What was supposed to be a win-now Rangers club finished with one of MLB’s worst records, so 2021 is now looking like a re-evaluation and rebuilding year in Arlington.
- Elvis Andrus, SS: $28MM through 2022
- Rougned Odor, 2B: $27MM through 2022 (includes $3MM buyout of 2023 club option)
- Kyle Gibson, RHP: $17MM through 2022
- Jose Leclerc, RHP: $9.5MM through 2022 (includes $750K buyout of 2023 club option; contract also contains 2024 option)
- Lance Lynn, RHP: $8MM through 2021
- Jordan Lyles, RHP: $7MM through 2021
- Joely Rodriguez, LHP: $3MM through 2021 (includes $500K buyout of 2022 club option)
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- Joey Gallo, OF: $5.3MM
- Isiah Kiner-Falefa, C/INF: $1.2MM
- Rafael Montero, RHP: $1.4MM
- Danny Santana, INF/OF: $3.6MM
- Non-tender candidate: Santana
- Declined $18MM club option on RHP Corey Kluber (Paid $1MM buyout)
- Kluber, Shin-Soo Choo, Jesse Chavez, Jeff Mathis, Derek Dietrich, Edinson Volquez, Juan Nicasio, Andrew Romine
Emboldened by big 2019 performances from Mike Minor and Lance Lynn as well as the ostensible promise of heightened revenue from a new stadium, the Rangers had an active 2019-20 offseason, headlined by their acquisition of Corey Kluber. The idea was that the trio of Kluber, Lynn and Minor could headline a rotation also featuring breakout hopefuls Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles, propelling the Rangers back to contention in the American League West.
Murphy’s Law had other ideas. Not only did the organization — like every other club — not get the revenue boost on which it had banked, but many key parts of the Texas roster were waylaid by injuries. Kluber pitched just one inning before being sidelined by a Grade 2 teres major strain and his club option was bought out, likely ending his tenure in Arlington. Days after Kluber went down, the Rangers lost closer Jose Leclerc to the exact same injury, ending Leclerc’s season after just two innings. Meanwhile, Minor battled shoulder fatigue early in the year and saw his results deteriorate as his velocity dipped by two miles per hour.
The Rangers struck gold on their three-year deals for Minor and Lynn, the latter of which registered as a surprise at the time. The hope was that multi-year deals for Gibson and Lyles would reap similar benefits, but both pitchers were shelled in their first seasons with Texas. To his credit, Gibson at least soaked up 67 1/3 innings (tying him for 23rd among all big league pitchers), but a 5.35 ERA and fielding-independent metrics to match weren’t what the front office had in mind when signing him. Lyles’ 7.02 ERA was the worst in baseball among the 111 pitchers to throw at least 40 innings.
Injuries persisted up and down the Texas lineup, where only three players — Nick Solak, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Joey Gallo — even managed to top 40 games played and 150 plate appearances.
Twenty-five-year-old Willie Calhoun looked to be on the cusp of a breakout following a strong half-season to close the 2019 campaign, but he suffered a broken jaw after being hit by a pitch in the face during the original Spring Training, and then battled hamstring troubles once play finally commenced. The resulting .190/.231/.260 slash could be attributable to Calhoun’s issues, but it probably doesn’t fill the club with confidence. The Rangers had similar hopes for a Solak breakout, but his power completely evaporated en route to a .268/.326/.344 output. Ronald Guzman again was unable to seize the everyday job at first base.
Most problematic of all for the Rangers, though, is the continued Rougned Odor dilemma and the 2020 decline of his double play partner, Elvis Andrus. Odor has become a focal point for frustrated fans in recent years — understandably so — but tested the organization’s patience even more in 2020 with a career-worst .167/.209/.413 slash. Andrus, too, had the worst season of his career: .194/.252/.330. Both are signed through 2022 still, with Odor guaranteed $27MM and Andrus guaranteed $28MM.
There’s perhaps still some hope for Andrus, who was dogged by a .200 BABIP in a tiny 111-plate appearance sample this year and has generally been an above-average defender and baserunner. A back injury sent Andrus to the IL on multiple occasions in 2020 as well, so there’s a physical reason for his downturn at the plate. If he can rebound to his previous offensive output in 2021-22, his glove and baserunning should allow him to be a serviceable option at shortstop.
Odor carries less reason for optimism. He’s been below-average at the plate for four years running now, his two 30-homer campaigns overshadowed by a combined .279 OBP, and has seen his strikeout troubles soar to new heights since 2019. This year’s 31.8 percent strikeout rate was the worst of his career, and Odor also pops up to the infield at one of the highest rates in the game. In the past, strong exit velocities have given some hope for improved future performance, but Odor’s exit velocity plummeted by a whopping five miles per hour in 2020.
With all the Rangers’ struggles and their inability to develop talent of late — consider that they entered the season without a single homegrown rotation member — it’s no wonder that Daniels has spoken of a step back to focus on youth while owner Ray Davis has cautioned that payroll will drop.
One clear means of working toward those ends would be to aggressively shop Odor, even if it meant paying down a large portion of his salary to facilitate a trade. Given the scope of his struggles and the current economic landscape of the game, though, it’s quite possible that the Rangers won’t find a trade and need to simply move on. That could come in the form of a release or simply relegating him to a seldom-used bench piece, but continuing to give Odor regular playing time only compounds the mistake that was his six-year, $49.5MM extension.
