Winter Report Card: Texas Rangers
With only a few weeks until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, 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 2013.
2013 results: 91-72 (.558), 2nd place AL West (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: IF Jeff Baker*, DH Lance Berkman, OF Nelson Cruz*, RHP Matt Garza, CF Craig Gentry, 2B Ian Kinsler, RHP Josh Lindblom, OF David Murphy, CL Joe Nathan, C A.J. Pierzynski
Key arrivals: C J.P. Arencibia, LF Shin-Soo Choo, OF Michael Choice, 1B Prince Fielder, UT Brent Lillibridge, RHP Chaz Roe, IF Josh Wilson
While the Rangers reached the 90-win plateau for the fourth year in a row in 2013, their three-year run of playoff appearances ended. After a 3-13 bellyflop to end August and start September, they needed to win their final seven regular season games to force a Game 163 play-in, which they dropped at home to the Rays. Couple that miss with the team’s 2012 ouster in the Wild Card Game, and it’s fair to say that the core of a roster that took Texas to back-to-back World Series in 2010 and ’11 was in need of a shakeup. General manager Jon Daniels reached that same conclusion and has indeed shaken things up in a such a way that is club’s 2014 Opening Day lineup will have at least five new faces compared to its 2013 one.
Texas’ makeover involved big splashes in both the trade and free agent markets, starting with the Nov. 20 blockbuster that sent longtime second baseman Ian Kinsler to Detroit in exchange for Prince Fielder, a move that solved three problems at once. First, it got the Rangers out from under the contract of a good player who appears to be in decline as he settled into his 30s; while Kinsler had been worth a respectable 5.7 Wins Above Replacement over the last two years, that was down from his average of 5.2 over the previous four, and he still had four years remaining on his extension. Second, the trade opened up a lineup spot for Jurickson Profar, who after entering 2013 as the consensus number one prospect in baseball spent most of his age-20 season bouncing around the big club’s infield, struggling to find a groove while hitting just .234/.308/.336. Third, adding Fielder brought the Rangers a five-time All-Star to upgrade a position where they received the league’s second-worst production (.223/.295/405) — easily the difference between making the playoffs and staying home.
On the downside, Fielder (who turns 30 in May) is coming off a .279/.362/.457 line with just 1.7 WAR. His power numbers — slugging percentage (.457), isolated power (.178) and home run total (25) — were all full-season career lows, while his on-base percentage (.362), OPS+ (120) and WAR were his lowest since 2006, his first full year. Via Defensive Runs Saved, his defense (-13 runs) was at least 10 runs below average for the fifth time in eight years, undoing a fair bit of his value. Hs decline may have had something to do with going through a divorce, and the change of scenery — particularly to a park more favorable to lefthanded power — could do him some good; in Arlington, he should be able to resume swatting 35-40 homers per year. With the $30 million Texas received from the Tigers, it will be paying an average of $19.7 million for its first baseman, still well below the average annual salaries of Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, Joey Votto and Adrian Gonzalez.
The team’s other major splash came with the signing of Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year, $130 million deal, the fourth-largest free agent contract of the winter and the largest in franchise history since their 2001 Alex Rodriguez deal (though with the cash from Detroit, Fielder is actually owed more, $138 million). Coming off a sizzling .285/.423/.462 season with 21 homers and 20 steals for the Reds, Choo should provide a major jolt at the leadoff spot, helping to reignite an offense that slipped to seventh in the league at 4.51 runs per game. Miscast as a centerfielder in Cincinnati, he’ll shift to leftfield, with Leonys Martin in center and August acquisition Alex Rios in right, and former outfield mainstays David Murphy now an Indian and Nelson Cruz still a free agent.
Choo’s signing does raise the question of what the Rangers plan to do with 24-year-old Michael Choice, whom they acquired in a four-player December deal that sent centerfielder Craig Gentry and righty Josh Lindblom to the A’s. Revamping his swing to swap some power for more consistent contact, Choice — the 10th pick of the 2010 draft — hit .302/.390/.445 with 14 homers at Triple A Sacramento, earning the 79th spot on Baseball Prospectus’ just-released Top 101 Prospects list. Whether he’ll bide his time at Triple A until Rios departs (he’s a free agent at the end of the year) or squeeze into the lineup as a fourth outfielder/DH remains unclear. Mitch Moreland, who despite bopping 23 homers hit just .232/.299/.437, is the nominal incumbent at the latter position, where Texas received just a .245/.313/.385 showing in 2013, largely from the departed Lance Berkman, with the miscast Profar and Kinsler taking up a fair bit of time there as well.
