The Rangers spent half a billion dollars last winter and still lost 94 games in 2022. The focus was always more on the 2023 season than the 2022 campaign, given the timeline of the team’s top prospects. Still, ownership likely expected better results, as evidenced by the surprising August dismissal of president of baseball operations Jon Daniels — who’d been the third-longest-tenured baseball ops leader in the game. It’s now general manager Chris Young’s ship to steer.
- Corey Seager, SS: $287.5MM through 2031
- Marcus Semien, 2B: $150MM through 2028
- Jon Gray, RHP: $41MM through 2025
- Brad Miller, INF/OF: $4MM through 2023
2023 commitments: $80MM
Total long-term commitments: $482.5MM
- Jose Leclerc, RHP: $6MM club option for 2023 with a $750K buyout (contract also contains $6.25MM club option for 2024)
- Kole Calhoun, OF: $5.5MM club option for 2023 (no buyout)
Arbitration-Eligible Player (service time in parentheses; salary projections via Matt Swartz)
- Mitch Garver (5.045): $4.2MM
- Brett Martin (3.151): $1.5MM
- Taylor Hearn (3.125): $1.7MM
- Dennis Santana (3.095): $1.1MM
- Jonathan Hernandez (3.041): $1MM
- Nathaniel Lowe (2.145): $4.3MM
- Non-tender candidates: Martin, Santana
With Young installed as the baseball operations leader, the Rangers don’t need to go through a time-consuming search for a new front office boss. However, Young’s first order of business will be to determine whether interim manager Tony Beasley, who stepped up when manager Chris Woodward was fired (just two days before Daniels), is right for the permanent job. The 55-year-old Beasley’s time with the Rangers organization predates Young by years; Young, in fact, was still active as a player and won a World Series ring with the Royals in 2015 while Beasley was just getting started as a Rangers coach.
Given his eight-year stint on the Rangers’ staff, Beasley will likely have a role of some sort offered to him, even if he’s not tabbed as the long-term skipper. It’s common, however, for a newly minted general manager or president of baseball operations to want to bring in his own field staff. Young has already interviewed Beasley, but he’ll presumably be just one of several candidates.
Whether it’s Beasley or an outside hire, the new manager and Young will be tasked with finding a new pitching coach, as co-pitching coaches Doug Mathis and Brendan Sagara were ousted earlier this month. As with any managerial change — particularly one on the heels of a disappointing season — it’s possible the switch could bring about further turnover on the coaching staff.
As far as the roster is concerned, left-hander Martin Perez’s future is the first piece of the offseason puzzle for Young and his staff to consider. Originally signed by the Rangers more than a decade ago, the now-31-year-old Perez ranked as one of the game’s top overall prospects while rising through the minor league ranks. He had a solid, if unspectacular rookie campaign as a 22-year-old, and the organization saw enough to lock Perez up on a four-year extension with multiple club options.
As is too often the case with pitchers, injuries set in and quickly derailed the promising start to Perez’s career. He had Tommy John surgery in 2014, missed most of the 2014-15 seasons as a result, and upon returning settled in as a fifth starter — never recreating the 3.62 ERA that led to a sixth-place Rookie of the Year finish for him in 2013. Perez bounced from Texas, to Minnesota, to Boston, soaking up innings at the back of the rotation and generally beginning to look the part of a journeyman.
A one-year, $4MM reunion with Texas last offseason was met with a collective eye roll by many longtime Rangers fans, but Perez not only rebounded — he turned in far and away the best season of his career. Leaning more heavily on his changeup, Perez made 32 starts and piled up 196 1/3 innings with career-best marks in ERA (2.89), strikeout rate (20.6%), FIP (3.27) and Statcast’s “expected” ERA (3.59) — among other categories. Along the way, both he and Young publicly expressed interest in working out an extension, and the two parties are set to meet this week to discuss just that. Given Perez’s strong desire to remain in place and the Rangers’ arguably stronger need for reliable pitching, it seems quite possible that Perez won’t even reach the open market.
Even if the Rangers are able to secure a new contract with Perez — which would surely be a multi-year deal at a much heftier price than this year’s $4MM rate — that’ll just be the beginning of the team’s offseason quest for pitching. Re-signing Perez will give the club some direly needed dependable innings, but even an optimistic projection of Perez’s 2023-24 seasons would bake in some regression from this year’s peak performance. It’s sensible to view Perez as a No. 3/4 starter, but there’s a need for higher-impact arms to lead the starting staff, with or without Perez.
At the moment, right-hander Jon Gray is the only clearly above-average starting pitcher on the Texas staff. Signed to a four-year, $56MM contract last winter, Gray made 24 starts and pitched to a 3.96 ERA through 127 1/3 innings, striking out 25.7% of his opponents against a strong 7.5% walk rate. He had three brief IL stints, all unrelated to his arm (blister, knee strain, oblique strain), but was a solid performer with even better secondary metrics (3.80 FIP, 3.59 xERA, 3.46 SIERA).
