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The Rangers plan, and searching for a superstar

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The Rangers appear to be setting themselves up for a run at one of the franchise players hitting the market after the 2021 season

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

There’s been a certain amount of confusion expressed in some quarters about the Texas Rangers’ plan this offseason. The team is rebuilding, and the front office has acknowledged that they do not expect to be contenders in 2021 — this coming season will be about growth and building for the future, rather than present day wins.

And yet, for those who equate rebuilding with what the Houston Astros did in the early teens, or what the Baltimore Orioles have been doing the last couple of years, this doesn’t seem to be a rebuilding effort. Rather than going for ceiling when they traded Lance Lynn, they got a high floor starting pitcher with major league experience in Dane Dunning. They signed Kohei Arihara to fill a rotation spot rather than rolling out a probably-not-ready prospect or a Rule 5 guy or a minimum salary retread. They even traded prospects — guys who are years away — for Nate Lowe, who has major league experience and who was acquired to step in as the team’s starting first baseman.

The Rangers, according to a certain line of thought, are making the same mistakes they made the past few years. They aren’t picking a path, choosing to either compete or to rebuild, but instead are taking half-measures and not committing to a plan.

Having looked at the state of the franchise, the state of the roster, and the moves that have been made this offseason, I do not believe that’s necessarily the case. The moves that have been made are consistent with a plan to rebuild, but with the expectation of improving in the relatively near future, rather than 4-5 years down the line.

There appears to be a plan that makes a lot of sense that is being implemented...but that is contingent on the team being willing to spend in the near future.

The Rangers currently have a pretty deep collection of controllable, potentially useful players in the majors and in the upper minors. Potentially useful is the key phrase here — the only players I’d say have star potential* in that group are Joey Gallo, Josh Jung, Leody Taveras and Sam Huff.

* “Potential”. Don’t gloss over that word. I’m not predicting stardom for these guys. I’m saying, these are the guys who you could see possibly consistently becoming 4+ win players in the future. If one or two of them do that, I’d be thrilled.

If you aren’t the Tampa Bay Rays**, you generally need stars if you want to be a contender. You can put together a respectable team with a bunch of 50s, but if you want to raise a flag at the end of the year, you need tentpole players.

** The Rangers do seem, for what it is worth, to be adopting a lot of Rays-esque strategies, and if they pull a 2004 and somehow are in contention this year, it will likely be because they get average to a little above average performances across the board, rather than having someone bust out with a team-carrying 8 win season.

The 2010 Rangers got a superstar season from Josh Hamilton and 4-5 win seasons from Ian Kinsler, C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Nelson Cruz.

The 2011 Rangers got 5-7 seasons from Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli, and 4-5 win seasons from C.J., Matt Harrison, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton and Alexi Ogando.

That said, just a star or two isn’t going to get you to the promised land, or even make you particularly good — just ask Mike Trout. You need to have a collection of decent to solid players surrounding your stars (or just a whole bunch of decent to solid players if you are the Rays).

Which gets us to the current state of the Rangers. While they are short on guys with star potential in the majors and upper minors, they do have an awfully lot of guys who are cheap and under team control for a while who are, or who profile as, decent, useful major league players.

Look at the position players. Joey Gallo, Leody Taveras, Josh Jung and Sam Huff, we talked about above. Nate Lowe, Nick Solak, Willie Calhoun, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Jose Trevino all are cheap and under team control for a while. Sherten Apostel and Anderson Tejeda are likely to start the year in AA but look like they could be useful players. David Dahl was added as a free agent, and has three years of team control remaining.

That group isn’t going to make you a good team, particularly not in 2021. But out of that group you should be able to end up with a number of guys who can contribute on a good team in the next few years.

