Coming off an American League-worst 22-38 record, the Rangers are in for a transition year in 2021. Their new general manager will help shepherd the process.
Major League Signings
- Kohei Arihara, RHP: Two years, $6.2MM (plus $1.24MM posting fee)
- David Dahl, OF: One year, $2.7MM
- Mike Foltynewicz, RHP: One year, $2MM
- Jimmy Herget, RHP: One year, $700K split contract (later outrighted to Triple-A)
- Scott Heineman, OF: One year, $595K split contract (later traded to the Reds)
- Joe Gatto, RHP: One year, $570K (later outrighted to Triple-A)
Trades and Claims
- Claimed C Aramís García off waivers from the Giants (later traded to the Athletics)
- Acquired RHP Dane Dunning and LHP Avery Weems from the White Sox for RHP Lance Lynn
- Acquired 1B Nate Lowe, 1B Jake Guenther and OF Carl Chester (as player to be named later) from the Rays for C Heriberto Hernandez, SS Osleivis Basabe and OF Alexander Ovalles
- Selected RHP Brett de Geus from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 draft
- Acquired RHP Jose Corniell and a player to be named later from the Mariners for RHP Rafael Montero
- Acquired 3B Jose Acosta from the Reds for OF Scott Heineman
- Acquired RHP Ryder Ryan from the Mets as the player to be named later in last season’s Todd Frazier trade
- Acquired cash considerations from the Reds for RHP Art Warren
- Acquired DH Khris Davis, C Jonah Heim and RHP Dane Acker from the Athletics for SS Elvis Andrus, C Aramís García and $13.5MM
- Acquired RHP Josh Sborz from the Dodgers in exchange for RHP Jhan Zambrano
Notable Minor League Signings
- Drew Anderson, Justin Anderson (two-year deal), Drew Butera, Jharel Cotton, Charlie Culberson, Delino DeShields Jr., Sam Gaviglio, John Hicks, Brock Holt (later selected to 40-man roster), Ian Kennedy, Jason Martin, Luis Ortiz, Spencer Patton, Edubray Ramos, Tyson Ross, Nick Vincent, Hunter Wood, Hyeon-jong Yang
- Corey Kluber, Lance Lynn, Rafael Montero, Elvis Andrus, Scott Heineman, Art Warren, Danny Santana (non-tendered), Shin-Soo Choo, Jesse Chavez, Jeff Mathis, Ian Gibaut, Luke Farrell, Nick Goody, Luís Garcia, Derek Dietrich, Andrew Romine, Juan Nicasio, Edinson Vólquez, Rob Refsnyder, Yadiel Rivera
After somewhat surprisingly staying on the fringes of contention for most of 2019, the Rangers looked to have an opportunity to compete for a spot in the expanded postseason in 2020. Instead, the team fell flat, leading president of baseball operations Jon Daniels to sell at the trade deadline. At the time, Daniels noted the organization viewed 2022 as “the more likely window” for a return to contention and suggested there’d be a drop in player payroll in the upcoming season.
That hinted at an offseason of change in Arlington, and the Rangers eventually saw the departures of a few of the franchise’s most recognizable faces. Ace Lance Lynn entered the offseason as one of the league’s most obvious trade candidates and indeed wound up on the move. Elvis Andrus, the lone remaining member of the franchise’s 2010-11 pennant winning teams, was shipped off to a division rival a few months later. Shin-Soo Choo, the team’s second-longest tenured player, hit free agency and eventually returned to his native South Korea.
Before any of that roster turnover, though, the Rangers made a key move in the front office. Former MLB pitcher Chris Young signed on to become the team’s new general manager in early December. Young’s experience as a player and in the league office, where he spent the past three years overseeing on-field operations, had also garnered him some GM consideration from the Mets. His ascent didn’t come out of nowhere, but it’s something of an outside-the-box hire to install a person with no MLB front office experience in such a significant role.
The Rangers will look to ease Young’s transition by pairing with him with Daniels, one of the longest-tenured executives in the league, who remains on hand as baseball ops president. The latter retains final say over the roster, although it seems Young is being groomed to assume a larger share of the responsibility as he gets more familiar with the ins and outs of front office work. The move is something of a modernization of the club’s front office, as the president – GM tandem has become commonplace throughout the league.
Just a few days after bringing Young aboard, the Rangers pulled off the long-awaited Lynn trade, sending him to the White Sox. In return, Texas picked up six years of team control over 26-year-old righty Dane Dunning (as well as low minors lefty Avery Weems). A former first-rounder and top 100 prospect, Dunning got to the majors last season after recovering from Tommy John surgery. He had some immediate success, tossing 34 innings of 3.97 ERA/4.33 SIERA ball in his first seven starts. That came against a weak slate of opposing lineups, but Dunning has long drawn praise for his secondary stuff and command. He’s not likely to be a future ace, but he’s a big league-ready arm to replace Lynn in the rotation. Dunning is expected to open the year working as a tandem starter to keep his innings in check, but the Rangers surely view him as a starting pitcher long-term.
