Set to miss the playoffs for the third straight year, the Rangers reportedly plan to make third base a priority in the offseason. Understandably so, as the position has been a sore spot for the club this year. But the problems the Rangers have faced at the hot corner pale in comparison to the issues they’ve dealt with at catcher, which should absolutely be a spot the club tries to improve over the winter.
Texas made a couple notable changes behind the plate last offseason, jettisoning starter Robinson Chirinos by declining his option and replacing him with free-agent addition Jeff Mathis. It was something of an eye-opener when the Rangers waved goodbye to Chirinos, who had been a strong offensive option for the majority of his tenure with the team, which began in 2013. Chirinos was a questionable defender throughout that period, but even still, his $4.5MM option looked eminently reasonable. The 35-year-old has since moved on to rival Houston, where he has continued his trend of hitting well while providing iffy defense.
Mathis, 36, is essentially Chirinos’ polar opposite. He’s a well-regarded defender who has never really posted big league-caliber work as a hitter. The Rangers guaranteed Mathis $6.25MM, including $3MM in 2020, but they couldn’t have imagined he’d be as close to as woeful at the plate as he has been this season. Mathis entered the year with a career batting line of .207/.274/.297 – good for a wRC+ of 49. Just a reminder that a wRC+ of 100 makes you a league-average offensive player, so Mathis was basically half of that coming into 2019. That’s obviously not good, but it’s far and away superior to the output Mathis has offered in his first season as a Ranger.
Through 244 trips to the plate in 2019, Mathis has batted .158/.209/.224. His wRC+ is 2 (!), which easily ranks last among all major leaguers who have accrued 200 or more plate appearances this season. Likewise, with minus-2.0 fWAR, Mathis sits last in that category. He’s still a decent defender, but when you’re dragging down your team’s offense as much as he has, does it really matter?
As mentioned, the Rangers are stuck paying Mathis a few million dollars next season. But if they’re going to make a real effort to contend then, they better focus on trying to better their situation behind the plate. One problem for the Rangers is that they don’t have an obvious in-house solution behind Mathis. The light-hitting Isiah Kiner-Falefa is all but done as a catcher, Jose Trevino hasn’t been any kind of offensive standout to this point, and prospect Sam Huff – although promising – hasn’t even played above the High-A level thus far. With that in mind, the Rangers will likely have to look outside the organization for a 2020 upgrade over the winter, whether via trade or the open market.
Chirinos will be a free agent again after the season, but it seems unlikely the Rangers will go back down that road one year after booting him from the organization. He’s one of just a few soon-to-be free-agent catchers who offers much at the plate, though. Current Brewer Yasmani Grandal is hands down the game’s cream-of-the-crop pending free agent at backstop, but he’ll command a significant payday, and Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reported this week the Rangers will be hard-pressed to dole out more than one large deal over the winter. It seems that pact will go to either a starting pitcher or a third baseman, which could rule out an earnest pursuit of Grandal.
Fortunately for Texas, the club won’t need to break the bank to pick up a catcher who can outdo the meager contributions Mathis has brought to the table this year. Other free agents-to-be such as Jason Castro (Twins) and Travis d’Arnaud (Rays) are among many catchers who have crushed Mathis’ 2019 production, and either could end up on the Rangers’ radar during the offseason. Regardless, it’s clear the position should be one the Rangers dedicate quite a bit of attention to in the coming months.