The Rangers didn’t need a new ballpark, but they got one. They will have to improve in several parts of the roster if they’re to win in the first season at the just-built facility.
- Elvis Andrus: $43MM through 2022 (can opt out of remainder of contract this offseason)
- Rougned Odor: $36MM through 2022 (includes buyout of 2023 club option)
- Shin-Soo Choo: $21MM through 2020
- Lance Lynn: $19MM through 2021 (includes $1MM signing bonus payment)
- Jose Leclerc: $13.75MM through 2022 (includes buyouts of 2023-24 club options)
- Mike Minor: $9.5MM through 2020
- Jesse Chavez: $4MM through 2020
- Jeff Mathis: $3MM through 2020
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Danny Santana – $3.9MM
- Delino DeShields – $2.4MM
- Nomar Mazara – $5.7MM
- Rafael Montero – $900K
- Joey Gallo – $4.0MM
- Jesse Biddle – $600K
- Non-tender candidates: Deshields, Biddle
The Rangers have sat in an uncomfortable middle ground for the past three seasons, with a pair of 78-84 campaigns wrapped around a 67-95 dud. Payroll has moved south, but still topped $160MM by the end of the 2018 season and sat at $118MM on Opening Day in 2019.
Unsurprisingly, the roster construction efforts have mirrored the broader situation. The Rangers have spent some money and hit on a few free agents. Mike Minor and Lance Lynn succeeded beyond the wildest expectations on three-year deals while last year’s crop of low-cost talent delivered significant contributions from Hunter Pence, Danny Santana, and Logan Forsythe. But the club has also whiffed on others. Jeff Mathis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shawn Kelley, Shelby Miller, and Zach McAllister absorbed a decent amount of payroll without delivering much in return. While Joey Gallo has emerged as a star-level performer, the results haven’t been as promising for Rougned Odor and Nomar Mazara.
It’s frankly difficult to see this club vaulting into serious contention in 2020 without some enormous strides from existing players and major additions from outside. The organization seems to have preferred a few years of fairly expensive mediocrity and foregone top draft picks as the price for avoiding a full-throated rebuild. There’s some honor in that. But it’s also time to get things moving forward.
There’s an argument to be made that president of baseball operations Jon Daniels ought to press ownership for a big payroll to launch the Rangers forward. The publicly funded stadium bonanza surely supports that concept. But it may not be wise to put the pedal all the way to the floor just yet, even accepting the premise that the organization can and should unleash the full potential of its pocketbook over the next several seasons. The Rangers have a whole host of needs and are separated by a yawning gap from the cross-state, division-rival Astros. Over-committing to too many veterans now, when the Rangers’ would-be core remains ill-defined, carries long-term roster-management risks. This winter demands careful navigation.
Gallo is a walking gap-filler on defense; he could slot in at any outfield spot or in the corner infield, though he hasn’t played third in some time and didn’t grade as well there. That flexibility will be important. The Rangers could move him around a la Cody Bellinger or let Gallo settle into whatever spot most needs it.
Otherwise, questions predominate. You could argue for a whole new outfield outside of Gallo. Shin-Soo probably should be limited all but exclusively to DH duties, where he’s a good-enough but hardly elite bat. Mazara hasn’t broken out of his league-average-ish hitting malaise; the Rangers will have to decide whether they can get him going or are better served letting another team have the shot. Delino DeShields Jr. runs like the wind but just hasn’t hit in the majors; he looks to be a reserve piece at most. And though Willie Calhoun has shown some promise with the bat, he’s anything but settled defensively.
Perhaps the Rangers would be best served shifting Calhoun in to first base rather than lining up Gallo on the dirt. The club may not be ready to give up entirely on Ronald Guzman, but it’d be awfully hard to hand over the first bagging duties to him after a .219/.308/.414 season. Across the way at the hot corner, the team still hasn’t settled on a permanent replacement for Adrian Beltre. Super-sub Danny Santana can help cover there, or just about anywhere else on the diamond, though it’s dubious whether he’ll repeat his high-BABIP, high-strikeout, power-surging 2019 success story. What of Nick Solak? The bat is intriguing, but there are questions surrounding the glove.
Let’s pause here to consider the scale of the challenge — and the volume of possible solutions. The Rangers could justifiably add something like three or four high-quality players to the corner infield/outfield mix, particularly if they find a deal they like for Mazara. Doing quite that much seems like a stretch, but the Rangers have picked up quite a few lower-cost veterans in recent years and surely will do so again. Given their positive experience with Beltre, perhaps a late-career fling with Josh Donaldson would make sense. Texas native Anthony Rendon is a bit of a dream scenario, but it’s quite possible to imagine at least some level of pursuit. There are loads of lower-cost vets that can slot in at either corner infield slot, with Mike Moustakas and Todd Frazier among the more prominent names. It isn’t hard to imagine a first bagger such as Justin Smoak, Yonder Alonso, or old friend Mitch Moreland finding his way to Texas. Likewise, the corner outfield market is full of possibilities that probably won’t break the bank. Even Marcell Ozuna may struggle to get a monster deal given the relative lack of urgent demand around the game. Nicholas Castellanos, Avisail Garcia, and Corey Dickerson are all reasonably youthful options.