The other lineup spot that has changed at least somewhat is catcher, where A.J. Pierzynski departed for a one-year deal with the Red Sox after a mediocre .272/.297/.425 season. Backup Geovany Soto, who hit a slick .245/.328/.466 in 184 plate appearances, inherits the mantle of the starting job after re-signing via a one-year, $3.05 million deal, with former Blue Jay J.P. Arencibia (.194/.227/.365 with 21 homers but an execrable 148/18 strikeout-to-walk ratio) along for the ride as his backup; he signed a $1.8 million contract after being nontendered by Toronto.
The bullpen will see some turnover with the departure of free agent Joe Nathan for Detroit. Retaking the closer role will be 25-year-old Neftali Feliz, who made six September relief appearances after returning from August 2012 Tommy John surgery. If he needs more time to regain the form that made him the 2010 AL Rookie of the year, Joakim Soria, who struck out 10.6 per nine in 23 2/3 innings after returning from his second Tommy John surgery, should be able to handle the load. Jason Frasor, who put up a 2.57 ERA in 49 innings for the Rangers but missed seven weeks due to a forearm strain, returns via a one-year, $1.75 million deal. Waiver wire pickups Chaz Roe (4.03 ERA in 22 1/3 innings with the Diamondbacks) and Shawn Tolleson (4.37 ERA in 37 2/3 innings with the Dodgers in 2012 before missing most of 2013 with a herniated disc) both offer depth and the ability to miss bats.
Unfinished Business: Starting pitching
Due to injuries, last year’s rotation was in a near-constant state of flux, with Yu Darvish and Derek Holland the only starters to take more than 20 turns. Alas, Holland tore cartilage in his left knee in a freak accident, requiring microfracture surgery that will keep him out until midseason. That leaves Texas with Darvish and four starters with injury-related question marks hanging over their heads. The least worry centers around 23-year-old Martin Perez, who lived up to his longtime status as a top prospect with a strong showing (3.62 ERA in 20 starts) after returning from a broken forearm. The only concern about him is how far beyond last year’s 160 2/3 inning workload (including 36 in the minors) he’ll be able to push.
As for the rest, Alexi Ogando, who posted a 3.11 ERA in 18 starts and five relief appearances, made three separate trips to the DL for shoulder issues, and may be better off in the bullpen. Matt Harrison, who earned All-Star honors in 2012, went under the knife more often (three times) than he took the major league mound (twice); he underwent a pair of surgeries in April and May to repair a herniated disk, then an additional one in September to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome. If there’s good news, it’s that this time — unlike his July 2009 surgery for the same condition — the latter surgery was on his right (non-throwing) shoulder; he hopes to be ready for spring training.
Rounding out this shaky quartet is Colby Lewis, who missed all of last season (save for 24 innings of rehab work) due to the double-whammy of July 2012 surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon and August 2013 surgery to repair his right hip labrum.
With five starters (Matt Garza, Justin Grimm, Travis Blackley, Ross Wolf and Lindblom) who combined for 41 starts now gone from the organization, that leaves Nick Tepesch (4.84 ERA and 7.6 strikeouts per nine in 17 starts and 93 innings) as the most experienced fill-in. Lefty reliever Robbie Ross (3.03 ERA and 8.4 strikeouts per nine in 62 1/3 innings) could be stretched out as well, but it would behoove Daniels to add some depth. Unless the GM has the green light to move significantly beyond last year’s $125.3 million Opening Day payroll, that probably rules out a late signing of Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez or Bronson Arroyo; the Rangers are at $123.8 million with pre-arbitration renewals and Moreland’s first year of arb-eligibility in the balance.
Thus Texas will have to sift through the bargain bin to find someone to eat innings, with names like Bruce Chen, Jason Hammel, Scott Baker, Chris Capuano and Jerome Williams coming with their own sets of question marks. Lefties Chen (3.27 ERA in 121 innings split between starting and relief for the Royals) and Paul Maholm (4.41 ERA in 153 innings for the Braves) are two pitchers known to have had discussions with the team in the wake of Holland’s injury.
Preliminary Grade: B+
The Rangers have undergone a considerable facelift since last October, and their offense should be much-improved, giving them a shot at reclaiming their AL West supremacy. That said, the loss of Holland exacerbates their lack of proven rotation options, and until Daniels bulks it up with additional resources, there’s reason to be concerned.
This article has been corrected to include Alex Rodriguez’s contract in the annals of franchise history.