The pitchers are even more uncertain, and the attrition rate for pitchers is high anyway. But there are a ton of guys to sift through who are young, cheap, under team control for a while, and have the potential to provide value to a major league team. Chris Woodward has talked about using pitchers in non-traditional roles in 2021 — looking at potentially using guys in multi-inning roles but not necessarily using your traditional “starting pitcher” in every game — and that’s something that the roster seems to fit well with. We know that — oh, hey, once again — the Rays have had success utilizing their pitchers in creative ways without necessarily having a true 5 man rotation.

So the Rangers have a bunch of players they can, I believe, over the next couple of years, plug in as useful players — decent regulars, solid role players, whathaveyou. Guys who can give them middling performance for cheap.

How cheap? Well, currently, the Rangers only have six players who they have contractual obligations to in 2022:

Elvis Andrus — $14 million

Rougned Odor — $12 million

Kyle Gibson — $7 million

Jose Leclerc — $4.75 million

Kohei Arihara — $3.6 million

Joely Rodriguez — $500K (buyout of $3 million option)

Add all that up and that’s $41.85 million committed for the 2022 payroll.

Arbitration cases? There are slated to be three of significance — Joey Gallo, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and David Dahl — although only Gallo would appear likely to be getting a big payday, and Dahl would be cut loose if he doesn’t stay healthy and productive.

Cots currently has four players who are first time arbitration eligible for Texas after 2021 — Willie Calhoun, Joe Palumbo, Brett Martin and Ronald Guzman. Guzman is more likely than not not going to be here after 2021, and none of those four would appear likely to get a substantial amount in arbitration.

And the Rangers have no one with a guaranteed contract for 2023 at this point. Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor have options that will almost certainly be declined, and Jose Leclerc has an option which we hope will warrant being picked up (if he’s still here and hasn’t been traded).

After 2021, the Rangers should have a better idea who, among the mix of players they are sorting through, they can count on being useful going forward. They should be in a position to be improved in 2022. And they should have the financial wherewithal to add a true impact player or two to the mix, in an effort to take the next step to being a contender.

The 2021-22 free agent class features an exceptional group of infielders — Javy Baez, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, and Kris Bryant are all slated to hit the market. Corey Seager is slated to be a free agent, and while I expect the Dodgers to retain him, he could be out there. Nolan Arenado, who we know the Rangers have long coveted and discussed trading for, has an opt-out after 2021 and has made it publicly known he is unhappy with the direction of the Colorado Rockies, and while opting out of $35 million per year from 2022-24, $32 million in 2025 and $27 million in 2026 would seem to be unlikely, its certainly possible, and could also be used as leverage to force a trade.

Jared Sandler has been saying for some time that he thinks the Rangers are going to go big for Story — an Irving native who is entering his age 28 season — next offseason. He would give the Rangers a legitimate star at the position, a middle-of-the-order bat that I would wager the team would envision joining Joey Gallo and Josh Jung in the heart of the team’s lineup.

But if not Story, there’s Lindor. There’s Correa. There’s the possibility of adding Arenado or Bryant at third base, with Jung moving to first base or elsewhere. There are options.

There’s precedent here. The Philadelphia Phillies, having not finished above .500 since 2011, felt their club was ready to take a big step forward and compete after 2018, and went hard after both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, ultimately locking up Harper, then also trading for J.T. Realmuto. Adding the two superstars hasn’t panned out for Philly — they finished .500 in 2019, 28-32 in 2020 — but that’s the type offseason that the Rangers would be well-positioned to have after the 2021 season.

Assuming the team is willing to spend money.

Will they? I don’t know. The Rangers, under this ownership group, has spent big in the past when the team has been in position to contend. There’s a new stadium that has just opened, that they will be looking to fill. There’s a window of contention that should be opening up in the American League West during that time frame.

It makes sense for the team to spend money at that point. The moves that Jon Daniels and Company have made would be consistent with the team being willing to spend money at that point.

Or I may be wishcasting, projecting what I want to happen and interpreting the decisions made of late as part of a plan that would make a potential contender, soon.

We shall have to wait and see.