Competent back-of-the-rotation production from Dunning would be of plenty of value to a Rangers’ rotation that, outside of Lynn, was downright awful in 2020. Corey Kluber, acquired from Cleveland during the 2019-20 offseason, got through just a single inning before going down with a shoulder injury. The Rangers predictably bought out his $18MM option at the start of the offseason. Also gone is Mike Minor, who was moved at last summer’s deadline amidst a down year.
The only other Rangers’ starters to throw at least 30 innings last season were Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles. Both were disappointments in the first season of respective multi-year contracts but will get an opportunity to bounce back. They’ll be joined in the rotation by Dunning and a pair of low-cost offseason signees, Kohei Arihara and Mike Foltynewicz.
Arihara received a two-year, $6.2MM contract to come over from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (Texas also paid $1.24MM directly to his former team, the Nippon-Ham Fighters, as a posting fee). Public scouting reports on Arihara generally paint him as a back-of-the-rotation type, with his low price tag suggesting teams viewed him in a similar light. The 28-year-old isn’t overpowering and never missed many bats in NPB, but he has a wide array of pitches and a history of throwing strikes. Perhaps just as importantly, Arihara threw 132.2 innings in 2020, far more than any pitcher managed in the United States last year. That should allow him to handle a fairly robust workload, no small matter with teams needing to build pitchers up dramatically to get through a 162-game season.
On the other end of the innings spectrum is Foltynewicz, who lasted just 3.1 MLB frames with the Braves before being designated for assignment. Foltynewicz spent the remainder of the season at the alternate training site after passing unclaimed through waivers, with no team willing to pick up the prorated portion of his $6.425MM salary. It was a rapid fall from grace in Atlanta, where Foltynewicz had tossed 183 innings of 2.85 ERA/3.77 SIERA ball two years prior. He was only OK in 2019, though, and the Braves moved on after he averaged 91.3 MPH on his fastball (down more than five MPH from his peak) during his only start in 2020.
At last year’s end, Foltynewicz unceremoniously qualified for minor league free agency as a player with more than three years of MLB service who had been outrighted off his team’s 40-man roster. He threw for prospective suitors in late January and the Rangers jumped in with an incentive-laden $2MM contract quickly thereafter.
It’s a straightforward, low-cost bet on a 29-year-old bounce back candidate. If Foltynewicz struggles again, Texas can cut bait at minimal cost. If he performs at something resembling his peak, the Rangers will have an interesting decision to make. As a player with between four and five years of MLB service, Foltynewicz remains controllable through 2022 via arbitration. If the Rangers truly believe they can contend by then, perhaps they hold onto Foltynewicz all year. Otherwise, they can turn to the midseason trade market and hope to acquire a mid-level prospect from a more immediate contender. (For what it’s worth, Foltynewicz’s velocity has reportedly been most of the way back to peak levels in Spring Training).
Each of Gibson, Dunning, Lyles, Arihara and Foltynewicz has had enough success in the past that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of them pitch well in isolation. But it’s highly unlikely all five perform at a high level, and the depth behind them is lackluster. Sixth starter Kolby Allard has a career 6.72 ERA in the big leagues. Kyle Cody had a shiny ERA (1.59) last year but had poor peripherals and didn’t work deep into his starts. That uncertainty attracted plenty of non-roster invitees with starting experience. Tyson Ross, Jharel Cotton, Sam Gaviglio and Drew Anderson are all in camp on minor league deals, as is former KBO starter Hyeon-jong Yang.
The bullpen is even more rife with opportunity. Former closer Rafael Montero is gone. Texas traded the right-hander to the Mariners in December for 17-year-old pitching prospect Jose Corniell and a player to be named later. Corniell’s a faraway developmental flier but looks like a fair return for two years of a good but unspectacular reliever.
Montero aside, the Rangers went into camp with most of their top relievers from last season. The past few weeks have been absolutely brutal, though. Jonathan Hernández and José Leclerc, perhaps Texas’ top two late-inning arms, are each facing extended absences due to elbow issues. Southpaws Joely Rodríguez and Brett Martin are also starting the season on the injured list, albeit with more minor maladies. Rodríguez, cheaply controllable via a club option through 2022, could be a midseason trade candidate if he returns to form early in the season.
Taylor Hearn and Wes Benjamin are locks for key roles in the season-opening bullpen, but the picture’s wide open beyond them. Josh Sborz, acquired from the Dodgers in a minor trade last month, will probably assume some sort of late-inning job. Brett de Geus, selected in the Rule 5 draft from Los Angeles, has to stick on the active roster (or MLB injured list) all season if the Rangers want to retain his rights. There’s plenty of space to stash him in lower-leverage innings if Texas is intrigued by his long-term upside.
That still leaves a lot of room for the Rangers’ non-roster invitees to earn bullpen jobs. Some of the depth options in the rotation could spill over as long relief or swing pieces. Right-handers Ian Kennedy, Nick Vincent, and Hunter Wood are all in camp and have been productive relievers in the not-too-distant past. Spencer Patton signed a minor-league deal on the heels of a solid run in NPB. Matt Bush, who signed a two-year minor-league contract in December 2019, is back from Tommy John surgery and seems to have pitched his way into consideration as well.
