The two most recent offseasons each had a batch of excellent shortstops that were available in free agency. The 2021-2022 offseason saw Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story and Javier Báez reach the open market. That was followed by a free agent class featuring Correa again, since he opted out of his first deal after one year, along with Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson.
Each player garnered plenty of interest and ultimately secured a guarantee above nine figures, often well above. All of the deals were among the most significant for their respective franchises and surely came with a great deal of thought and scrutiny. Deciding to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over a period of roughly a decade to one player is not something that is done flippantly. The deals still have many years remaining on them and it’s far too soon to start declaring winners and losers, but one team that must be currently thrilled with how it played this market is the Texas Rangers.
The club had been doing a lot of losing until recently. After falling to the Blue Jays in the ALDS in back-to-back years in 2015 and 2016, the Rangers entered a rebuilding period, finishing below .500 in each season after that. They seemingly got fed up with that futility and tried to press fast forward on the rebuild by spending money aggressively. That came in surprising fashion after the 2021 campaign when they nabbed two of the aforementioned star shortstops. They gave Seager $325MM over 10 years and Semien $175MM over seven, installing the latter as their everyday second baseman.
Those contracts still have a ways to go, but it’s hard to imagine them having gone much better to this point. Last year, Seager launched 33 home runs and slashed .245/.317/.455. Even with a .242 batting average on balls in play dragging him down, he still produced a wRC+ of 117, or 17% above league average. When combined with his strong shortstop defense, he was worth 4.5 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.
Here in 2023, he’s missed significant time due to a left hamstring strain and right thumb sprain but has been otherworldly when on the field. In just 78 games, he has 22 home runs and the BABIP wheel of fortune has spun him around the other way this year, with a .370 mark in that category. His .348/.411/.661 line amounts to a wRC+ of 190, the best such mark in the league among those with at least 350 plate appearances. He’s already at 4.8 fWAR despite not even playing half a season.
As for Semien, he was similarly BABIP’d last year, with just a .263 mark in that department. But his 26 home runs helped him hit .248/.304/.429 for a 107 wRC+. His defensive marks were quite strong, hardly surprising for a former shortstop at the keystone. His 11 Defensive Runs Saved and eight Outs Above Average were both in the top five among second basemen. He also stole 25 bases and finished the year with a tally of 4.2 fWAR.
Here in 2023, he’s walking more, striking out less and his .296 BABIP is much closer to league average. His .282/.353/.472 line translates to a 127 wRC+. His 11 DRS trails only Andrés Giménez among second basemen while his 11 OAA is topped only by Thairo Estrada. He’s already at 5.0 fWAR this year with still about six weeks to go, with both him and Seager among the top seven positions players in the league this year in that category.
Those two players have been a huge reason why the club has now returned to relevancy, as the Rangers are 72-49 this year, with only three clubs around the majors currently sporting a better winning percentage. Simply buying an elite middle infield might not seem like an accomplishment to some, but spending big doesn’t always lead to a proportionate return on investment, as shown by the other players listed at the top of this article.
Correa had a solid campaign last year and returned to the open market. Though he had two deals ultimately scuttled by health concerns, he returned to the Twins on a six-year deal with a $200MM guarantee and vesting options that allow him to bank even more. But he’s hitting just .231/.308/.409 this year for a 98 wRC+ as his previously-elite defense has slid closer to league average. Bogaerts has just 12 home runs for the Padres and is hitting .272/.346/.400. His wRC+ of 109 shows he’s still above average but it’s well shy of his .300/.373/.507 line and 134 wRC+ in the previous five seasons. Turner is having the worst year of his career, currently sitting on a line of .250/.302/.394 and an 86 wRC+. Story had around league-average offense last year and required elbow surgery in the winter, only returning to the Red Sox in recent days. Báez hit just .238/.278/.393 for the Tigers last year and has a dreadful .221/.262/.320 line this year. Swanson is the only non-Ranger of the bunch who has been thriving after signing a mega deal.
As was already mentioned, we can’t start handing out awards and calling certain teams “winners” or “losers” at this point. These contracts range from six to 11 years in length, leaving plenty of time for things to change. But most clubs sign these lengthy free agent contracts hoping for excellent production at the beginning and usually expecting some painful years at the end. Many of these deals are off to rough starts and the respective players will need significant improvements in the years to come in order to stop them from looking like big busts.
The Rangers don’t have a perfect record in free agency and are plenty familiar with how big spending can backfire. They spent $185MM this winter to get Jacob deGrom, who made six starts before requiring Tommy John surgery and won’t be back until the second half of 2024 at the earliest. Their faith in Martín Pérez looks like a misstep, as they gave him a $19.65MM qualifying offer but have seen him post a 4.85 ERA this year and recently get bumped to the bullpen. But in terms of the shortstop market, they’ve obviously done quite well. It was surprising to see any club put down so much money that they were able to nab two of the big name free agents. The Rangers not only ponied up the dough, but seem to have made a wise decision on who to spend it on. Twice.