Winter report card: Texas Rangers
With just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
2012 Results: 93-69, 2nd place in AL West (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: RHP Mike Adams, RHP Wilfredo Boscan, RHP Ryan Dempster, RHP Scott Feldman, OF Josh Hamilton, RHP Mark Lowe, 1B Chris McGuinness, C/1B Mike Napoli, RHP Roy Oswalt, RHP Koji Uehara, IF Michael Young
Key arrivals: UT Jeff Baker, LHP Jeff Beliveau, DH/1B Lance Berkman, RHP Jason Frasor, RHP Josh Lindblom, C A.J. Peirzynski, RHP Joakim Soria, C Eli Whiteside
After back-to-back American League pennants in 2010 and ’11, the Rangers fell short in 2012. Despite owning at least a share of first place in the AL West from April 9 (after their fourth game) to Oct. 2 (after their 161st game) — not to mention the league’s best record and run differential for most of that time — they lost seven of their final nine games to hand the division to the surging A’s. Texas proceeded lose the wild-card game to the Orioles, bringing its season to a shockingly abrupt ending. The Rangers’ losing streak has continued this winter, as they’ve failed to land top free agent target Zack Greinke and top trade target Justin Upton while letting Napoli and Hamilton — two of their top four power hitters — walk away as free agents. Earlier this week, a third power hitter, Nelson Cruz, was implicated as having obtained performance-enhancing drugs from the Biogenesis clinic in Miami, and could face a 50-game suspension.
To be fair, general manager Jon Daniels has trimmed some of the roster’s deadwood. He unloaded Young on the Phillies, who will pay $6 million of the $16 million remaining on his contract, and let the disappointing Dempster, Feldman and Oswalt — all of whom had ERAs above 5.00 — depart as free agents. He has also let Adams, Lowe and Uehara — three productive but fragile relievers — move on as well. Meanwhile, he has retained all of the top prospects from the team’s deep farm system, many of whom could figure into the Rangers’ 2013 plans, and the highest-profile free agents he has signed could represent upgrades at their positions.
Atop that list is Pierzynski, who signed a one-year, $7. 5 million deal coming off a career year with the bat (.278/.326/.501 with 27 homers). At 36, he’s not a great bet to match those numbers even while moving from one hitters’ park to another, but he’s a better defender than Napoli, not to mention a more durable player, having averaged 133 games a year over the past 11 seasons. For as potent as his bat could be, Napoli’s recently discovered hip issues cloud his future behind the plate and make him a long-term risk, and it seems quite likely that the Rangers can improve upon the cumulative .228/.312/.397 line they received from their backstops in 2012. Soto, 30, was retained as the backup via a $2.75 million deal coming off a .198/.270/.343 showing for the Cubs and Rangers last year, but the righty’s career .295/.390/.501 line against lefties in 626 PA makes him a natural fit with the lefty Pierzynski, who owns a career .259/.287/.382 line in 1,372 PA against lefties.
If Berkman is healthy, he should be able to help boost a DH slot that gave Texas a meager .265/.323/.432 line in 2012, with about half of the plate appearances going to Young and Napoli. That said, the 36-year-old slugger’s health is no guarantee; he made three trips to the disabled list last year for leg problems and underwent two separate surgeries on his right knee that have left him with little cartilage in the joint. Those woes limited him to 32 games in which he hit .259/.381/.444, well off the sizzling .301/.412/.547 with 31 homers he hit for the Cardinals in 2011. Adding him rates as a good move, though his one year, $11 million deal, which includes a $13 million option for 2014 that vests with 550 plate appearances, is a bit steep.
The other offensive addition from outside that could have an impact is that of Baker, who was signed to a minor league deal. The 31-year-old is a versatile lefty-masher — .303/.342/.469 in 418 PA from 2010-2012 — who can spot at all three bases and the outfield corners. He’s a particularly good fit at first base, where Mitch Moreland owns a lifetime .232/.294/.328 line in 196 PA against lefties.
The departure of Hamilton — whose injuries, troubled past, and penchant for finding controversy made him a risk to retain — and the failure to acquire Upton leaves the Rangers with an outfield of David Murphy in leftfield, Leonys Martin and/or Craig Gentry in center and Cruz in right. Given Murphy’s problems with lefties (.266/.313/.361 career) and the fresh possibility of the loss of Cruz, the Rangers could use some depth. If Cruz is suspended following MLB’s follow-up investigation, it’s fair to wonder if Texas will revisit the idea of moving Ian Kinsler to first base to open up space for top prospect Jurickson Profar and free up Moreland for rightfield, though his platoon issues are accompanied by defensive concerns. Prospect Mike Olt, a 24-year-old slugging third baseman who is blocked by Adrian Beltre, has dabbled in rightfield as well, making 13 appearances last year between the minors and majors and then more in winter ball.