The Rangers’ other problem is that Odor isn’t exactly blocking many quality second base options. If the club isn’t convinced of the aforementioned Solak’s ability to play second base and prefers to keep both him and Calhoun in the outfield/designated hitter mix, immediate alternatives are sparse. Prospect Anderson Tejeda got his feet wet in 2020, but he struggled through 77 plate appearances, as one would expect from a 22-year-old who made the jump from Class-A Advanced to the Majors thanks to the lack of a minor league season. The 25-year-old Kiner-Falefa could conceivably play some second base, but he thrived defensively at third base this year, so the club may wish to leave him there until top prospect Josh Jung is ready for a big league look — likely in 2022.
The lack of immediate infield depth should spur the Rangers to bring in some potential long-term fits. The most straightforward path to doing so could very well be in free agency. Most of the domestic free agents who are hitting the market are well into or even beyond their primes, but some controllable players could hit the market after the non-tender deadline.
More interesting, though, is 25-year-old Korean infielder Ha-Seong Kim. Arguably the best player in the KBO, Kim will be posted by the Kiwoom Heroes this winter. Signing Kim is akin to simply purchasing a Top 100 prospect for any big league club, and the Rangers could offer him regular playing time at second base or third base, with a combination of Kiner-Falefa, Solak and Odor (if he’s still in the picture) manning the other spot. Daniels has cautioned against viewing free agency as a “shortcut” to build the roster back up, although Kim’s age makes him a unique entrant into the market that could align with the organization’s vision.
Beyond that, however, comments from Daniels and Davis suggest that free-agent activity will be limited. Texas could look to broker some affordable deals on the margins of the market, offering bullpen innings late in the offseason to relievers who’ve struggled to find a home and perhaps poking around the market of non-tendered players. But, trades and waiver claims figure to be a greater focus for the organization.
With that in mind, it could be that Lynn has thrown his final pitch as a Ranger. Daniels held off on trading him at the Aug. 31 deadline, implying after the fact that moving Lynn would have simply been making a trade just to make a trade. “I would not have been proud of some of those deals if we made them,” Daniels told reporters following the deadline (link via Sam Blum of the Dallas Morning News). “I don’t think our fans would have been happy about it, either.” If the offers for Lynn were indeed that weak, it’s sensible to have waited until the winter.
There’s an argument, of course, that Lynn’s value has only gone down because he’s controlled only for one playoff run and didn’t pitch as well post-deadline. At the same time, there’s a greater number of clubs now looking to fortify their rotations. The Reds, for instance, weren’t in the market for rotation help in August but could be now if Trevor Bauer walks. Other teams may have been maxed out from a budgetary standpoint in August but could now more capably absorb Lynn’s reasonable $8MM salary for the 2021 campaign. The market for Lynn should still be robust, with some speculative suitors including the Braves, Reds, Yankees, Cubs, Mets, Phillies, Nationals, Blue Jays and Red Sox.
If the Rangers aren’t intent on making a win-now push in 2021, then it also stands to reason that they should be open to offers on slugger Joey Gallo. He’s coming off a down season at the plate after a huge 2019 campaign, but Gallo has as much power as anyone in the game and has emerged as a top-notch defender in the outfield. With two seasons of club control left and his 27th birthday still two weeks away as of this writing, Gallo could tempt clubs with a 40-homer bat and Gold Glove potential.
The bullpen might offer another handful of trade options. Leclerc, 27 next month, would be appealing given that he’s owed $9.75MM through 2022 and can be controlled through 2024 via a pair of club options ($6MM in 2023, $6.25MM in 2024). Texas may not want to sell low on Leclerc after an injury-shortened season, but clubs figure to come calling. The Rangers’ more likely trade candidates, however, could be lesser-noticed names.
Southpaw Joely Rodriguez received a two-year deal that seemed to come out of the blue for many onlookers, but he was quite effective in his return from Japan. He’s owed a $2.5MM salary next season and controlled through 2022 via a similarly affordable $3MM club option. At a time when it looks like clubs will be rather conservative with their bullpen expenditures, two years of a 29-year-old lefty who throws 95 mph at a total of $5.5MM is a nice player to peddle on the trade market.
Similarly, many fans may not even be aware of Rafael Montero’s resurgence since signing with the Rangers. The former Mets top prospect missed 2018 due to injury but has bounced back with a 3.09 ERA and a terrific 53-to-11 K/BB ratio in 46 2/3 innings as a Ranger. Montero, who notched eight saves in 2020 and is now averaging better than 96 mph on his heater, is controlled via arbitration through 2022.
Overall, the Rangers are in a tough spot. Their current MLB roster isn’t good enough to contend, but their farm system ranks among the game’s weakest thanks to some injuries to high draft picks and stalled development of others. With the possible exception of promising young catcher Sam Huff and outfielder Leody Taveras, reinforcements aren’t on the immediate horizon.
All that said, the Rangers only have $39MM on the books in 2022 and don’t have a single guaranteed contract on the 2023 payroll. It’s also important to note that this is an ownership group that has shown a prior willingness to spend and does still have the allure of a new stadium to draw fans once attendance levels are green-lit to return to full capacity. As such, an arduous, multi-year rebuild isn’t a foregone conclusion. The upcoming offseason will likely be focused on acquiring controllable young talent, but if the club can convert on some young talent, we could see Texas jump back into a more aggressive offseason approach a year or two from now.