Right-hander Dane Dunning, acquired two years ago in the trade that sent Lance Lynn to the White Sox, has proven a capable back-of-the-rotation arm, pitching to a 4.48 ERA in 271 frames since the trade. Both Dunning’s strikeout and walk rate are a bit worse than league average, though he offsets some of that with a very strong 53.6% grounder rate. So long as the hip surgery that ended Dunning’s season doesn’t impact him moving forward, he can be slotted into the fourth or fifth spot on the starting staff.
Righty Glenn Otto and lefties Taylor Hearn and Cole Ragans were the only other Rangers pitchers to work 40 or more innings out of the rotation this season, but the results were lacking. Hearn, who finished the year with a 5.13 ERA in 100 innings, might look like a non-tender candidate at first glance but posted a 3.51 ERA and 3.56 FIP in 41 innings as a reliever. That figures to be his role moving forward. Otto made 27 starts with a 4.64 ERA but more concerning under-the-hood numbers (18.2% strikeout rate, 10.6% walk rate, 5.21 FIP). Ragans posted a 4.95 ERA in 40 innings with just a 15.5% strikeout rate.
Suffice it to say, the Rangers have a clear, pressing need for both innings and, more importantly, for a top-of-the-rotation caliber arm. The free-agent market this winter features several such arms, and it stands to reason that the rumors connecting longtime Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw to his hometown Rangers will again swirl this winter. For the bulk of the 2021-22 offseason, it was believed that Kershaw would either return to the Dodgers or sign with the Rangers, allowing him to live in his Dallas-area home, commute to the park and spend more time with his wife and four young children.
Beyond Kershaw, the market will also include names like Carlos Rodon, Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom, all of whom will opt out of their current contracts and return to the open market. Verlander and deGrom might prefer to sign with surefire contenders, but Rodon will be hitting the market in search of the first long-term deal of his career. If the Rangers are willing to put forth another nine-figure offer to lure a marquee free agent, he’s a viable target. Alternatively, Texas seems like a logical candidate to pursue star Japanese righty Kodai Senga, who boasts a 2.39 ERA over his past four NPB seasons, features a triple-digit heater, and is expected to be available to MLB clubs this winter.
That might seem unfathomable to some onlookers after the aggressive manner in which the Rangers spent last year, but despite doling out a half-billion dollars to Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, the Rangers’ payroll outlook is relatively clean. Texas has just $80MM in contractual guarantees in 2023 and one of the smallest arbitration classes in MLB. By 2024, they have just $74MM on the books, and because each of the Gray, Seager and Semien contracts were slightly front-loaded, those commitments won’t be quite as cumbersome in their later stages as the typical free-agent deal (which is oftentimes backloaded).
The Rangers ran a payroll of more than $142MM this season and have previously taken that number to nearly $175MM. Between that history of spending and the fact they’re still in the early years of a new stadium, it stands to reason that the Rangers will be able to spend aggressively this winter, even after last year’s spending spree. Young, in fact, has already publicly stated that owner Ray Davis has given the green light to increase payroll with the specific focus of improving the pitching staff.
If this feels like a lot of focus on the rotation thus far, well… it is. That’s due both to the acuteness of the need and also due to the fact that the Rangers’ roster is perhaps more rounded than one might expect of a 68-win team. Picking up Jose Leclerc’s $6MM option is an easy call after he returned from Tommy John surgery to post a 2.83 ERA in 47 2/3 innings. He’ll be joined by fellow Tommy John returnee Jonathan Hernandez, 2022 team saves leader Joe Barlow, the aforementioned Hearn and lefty Brock Burke, who had one of the most quietly dominant rookie showings in recent memory: 82 1/3 innings, 1.97 ERA, 27.4% strikeout rate, 7.3% walk rate.
Certainly, there’s room to add to the relief corps. Journeyman Matt Moore, like Perez, returned for a second stint in Texas this past season and (also like Perez) posted one of the finest seasons of his career. Moore, another once-vaunted starting pitching prospect who never fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, broke out as a successful high-leverage reliever this season, pitching 74 innings of 1.95 ERA ball. As with Perez, there’s good reason for the Rangers to want him back, but Moore should have no shortage of interest in free agency. Whether it’s Moore or another veteran, it’s fair to expect Young & Co. to bring in some reinforcements in the ’pen.
Turning to the lineup, things are mostly set. Seager and Semien will, of course, form the middle-infield duo. Former Rays prospect Nathaniel Lowe turned in a second half for the ages, elevating his stock from quality regular to potential All-Star. Lowe hit .339/.399/.566 following the All-Star break, and while his poor defensive ratings could portend an eventual move to designated hitter, he’s going to rack up as many plate appearances as possible.
