but they may be able to extract more from an acquiring team if Lucroy is traded this summer once he demonstrates his health. Whenever he’s made available, the Rangers will probably at least check in.
Looking around the infield, the Rangers are set with Mitch Moreland at first base, Rougned Odor at second, Elvis Andrus at shortstop and Adrian Beltre at third base. In the event that either corner option falls to injury — each has had some struggles with the injury bug in recent years — prospect Joey Gallo could again enter the fold. Gallo wowed early in his Major League debut, but his penchant for strikeouts was soon exposed. He ultimately landed in Triple-A and struggled to make contact there as well. Still, Gallo is a potential 40-homer threat, and the Rangers may want to find a way to see him in the Majors for an extended time next year, as he could be the team’s regular third baseman as soon as 2017.
Texas will probably shop Andrus’ unfortunate contract around to see if there are any takers for the 27-year-old, but that’s not likely (at least, not without the Rangers taking on a similarly undesirable deal or absorbing an enormous amount of cash). Andrus’ bat never developed like Texas hoped, and it in fact regressed heavily following the 2012 season. Defensive metrics have been down on Andrus over the past two seasons as well, with his once premium ratings slipping to well below-average over that two-year span.
One idea that the Rangers are said to be considering is a long-term contract for Odor. Still just 21 years old, Odor looked utterly lost early in the season, and a .144/.252/.233 batting line in mid-May finally earned him a demotion back to the minors. Odor remained at Triple-A for about five weeks before returning with a 3-for-3 showing on June 15. That big game set the tone for the rest of his season, as the highly touted young infielder would hit an incredible .292/.334/.527 with 15 home runs over his final 91 games. That’s outstanding production for any second baseman, let alone one who is younger than the average player in the Class-A Midwest League. An extension would guarantee Odor his first fortune while possibly extending the Rangers’ club control into Odor’s free agent years by a season or two. Odor currently projects to be a free agent heading into his age-27 season, so he can still hit the open market at a young age even if he signs away a free agent year in exchange for his first major payday.
The X-factor in the infield is shortstop Jurickson Profar. Formerly ranked the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball, Profar’s career has stalled after he twice ripped a muscle in his shoulder, requiring a pair of surgeries and a lengthy rehabilitation. Profar is making up for some lost time by playing in the Arizona Fall League, but he’s been DHing there and still needs to work his way back up to full-time fielding efforts. If it seems like forever ago that Profar homered in his first Major League at-bat, that’s because that long ball occurred back in 2012. The Rangers almost certainly wouldn’t sell this low by trading Profar now, especially when he’s so close to a possible Major League return. They’ll instead see if he can handle some time in the middle infield next year, possibly starting him out at Triple-A while working him back in with the glove. In the unlikely event that the team is able to find a taker for Andrus, the Rangers could bring in a veteran shortstop like Cliff Pennington or Clint Barmes (if not a more expensive option like Alexei Ramirez or Jimmy Rollins) to handle shortstop and hope that Profar can eventually slide into regular reps there. Or, young Hanser Alberto, who filled in admirably for the injured Beltre in late 2015, could see some time there.
In the outfield, Choo’s contract isn’t exactly favorable in its own right, but his second half makes it look far less daunting for the Rangers. The 33-year-old delivered a strong August and a Herculean September to end with a .343/.455/.560 second-half batting line. He won’t repeat the .420 BABIP that he logged following the break, but Choo walked at a 14.4 percent clip and slugged 11 homers over his final 305 plate appearances, so the improved production wasn’t all BABIP smoke and mirrors. Perhaps it’s not enough to convince a team to take on Choo’s contract in a trade, but it’s enough that the team can feel more comfortable that he can hold down a prominent role heading into the 2016 campaign.
The Rangers’ first major move of the offseason was to ship out Leonys Martin in an intradivision trade that netted Tom Wilhelmsen, James Jones and a player to be named later from the Mariners. In doing so, Texas essentially named Delino DeShields Jr. its starting center fielder. He’ll receive the bulk of the at-bats there and bring plenty of speed to the top of the order. A left-handed hitting backup option might be worth considering, though Jones, acquired in the Martin trade, could fill that role, and DeShields’ .334 OBP versus right-handers in 2015 doesn’t suggest that a platoon is necessary.
Hamilton is in line to receive quite a bit of playing time as well, but he underwent a second minor knee operation this winter and struggled to stay healthy in 2015. The Rangers picked him up on the cheap from the Angels and aren’t heavily invested in Hamilton from a financial standpoint, so I don’t envision him standing in the way of a significant bat, should an opportunity present itself. A right-handed bat is said to be something Daniels and Co. are seeking this offseason, and left field would make a reasonable place to deploy that bat. However, a run at Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes could simply be deemed too pricey. Texas already has $76.5MM committed as far out as the 2018 season and $54MM in both 2019 and 2020. Adding another $20MM+ salary to the ledger for those seasons this far in advance is a risky endeavor and probably shouldn’t be deemed likely unless the club shuffles some salary by dealing Andrus or Choo.
Perhaps a more likely scenario would be an addition in the Steve Pearce mold — a player who can at least platoon with Hamilton in left field and can also fill in for Mitch Moreland at first base if needed. Pearce crushes left-handed pitching and would bring a bit of versatility to the table as an emergency option elsewhere around the infield (he played some second base in Baltimore in 2015). Texas could pursue a reunion with Mike Napoli, who filled that role last year, but Napoli’s left-field experience is limited to 2015, whereas Pearce has more than 2,000 innings of outfield experience between the Majors and Minors.
With Tolleson, Wilhelmsen, July acquisition Sam Dyson (one of the most underrated trade pickups of the year) and brilliant rookie Keone Kela serving as right-handed bullpen options and Diekman representing a terrific left-handed option, there’s a lot of talent in the bullpen. Sam Freeman is a potential second lefty after logging a 3.05 ERA in 38 1/3 innings, but while Freeman struck out 40 hitters in that time he also walked 25 men — an average of nearly six free passes per nine innings. A lefty with better control is something the Rangers may consider, and there’s the possibility that they’ll pursue a more proven ninth-inning arm. Tolleson was great for much of the season but did wilt late in the year. Then again, that could have something to do with Banister’s alarming decision to pitch Tolleson on five consecutive days from late September into early October.
The bottom line for the Rangers is that a team that was little more than an afterthought seven months ago is now entering the offseason with firm expectations of contending in 2016. Daniels and his staff will look to supplement the team’s lineup and rotation with complementary pieces, knowing full well that much of the club’s core is already in place.