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The 2017 season was borderline disastrous for the Rangers, who fell from a 95-67 record in 2016 to a 78-84 mark and a third place finish in the division. Texas dramatically outperformed its projected record in that AL West-winning ’16 campaign, so some regression was expected, but the team fell further than most would’ve figured and now faces some heavy offseason lifting.
- Elvis Andrus, SS: $73MM through 2022 (can opt out of remaining four years, $58MM after 2018 season)
- Shin-Soo Choo, OF/DH: $62MM through 2020
- Rougned Odor, 2B: $48.5MM through 2022
- Cole Hamels, LHP: $28.5MM through 2018 (includes $6MM buyout of $20MM option for 2019)
- Adrian Beltre, 3B: $18MM through 2018
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Jake Diekman (5.050) – $2.8MM
- A.J. Griffin (5.034) – $3.0MM
- Jurickson Profar (3.161) – $1.1MM
- Keone Kela (2.168) – $1.2MM
- Nick Martinez (2.149) – $2.0MM
- Ryan Rua (2.126) – $900K
- Non-tender candidates: Griffin, Martinez
- Mike Napoli, 1B: $11MM club option with $2.5MM buyout; team has reportedly informed Napoli the option will be declined
- Martin Perez, LHP: $6MM club option with a $2.45MM buyout
- Tony Barnette, RHP: $4MM club option with a $250K buyout
More than half of the Rangers’ Opening Day roster struggled through some form of injury or unforeseen downturn in performance in 2017. Yu Darvish posted solid but unspectacular numbers for much of the first half, while Cole Hamels was sidelined more than two months with an oblique issue (to say nothing of his curiously evaporating strikeout rate). Jonathan Lucroy’s power was nowhere to be found, and Rougned Odor batted .204 with a ghastly .252 OBP in the first season of a six-year contract extension that now looks questionable. The Rangers also lost Adrian Beltre and Carlos Gomez for prolonged stretches due to injury. The bullpen was an unmitigated disaster.
And yet, the Rangers clung to hope in the Wild Card race for much of the season, riding a breakout season from Elvis Andrus, a 41-homer campaign for Joey Gallo and quality results from Andrew Cashner for much of the season.
The Rangers’ foundation began showing some cracks — a particularly troubling development in Arlington considering the fact that the cross-state-rival Astros’ own young core elevated its game to a new level. The simultaneous nature of the Rangers’ decline and the Astros’ ascension has put Texas behind the eight ball as it looks to get back into contention in 2018 and beyond. While there have been many Rangers fans suggesting that the team needs to retool, if not all-out rebuild, GM Jon Daniels has been blunt in stating that his team is not rebuilding. So then, where do the Rangers turn to right the ship?
The most pressing need is on the pitching staff — specifically in the rotation. Hamels will return to lead the 2018 rotation but has just one guaranteed year remaining on his deal and looked more like a back-of-the-rotation arm than his usual self in 2017. His 6.4 K/9 rate was easily a career low, and his 9.7 percent swinging-strike rate was two points lower than his previous career-worst mark. He’ll be joined by Martin Perez, whose $6MM club option is a no-brainer even if his production looked like that of a fifth starter (4.82 ERA, 5.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 47.3 percent ground-ball rate in 185 innings).
Beyond that pair, the Rangers’ options are … uninspiring, to say the least. Cashner and trade acquisition Miguel Gonzalez are free agents, leaving the Rangers with Nick Martinez, A.J. Griffin, Clayton Blackburn and prospect Yohander Mendez as 2018 options. (Former first-round pick Chi Chi Gonzalez is recovering from Tommy John surgery and may not be ready early in the season.) If the Rangers have any hope of contending, they’ll need to add at least one more established arm to the mix, and quite possibly two.
A pursuit of a Darvish reunion, to some extent, could conceivably be explored. The decision to trade him was a reluctant one from Daniels and his staff, and Hamels’ potential departure after the 2018 season leaves the team with virtually no certainty in the rotation after next year. However, the Rangers didn’t extend him when they had the chance, and the team’s financial outlook is ungainly enough that it seems like a genuine long shot that Darvish will be re-signed.
Texas has a significant amount of money on the books through 2020 thanks largely to Shin-Soo Choo’s albatross deal, and Daniels has suggested that the payroll will step back a bit from this past year’s Opening Day mark of $165MM — perhaps in the $155MM range, per Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. They’ll be off the hook for some of Prince Fielder’s salary after reaching an agreement with the insurers of his contract, and the club currently projects to about a $118MM payroll including Fielder and some non-tender/trade candidates. A backloaded Darvish deal shouldn’t be entirely written off as a possibility, but it’s tough to align Daniels’ stated desire to scale back payroll with a five- or six-year free-agent deal for Darvish that could check in with an annual value in the $23-26MM range.
The Rangers will also be prominently linked to Japanese star Shohei Otani, though they’ll face competition from 29 other teams if and when he’s posted. Daniels acknowledged that the Rangers would be one of many in the mix if Otani becomes available this winter — a reality that looks less likely with the new revelation that the posting system agreement between MLB and NPB has expired — but reports have connected Texas to the young right-hander/slugger much more prominently over the summer. Speculating on any sort of “favorite”to land Otani seems futile right now, especially since his earning power is capped by MLB’s international signing guidelines, but Texas will be involved.
If not Darvish or Otani, the Rangers will have the money to invest elsewhere. Signing a big-ticket arm such as Jake Arrieta will present the same long-term payroll complications as Darvish. Second-tier names like Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb will be available but will very likely come with draft compensation attached, as each is a strong qualifying offer candidate. Texas could also look at more affordable overseas options, with Miles Mikolas and Hideaki Wakui each eyeing MLB jobs after strong showings in Japan. Mikolas, in particular, has been loosely linked to Texas (where he last pitched before going to the NPB).
