The dominant Texas Rangers story lines heading into spring training revolve around Josh Hamilton and whether or not the Rangers will give him the superstar contract to go with his superstar reputation and talent. Last week's publicized relapse with alcohol seems to have put any extension talks on the "back burner" making it seem unlikely that anything will be resolved before Hamilton's deadline to end contract talks at the beginning of spring training. That, in turn, will mean that in roughly eight months, the Rangers will have some big shoes to fill to maintain the high level of talent needed to compete for a World Series title.
Here is a list of selected outfielder scheduled to hit free agency in 2013 and their total production from 2009 through 2011:
|2013 Free Agents (2009-2011)|
The top of the list of potential candidates to replace Josh Hamilton is... Josh Hamilton. Josh has significant injury risk and relapse risk which get most of the air time in these discussions, but there is also baseball risk as Buster Olney noted Sunday morning [ESPN Insider], "He sometimes frustrates the Texas staff with the inconsistent quality of his at-bats, and his tendency to chase pitches out of the strike zone." This is right in line with Adam's well stated case that 2012 should be Hamilton's last year with Texas. However, there is likely some dollar amount the Rangers would be comfortable giving such a talented player and while unlikely because of Hamilton's expected demands, I would expect if Josh were willing to accept their offer, he would be the Rangers first choice.
Next on the list is Nick Swisher, who I find intriguing because he's a pretty good player and has produced fairly well but also because I really, really dislike him. Thinking of him in a Rangers uniform is quite odd, but then we live in a world where Mike Napoli's name gets chanted by Rangers fans in the World Series. Things to like about Swisher are that fantastic walk rate and five straight seasons of at least 150 games played. Over the past three years, he's put up almost as much offensive value as Hamilton because he's had over 400 plate appearances more at a slightly worse rate. I'm not sure what Nick Swisher would cost, but I think he's a better bet to provide more WAR per dollar than Josh over the next four to five years.
Andre Ethier had a down year in 2011 that ended in knee surgery, which is a little scary for an outfielder who was already slow and a poor defender, but he's provided above average offensive production while playing in a pitcher's park and moving his left handed bat to the Ballpark would probably see a nice bump for him. Ethier's limited range and RF experience might require a move to LF for Nelson Cruz, however the Rangers emphasis on defense makes this solution seem less than ideal.
The last two names for the 2013 free agent outfielders are Carlos Quentin and Grady Sizemore, neither of whom I expect to be as expensive as the first three. I think they both would be more fitting as shorter term stop gaps in the realm of Josh Willingham's 3 year, $21 million dollar contract with the Twins this winter. Of course this is also assuming Grady Sizemore rebounds well enough to even be considered a candidate next year. Signing a "bargain bin" level player or a player off the scrap heap isn't terribly sexy, but the Rangers have had a bit of a knack for getting better than expected production from aging or mediocre players.
B.J. Upton and Shane Victorino are also possible 2013 free agents, but I excluded them as moderate hitting center fielders. It's possible the Rangers may still have interest in them, but I would expect that interest would stem from Leonys Martin not progressing rather than as a potential Hamilton replacement.
Potential 2014 free agents should also be considered, in part because the Rangers may be able to trade for a player in the final year of his contract from a team with financial issues, but also because Nelson Cruz's shoes may need filling as well.
|2014 Free Agents (2009-2011)|
Shin-Soo Choo is a very attractive player to consider based on his pre-2011 numbers, but a fractured thumb and a career low in BABIP resulted in a shortened, disappointing season last year. However, Choo is one of those players that's pretty good at just about everything and I would be very interested in trading for him if the Indians decided to move him next winter, or signing him as a free agent the winter after as a player two years younger and more productive than Cruz.
Hunter Pence profiles as a poor man's Josh Hamilton with an aggressive, swing away mentality that produces above average hitting with few walks. The Phillies may have trouble keeping both Cole Hamels and Pence long term and could move him next winter to free up cash, but I expect given the ages of Halladay and Lee, they would hold on to Hunter for 2013 for one more push.
Jacoby Ellsbury seems incredibly unlikely to be made available as a cost cutting move, but a 2014 free agent outfielder list should certainly include him and he hits enough to consider him as someone who may move to a corner outfield slot as he ages. But with his likely cost, injury history and the Red Sox motivation to keep him, I'd be very surprised if he were someone the Rangers seriously pursued.
Much like Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz carries a larger than normal risk profile. Annual leg muscle ailments have limited him to 128, 108, 124 games for the last three season. With his age, injury risk and the swing and miss in his bat, I would be a little surprised if the Rangers offered him a significant long term contract.
Corey Hart is a solid option with some power and isn't a terrible defender. The Brewers are supposedly at their budget limit now and will have to deal with Zack Greinke's free agency next winter. Hart could be a candidate to get traded and replenish a farm system depleted to "win now" in 2011.
Perhaps the most interesting name on either list is Alex Gordon. The second overall pick in the 2005 draft finally broke out last with a very strong season. The Royals are rather flush with young position players, but really aren't set to try and contend until 2013/2014. Gordon seems like a great candidate to get from a small market team in need of young pitching after seeing many of their own fail to progress in 2011. Gordon is the type of player I'd like to see the Rangers target, especially if the trade is contingent on signing him to an extension.
Last on the list is Michael Morse, who walks the least, strikes out the most and is the worst defender of the 2014 free agents, but he does have power and may be a cheaper alternative to replace Cruz if necessary.
There isn't an immediate or obvious answer to who will be playing the corner outfield spots in 2013 and beyond. The options presented here are based on upcoming free agents and don't consider the harder to see trades for blue chip prospects or players in their prime. But even though the future is clouded, the Rangers are fortunate to have an aggressive, smart front office and the support from ownership to spend money when needed.