Top prospect Josh Jung got a late-season look at third base, and although he struggled in 102 plate appearances, there’s not much left for him to prove in Triple-A. Jung missed most of the season following shoulder surgery but beat his originally projected recovery timeline by a notable margin and returned with a flourish in Triple-A Round Rock. He’s still appeared in just 58 total Triple-A games, so perhaps the organization will want him to spend a bit more time there, but Jung’s .316/.389/.598 batting line at that level doesn’t suggest there’s too much more minor league seasoning required.
Behind the plate, the Rangers entrusted Jonah Heim with the lion’s share of the workload and figure to do so again in 2022. While his .227/.298/.399 batting line isn’t going to win him any awards, Heim smacked 16 home runs and graded out as one of MLB’s top defensive catchers. Former Twins catcher Mitch Garver, the presumptive regular on Opening Day, missed most of the season with a flexor strain that eventually required surgery. He should be healthy again in 2023, but Garver has more than enough bat to mix in as a designated hitter while shouldering a lesser portion of the catching workload than Heim.
Former top prospect Sam Huff gives the Rangers the option of carrying three catching options on the big league roster, and former Royals prospect Meibrys Viloria is also still on the 40-man roster after a strong year in Triple-A — though he’ll be out of options next year.
The window is open for the Rangers to add a veteran corner infield/designated hitter option, but there’s enough depth that they shouldn’t deem it an absolute need. A veteran catcher on a non-roster deal — particularly if Viloria doesn’t hold his 40-man spot — could also be an option. It’s possible Kevin Plawecki will fill this role; Beasley praised Plawecki’s clubhouse presence when explaining the team’s rationale for bringing in a recently released pending free agent with under two weeks remaining in the season.
More broadly, however, if there’s a clear spot in the lineup where the Rangers could invest, it’s in the outfield. Adolis Garcia has cemented his spot in the outfield mix since being acquired from the Cardinals (for cash) prior to the 2021 season, belting 56 homers and swiping 41 bases while posting standout defensive metrics in both center field and right field. The Rangers would surely prefer an improvement on his .293 OBP in that time, but Garcia’s blend of power, speed and defense have generally offset that deficiency.
Elsewhere in the outfield, however, things are more open. Leody Taveras had a decent showing in center field, and fleet-footed rookie Bubba Thompson stole 18 bases despite tallying just 181 plate appearances. That said, Thompson hit only .265/.302/.312, and even that below-average output (77 wRC+) included a grisly 30.9% strikeout rate while being buoyed by a .389 BABIP he’s unlikely to sustain. Taveras’ .344 BABIP mark isn’t as suspect, but if it dips even slightly, his already tepid offense could become untenable.
There are other options on the roster, including 25-year-old Josh Smith, 27-year-old Nick Solak and 28-year-old Eli White. Smith, however, didn’t replicate his strong Triple-A numbers in the Majors. Solak will be out of minor league options next year and might well have played his way off the 40-man roster, whether it be via non-tender or trade. (He did have a solid showing in Round Rock.) White profiles best as a fourth outfielder.
If the Rangers prefer to find an outfield upgrade on the free-agent market, there’s no shortage of options. Brandon Nimmo headlines center field options, but Garcia’s defensive prowess — plus the presence of Taveras — don’t box the Rangers into searching for a center fielder only. Corner options range from clear multi-year candidates like Andrew Benintendi and Mitch Haniger to potentially shorter-term veterans like Joc Pederson and Michael Brantley. There’s enough of an outfield need and enough spending capacity to warrant an obligatory Aaron Judge mention, but it’s hard to envision Judge realistically landing in Texas with such a pronounced need for pitching and with last year’s Seager/Semien mega-deals still being so fresh.
The alternate route for the Rangers to explore, be it for outfield or pitching help, is the trade market. Texas has a quality farm from which to deal, ranking sixth on Baseball America’s midseason ranking of MLB’s minor league systems. Given the need for pitching, one would imagine it’d be hard to deal top prospects/former first-round picks like Jack Leiter, Kumar Rocker and Cole Winn. That said, the Rangers still have plenty of position prospects who are blocked long-term on the big league roster and/or who are far enough from the Majors that Young and his staff would consider dealing them in an effort to put a winner on the field now. The aforementioned Smith, outfielder Evan Carter, infielder Ezequiel Duran, and infielders Luisangel Acuna and Justin Foscue would all hold varying levels of value.
Certainly, there’s more than enough value in the Texas system to acquire a controllable outfielder, but the Rangers are also deep enough in minor league talent they can make a compelling offer for virtually any starting pitcher that hits the trade market. A lot will need to go right in 2023 for Texas to reverse course, but this is a team that already ranked eighth in the Majors in home runs (198) and 12th in runs scored (707). There are some organic improvements to the offense on the horizon, and Young will now try to pull the right strings with the pitching staff and in the outfield to position Texas as a surprise postseason contender in 2023.