That’s not all the Rangers must consider, however, even on the position-player side of the coin. We touched briefly upon the center field situation. That could be solved by planting Gallo out there every day, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Rangers prefer to ease the burden by also lining him up at first base. DeShields has historically been better against left-handed pitching, so perhaps he could handle center when southpaw starters oppose the Rangers. If Gallo is deployed elsewhere entirely, a center field platoon might include a veteran such as Jon Jay, Jarrod Dyson, or (another) old friend Leonys Martin. Should the club go looking for everyday options, it’ll need to get creative. Pirates star Starling Marte would obviously fit quite nicely, but that’ll take quite a bit of creativity for Daniels, especially with so many other teams likely to have interest in Marte given the meager open-market alternatives. More realistic, perhaps, is Japanese star Shogo Akiyama. He seems to have fixed his gaze on the majors; Daniels has always kept a close watch over the top Asian leagues. Perhaps they’ll make eye contact.
Oh, and it’s not as if the other up-the-middle spots are locked and loaded. Elvis Andrus is not going to opt out and it’d be tough to move enough of Odor’s contract to make it worth dealing him now, so the double-play combo is intact. But that underwhelming unit needs to step up big-time and the club can’t presume that’ll occur. At the same time, it’s hard to see how it can give up on the duo given their contracts. Santana and Solak factor here, though the former hasn’t been trusted much at short and the latter hasn’t played there at all. Having them to work in makes it less likely that the Rangers will spend on a sturdy veteran that can handle some time at second, though a move for a Forsythe type can’t be ruled out — particularly with a laundry list of useful names floating around free agency.
The catching situation is at least as big of an issue, albeit one that may not be susceptible of much near-term change. Mathis had an unfathomably bad season with the bat (.158/.209/.224) and understudy Jose Trevino hardly shined (.258/.272/.383 with just three walks in 126 plate appearances). It’s nice that Isiah Kiner-Falefa can play behind the dish or elsewhere on the diamond, but he also lacks promise with the bat. You can swallow some poor offensive output from defensively exceptional backstops, but it’s rough to have a black hole in the lineup.
What the Rangers can hope is that Mathis and Trevino will squeeze value out of a largely uninspiring pitching staff. Lynn and Minor were stunningly valuable in 2019 — they accounted for 11 of the club’s net 14.2 pitching fWAR — but it seems fair to presume at least a bit of regression for each. A group of youthful southpaws — Kolby Allard, Brock Burke, Joe Palumbo, and (if healthy) Taylor Hearn — will battle for opportunities despite poor results in their earliest MLB showings. There are a few other depth arms and rising prospects, but several of the team’s better-regarded farmhands are still a ways off. It’d be disappointing to see Ariel Jurado and Adrian Sampson occupy more than 120 frames apiece once again (unless the club can find a way to put one or both into another gear, at least). Pending supplementation, it’s tough to see this rotation mix as contention-worthy.
There’s some room for improvement in the bullpen. Jose Leclerc still has an electric arm. The Rangers will continue trying to help him find consistency and an appropriate role after dabbling with him as a closer and opener in 2019. It’ll be interesting to see fireballer Emmanuel Clase in his sophomore effort. Rafael Montero was a way-post-hype revelation and should occupy a prominent role. Jesse Chavez will try to bounce back and provide stability. Some of the aforementioned starter candidates could end up in the pen, while the Rangers may hope to get a worthwhile contribution from Ian Gibaut, Jeffrey Springs, or others.
So, what’s the path to improving the pitching? After hitting on two against-the-grain pitching contracts — going to the third year to land Minor and Lynn — the club could seek another opportunity of that ilk. Michael Pineda might represent an under-the-radar candidate for a relatively longer, lower-AAV outlay. The Rangers could also look at the highest reaches of the market. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg may or may not be legitimate targets, but the Texas org could certainly afford to spend in the next tiers (Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jake Odorizzi, Dallas Keuchel). And this year’s market has quite a few steady veteran types that ought to be available on cheaper, one-year deals. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Rangers end up with Ivan Nova or Brett Anderson. The team could also roll the dice on Michael Wacha or Alex Wood.
Free agency also obviously offers some relief solutions. A big move for a closer feels unlikely, but there’s a typical smattering of useful veterans kicking around. If the Rangers prefer a hurler with some closing experience, they could look to someone on the order of Steve Cishek. Perhaps a reunion with the under-the-radar excellent Chris Martin — an Arlington native who the Rangers brought back from Japan — would make sense for all sides.
Needless to say, options abound. It’ll also be interesting to see whether the Rangers can gain any traction in trade talks involving pitching. This club isn’t exactly overburdened with top prospects knocking down the door to the majors and won’t be anxious to move its best farm pieces. But the Rangers do have an interesting asset to market in the form of Mazara’s contract rights. He could be of interest to a variety of teams that would like a crack at his upside; packaged with other young talent, Mazara might help deliver a useful arm back to Texas. It’s even possible that Minor or Lynn could still pop up in trade talks if there’s an avenue for the Rangers to improve their mid-term outlook by kicking the contention can down the road a bit further, though the fact that a deal hasn’t yet occurred is a good indication that the Texas org values those contracts quite a bit.
One way or another, we’re likely to see quite a few fresh names on the backs of Rangers jerseys in 2020. Daniels and co. will need to be clever to make strides in the standings while also setting the team up for a much-anticipated return to glory.