It’s a similar, albeit not quite as grave situation in the bullpen. Lefties Alex Claudio and Jake Diekman will be back in 2018, as will righties Keone Kela and Matt Bush (though Bush will be coming off shoulder surgery and has been suggested as a potential rotation candidate). Hard-throwing Jose Leclerc is an option after averaging nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings in 45 2/3 frames this year, but he also averaged a jaw-dropping 7.9 walks per nine. Austin Bibens-Dirkx, Ricardo Rodriguez and Nick Gardewine are all on the 40-man as well, but none impressed much as a big league reliever.
With no clear ninth-inning solution, Texas could conceivably take a run at a top-tier closer like Wade Davis or Greg Holland. But, again, with numerous needs up and down the roster — we’re not even to the position players yet — it seems likelier that Daniels & Co. will pursue quality assets in the second and third tier of the market. Brandon Morrow, Addison Reed and Mike Minor will probably have the most buzz on the second tier, while other options coming off strong seasons include Pat Neshek, Anthony Swarzak and old friend Tommy Hunter.
Turning to the lineup, the Rangers seem likely to let Robinson Chirinos shoulder the bulk of the load behind the dish. If they wish to push him back into a backup role, Welington Castillo and Alex Avila are options to serve as the primary receiver in Arlington next year. Both should command multi-year deals. Chris Iannetta and Nick Hundley are among the veteran backups if Chirinos is the first choice.
Most, if not all of the infield is set. Andrus performed so well in 2017 that the notion of him opting out of his contract after the 2018 season is now perfectly plausible — if not likely. Future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre will be back at the hot corner, and for better or worse, second base will go to Odor as he looks to rebound from that aforementioned .252 OBP. First base looks likely to go to Joey Gallo, though the team could also elect to play Gallo in an outfield corner or at DH if the decision is made to pursue a free-agent first baseman. Eric Hosmer is almost certainly going to be out of the Rangers’ comfort zone, but Logan Morrison, Carlos Santana and Yonder Alonso are all conceivable possibilities on the market.
In the outfield, there’s less certainty. Willie Calhoun, the centerpiece from the Darvish trade with the Dodgers, could split his time between left field and DH if the Rangers want to go with an intriguing, bat-first option. He lacks experience, but Calhoun obliterated upper minors pitching in 2017 and is a consensus top 100 prospect. Otherwise, the Rangers have Nomar Mazara, Delino Deshields and Choo as options in the outfield (and, in Choo’s case, at designated hitter).
That’s not a very inspiring unit, unless Mazara bounces back and makes good on his longtime elite prospect status. Given that he won’t turn 23 until April and nonetheless has two full big league years under his belt, that shouldn’t come as a shock if it happens. But, that’s a lot to bank on, and the Rangers could be well served by at least adding a veteran outfielder that can handle center field or a corner. A reunion with Carlos Gomez certainly makes sense, with Jon Jay and Jarrod Dyson also representing viable free-agent alternatives.
The elephant in the room for the Rangers is Jurickson Profar. The former No. 1 overall prospect missed two seasons with shoulder injuries and was reportedly unhappy that he wasn’t traded prior to the non-waiver deadline. Texas simply doesn’t have at-bats to give him, having inked Andrus and Odor to long-term commitments at the middle infield positions. Profar didn’t hit much in a limited opportunity as a utilityman, but he did hit .287/.383/.428 in 383 Triple-A plate appearances this year.
That the Rangers elected not to give Profar a September call-up was notable for two reasons. First and foremost, it served as an even stronger indicator that his time with the organization is quite likely running out. A second, less obvious benefit to casual onlookers is that it prevented Profar from reaching four full years of MLB service time. Because he stayed in the minors, the Rangers will be able to market three years of Profar’s arbitration eligibility rather than two when shopping him this winter. Any team with regular middle-infield bats could plausibly be considered a suitor. The Padres, Royals, Angels, Mets, Blue Jays and Brewers all strike me as speculative landing spots.
Profar’s trade value will be a fraction of what it was at its apex, though one can hardly fault the Rangers for not moving him when he was the game’s top-rated prospect. The team got extremely unlucky when it came to Profar’s health, but that doesn’t mean it can’t salvage some decent value here. While Profar won’t command a massive return, the Rangers could get a similar reclamation project for the rotation or possibly an MLB-caliber bullpen arm, among other lesser pieces.
If a payroll in the $155MM range is indeed the target, the Rangers may only have $35-40MM worth of open payroll capacity in 2018, depending on non-tender and trade scenarios. While that’s certainly enough space to fill multiple needs, it’s a fairly modest amount for a club that needs multiple starters, at least one reliever (likely more) and some outfield and/or first base help. Texas can always try to dump some of the remaining three years and $62MM of Choo’s contract on another American League club with DH at-bats open (e.g. the White Sox), but doing so would require paying down some of the commitment and providing prospect value to the acquiring team. Alternatively, they could try to facilitate some kind of bad contract exchange, taking on a similarly undesirable contract that at least filled a team need (e.g. Ian Kennedy).
Regardless of which route the Rangers actually take, they’ll need to add several pieces with a relatively limited cache of resources if the team truly does not intend to embark on any kind of significant rebuild this offseason. With a stacked Astros roster looming over the AL West, the Rangers face an uphill battle in returning to contention for a division title. But, it’s also difficult to fault any AL team for eschewing a full rebuild when only five American League clubs finished with a .500 record this season..