The departures of Dempster, Oswalt and Feldman, the failure to land Greinke, and the absence of Colby Lewis, whose recovery from flexor tendon surgery could keep him out until late June or longer, leaves the rotation with Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and rookie Martin Perez. Holland was roughed up for a 4.67 ERA and 1.6 homers per nine, while Ogando and Perez combined for just 11 big league starts last year; the former was a key bullpen cog, while the latter spent most of the season at Triple-A. Lewis and Neftali Feliz, who underwent Tommy John surgery last July, could provide late-season boosts, but for right now, the main depth consists of another rookie, 24-year-old righty Justin Grimm, who split his season between Double-A, Triple-A and the majors (all of 14 innings for the latter). The possibility of moving lefty reliever Robbie Ross to the rotation has been debated, but with Harrison, Holland and Perez, the current unit already lists to the port side.
Soria, Frasor, Lindblom and Beliveau all add depth to the bullpen, with the first two likely to figure in the team’s late-game plan. Soria, 28, was once a dominant All-Star closer with the Royals, but he struggled in 2011 and underwent his second Tommy John surgery last spring. His incentive-laden two-year, $8 million deal reflects the likelihood that he won’t be back until late May or so, but that if he rediscovers his form, he’ll probably set up Joe Nathan and be next in line for closer duties at some point; Nathan is 38 years old, with one good season, one bad one and one missed one (2010 Tommy John surgery) over the past three years. Frasor, 35, was signed to a one-year, $1.5 million deal coming off a down year in which he missed seven weeks due to a forearm strain and posted high walk and homer rates (1.2 and 4.5 per nine, respectively) to offset his career-high strikeout rate (10.9 per nine). He’ll start the year replacing Adams as the top righty setup man, though that could change once Soria returns. Lindblom is a 25-year-old former second-round pick by the Dodgers who spent his first full season in the majors last year, making 74 appearances split between the Dodgers and Phillies and posting a 3.55 ERA with 8.9 strikeouts per nine but similarly troublesome walk and homer rates (4.4 and 1.6 per nine, respectively). Beliveau, 26, is a lefty specialist who was roughed up in 22 appearances for the Cubs last year; he’s signed to a minor league deal and ranks below Ross and Michael Kirkman on the depth chart.
Unfinished business: Big bopper For all of Hamilton’s issues, he did hit 43 homers last year, and averaged 36 per 162 games during his five years with the team. The Rangers haven’t added anything close to a lineup centerpiece to replace his production, which becomes more problematic given the loss of Napoli and questions regarding Cruz; both hit 24 homers last year. I’ve argued before that the team should pursue 23-year-old Giancarlo Stanton, which would cost a good deal of their minor league depth but provide an offensive cornerstone — and marquee attraction — who’s just entering his prime, but thus far, Texas doesn’t appear to be working to acquire him.
It’s certainly possible for Daniels to pursue a lesser slugger via trade using a less valuable selection of the team’s prospects, but as spring training nears, it’s less clear who exactly the team could target. The Twins’ Josh Willingham, 33, hit .260/.366/.524 with 35 homers; he’s signed for just $14 million over the next two years. The Cubs’ Alfonso Soriano, 37, hit .262/.322/.499 with 32 homers, his best performance since 2008; the former Ranger (2004-2005) still has two years and $38 million left on his deal, most of which Chicago will have to eat to move him. The Dodgers’ Andre Ethier has quickly fallen out of favor since signing his six-year, $85 million extension last summer and would presumably come at a significant discount. The Diamondbacks’ Jason Kubel could be moved to accommodate the arrival of centerfield prospect Adam Eaton and a full-time spot for 2011 Gold Glove winner Gerardo Parra, though that likelihood is lower in the wake of Upton’s trade to the Braves.
Preliminary grade: C-. The Rangers remain a strong team that should contend for a playoff spot, and they’ve improved in some areas. Given their resources, however, their lack of a major move this winter rates as a disappointment, and they still have some glaring holes as the opening of camp approaches.