There’s a lot of uncertainty on the pitching staff, but things are a little more stable on the position player side. Joey Gallo is back and has the everyday right field job. The Rangers have listened to offers for the slugger since last summer’s trade deadline but seemingly never gotten close on a deal. Gallo remains controllable through 2022, so the Rangers still have some time to determine how they wish to proceed with him.
David Dahl will claim another outfield spot when healthy. The former All-Star signed with Texas for a modest $2.7MM in December, not long after being surprisingly non-tendered by the Rockies. Dahl has had myriad injuries in recent years and performed terribly in limited time in 2020, leading Colorado to move on. But he’s a former top prospect who has typically been an above-average hitter (even after adjusting for Coors Field) and is entering his age-27 season. Equally important given the Rangers’ competitive outlook, Dahl is controllable via arbitration through 2023. As with Foltynewicz and Gallo, Texas could decide to hold onto Dahl beyond this season if they hope to make a push in 2022.
Precisely where Dahl fits in the outfield remains to be seen. Leody Taveras made his MLB debut last season and held his own. Taveras seems likely to get continued run in center field, which would push Dahl to left. That’d work the latter into a corner outfield/DH mix that remains crowded, even after Choo’s departure.
That’s largely the product of two offseason trades. In December, the Rangers acquired Nate Lowe from the Rays in a deal that also swapped five prospects among the organizations. Lowe was consistently one of the best hitters in the minors during his climb through the Tampa Bay farm system. He slashed .330/.416/.568 across three levels as a 22-year-old in 2018, then followed it up with a .289/.421/.508 mark at Triple-A in 2019.
Despite that high minors productivity, Lowe only picked up 245 plate appearances at the highest level in Tampa. The Rangers should be in position to give him more regular major league work. Ronald Guzmán has hovered around replacement level over the past three seasons and might be a better fit off the bench. Lowe could also work in at designated hitter if the Rangers want to give Guzmán another opportunity at first, although it seems more likely Willie Calhoun will get the bulk of the DH time once he returns from a season-opening injured list stint.
There’s also the presence of former Athletic Khris Davis to consider. Davis was acquired in early February as part of the deal that sent Andrus to Oakland. The Rangers took on Davis’ $16.75MM salary in 2021 to spur the A’s to absorb just more than half of Andrus’ respective $14.25MM salaries over the next two seasons (as well as a potential 2023 vesting/player option). Swapping out Davis and Andrus puts more money on the Rangers’ books in 2021 but frees up some payroll space the following year, when Texas is more likely to contend.
Davis’ inclusion in the deal was financially driven, although he remains on the team and should get some DH at-bats once he recovers from a quad strain. From an on-field perspective, the more meaningful part of the Andrus return is catcher Jonah Heim. The 25-year-old has had a long climb up the minor-league ladder but had a very strong 2019 season in the high minors. Sean Murphy’s presence blocked his path to playing time in the Bay Area, but Heim could carve out a meaningful role with the Rangers this season. Jeff Mathis departed in free agency, leaving Heim, Jose Trevino and non-roster veteran Drew Butera as the favorites for playing time behind the dish in Arlington. (Well-regarded prospect Sam Huff popped three homers in 10 MLB games last year but has otherwise yet to play above High-A, so the Rangers would probably like to get him some more minor-league seasoning).
The infield is a little more set in stone. Even before trading Andrus, the Rangers were prepared to turn shortstop over to Isiah Kiner-Falefa. The 26-year-old is coming off a Gold Glove-winning campaign at third base and the Rangers will try their hand at pushing him up the defensive spectrum. Nick Solak rotated between second base and left field last season; the Dahl signing probably pushes Solak to the keystone regularly. That’d move Rougned Odor to third base, where he has gotten plenty of action this spring. Non-roster invitees Brock Holt (who will make the Opening Day roster) and Charlie Culberson have infield experience and could factor in at the hot corner if the Rangers are tired of Odor’s long-running struggles at the plate. Top prospect Josh Jung might’ve been an option in the early summer, but he was set back by a stress fracture in his foot that’ll sideline him for six-to-eight weeks.
It was a fairly active winter in Arlington, as the Rangers added some young players they hope can help them contend in 2022. They also achieved their previously-stated goal of dramatically cutting expenses after last year’s revenue losses. The Rangers opened the 2020 season with a $153.1MM payroll (prior to prorating), in the estimation of Cot’s Baseball Contracts. They’re going into 2021 in the $88MM range. Selecting the contracts of a few of the many non-roster veterans in camp will likely push that figure over $90MM by Opening Day, but it remains a stark decline from Texas’ typical level of spending.
The team’s fans will surely hope ownership is more willing to splurge next winter after a season with gate revenues. The upcoming free agent class should include a handful of stars, and the Rangers have been speculated as a potential suitor for Dallas-Fort Worth natives Trevor Story and Clayton Kershaw. In the interim, the Rangers are likely in for another below-average season, but they should at least get some clarity about which of their young players could be part of the next contending team in Arlington.
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