How does that song go again? Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you?
That’s the 2018 Texas Rangers — stuck in the middle. Not willing to spend big or deal prospects to widen the window of contention which they’ve kept open since 2009, but with enough young talent in place that a full-on tear down and rebuild doesn’t make sense either. Trying to thread the needle between making moves that, if things go right, could have them in a playoff hunt this year, while keeping their flexibility and options open so they aren’t jeopardizing their future.
The Rangers 2017-18 offseason moves were almost all pitching-oriented, and were generally small commitments on guys who have major question marks. The biggest splash by Texas was landing lefty Mike Minor, who missed all of 2015-16 before putting up a strong 2017 season out of the bullpen for the Royals. Texas committed 3 years, $28 million to Minor with an eye towards giving him a chance to move back to the rotation, where he had success with the Braves earlier on in his career before injuries sidelined him.
Joining Minor in the rotation mix are new additions Matt Moore and Doug Fister. Moore was a one time top prospect and 2013 All Star who hasn’t been the same since Tommy John surgery in 2014. He had a dreadful 2017 season with the Giants, putting up a 5.52 ERA in 31 games, but the Rangers felt that giving up a couple of fringe prospects, and assuming the $9 million 2018 salary obligation with a $10 million 2019 option with a $750,000 buyout, was a worthwhile price to pay to see if Moore can re-capture some of his old magic. Fister, meanwhile, looked like his old self late in 2017 after a couple of bad seasons, and Texas inked him to a $3.5 million 2018 deal with a $4.5 million club option -- as with Moore, they can bring him back relatively cheaply in 2019 if he pans out, or cut bait if he doesn’t.
Continuing the trend of seeking out reclamation projects, the Rangers also signed two time former Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum to a one year, incentive-laden deal, with an eye towards giving him a shot at the closer role. Lincecum hasn’t had a good season since the last time the Rangers were in the World Series, but after being out of baseball in 2017, he appears to have some life on his fastball again, and the Rangers see him being worth a look.
The bargain hunting in the 2017-18 offseason means that the Rangers are going to likely start the season with a payroll almost $40 million below the team’s 2017 payroll, and more than $20 million below the 2016 payroll level, which g.m. Jon Daniels said was what the team had budgeted for. That means that, should the Rangers find themselves in contention this summer, they’ll be able to take on salary, and are also in position to spend big on the monster 2019 free agent class, should they choose.
What do the Rangers need to have happen to contend in 2018? The projection systems and Vegas see Texas ending up in the high 70s for a win total, but there’s always a couple of teams each year who exceed expectations, and the Rangers could well be one of those clubs in 2018. They need at least a couple of the starting pitching candidates that have major question marks surrounding them — Minor, Fister, Moore, potential relief-to-starter conversion project Matt Bush, ancient non-roster-invitee Bartolo Colon -- to turn the question mark into an exclamation point. They need Adrian Beltre and Cole Hamels, veterans who struggled with injuries in 2018, to stay upright. They need the bullpen, has been problematic the past two years, to click.
But perhaps most importantly, the Rangers need their young position players to produce. The major reason the Rangers aren’t in “burn it down” mode is that they have an impressive group of young hitters who are major leaguers, or major league ready, and who could make an impact. Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Rougned Odor, Willie Calhoun, Delino DeShields, Ronald Guzman — not every one of those guys will be contributors in 2018, of course, but if a couple of those guys -- Gallo, Mazara and Odor, in particular — can perform like folks think they are capable of, this could be a very good young offense. Much of the Rangers success going forward — not just in 2018, but in the years beyond that — hinges on this group of young hitters.
If the Rangers struggle and go into sell mode at the deadline, their options for moving veterans will be limited. Adrian Beltre has a full no-trade clause, and the relationship between player and team is such that, if Beltre wants to go somewhere, the team will most likely honor his wishes and send him where he wants to go. Cole Hamels has a club option for 2019 for $20 million, so if he bounces back he would have value, particularly to a team that wants him for 2019, but that assumes he puts his 2017 struggles behind him. Jake Diekman is also a free agent after 2018, and could possible command from a playoff contender looking for bullpen help if he’s pitching well, but he missed most of 2017 after having his colon removed, and his command has been hit-or-miss for much of his career.
Aside from Calhoun and Guzman, most of the Rangers’ top prospects are in the lower levels of the minors, so there’s not likely to be much help coming from the system in 2018. Yohander Mendez has gotten a cup of coffee each of the last couple of seasons, and could provide some innings in 2018, but he needs to improve his command to be a realistic starting option. The Rangers always seem to have some live arms that could contribute in the bullpen, so a Ricky Rodriguez or a Nick Gardewine or a Connor Sadzeck or a Reed Garrett could come up and have a surprise impact, the way Matt Bush, Alex Claudio and Jose Leclerc have at various times in recent years, but the Rangers will be hoping they don’t have to rely too much on those options. Meanwhile, the jewels of the farm, guys like Cole Ragans, Hans Crouse, Leody Taveras and Bubba Thompson, will be toiling away in the low-minors, still several years away (although Ragans, unfortunately, will be out until 2019 due to Tommy John surgery).
Its an interesting place the Rangers find themselves in, and their medium-term outlook largely will depend on the guys in the photo above -- the young players, particularly position players, who have a year or two under their belts and need to take the next step. The Rangers could have the core of a team that could be a solid playoff contender in the coming years, or could have a Swiss cheese team that has some good parts, but is also filled with holes.