With the Texas Rangers, we get to the first team that’s actually rebuilding rather than Rebuilding™. While the prospect of contending at the same time didn’t exactly come to fruition — Texas is the sixth team in this series, after all — the Rangers are making a legitimate go at threading the needle between competing in the present and preparing for the future.
Because they’re both based in Texas, it’s natural to think of the Rangers’ attempts to become relevant again in the context of the Astros’ own efforts. The two cases might not be precisely analogous, however: while Houston absolutely needed to take their own house down to the studs, Texas may be able to escape without going to such extremes. The Rangers had much higher payrolls baked into the cake in 2017 than Houston ever did, with little real hope of shedding most of those high-end costs. Texas has also never let the farm system sink to the levels of voiditude of those late Ed Wade Astros teams or recent rebuilders like the Orioles or Marlins.
Nor would a complete overhaul following the 2015 season have been politically savvy, either: at that same time, the club was seeking public funds for a new stadium just 20 years after the old one had opened. In the end, everything worked out well for the organization: not only was a tax to finance the New Ballpark in Arlington approved by voters, but the team itself won 95 games in 2016. Sure, they only outscored their opponents by eight runs, but they do decide the divisions by who wins rather than who deserves to win!
The 2017 season was a far worse one for the Rangers, who recorded a similar run differential but many fewer wins. To the front office’s credit, they understood that the roster, in expected results, was closer to 2016’s Pythagorean record than their actual one. While some of this is me reading the tea leaves that winter in baseball circles, I think the team’s behavior — which included giving short-term deals to fill-ins (Andrew Cashner, Carlos Gomez, Mike Napoli) and reclamation projects (Dillon Gee, Josh Hamilton, James Loney, Tyson Ross) — was more consistent with a team in transition.
The front office didn’t raze the team, but they did trade pending free agents Yu Darvish and Jonathan Lucroy while also sending Jeremy Jeffress to the Brewers, and therefore showing little inclination to “keep the band together” by means of extensions. (For Darvish, at least. Lucroy was probably on the verge of being released.)
Back in March ZiPS projected the Rangers to 75-87, with a 4% chance of making the postseason — a forecast reflective of a team that, despite having jettisoned some name-brand players, still had sufficient talent to maybe make a surprise run. As of today, the Rangers would have to go 11-1 to match their preseason projection, which is unlikely if (at least) technically possible. The projections saw the Rangers as having a below-average, but not horrible, offense; a solid bullpen; and weak rotation depth after the first three starters (Cole Hamels, Mike Minor, Martin Perez). ZiPS will probably overshoot on the win total and some individual projections are way off (hello, Perez and Willie Calhoun), but given the team’s 90 OPS+ and 97 ERA+ driven by the bullpen, I don’t think it was a major miss. The big miss will be Oakland, projected to be only one game better!
Unlike the Tigers, for example, the Rangers never even pretended to be good in 2018, losing five of their first seven games and never relinquishing their hold on last place in the AL West after April 9th. The roster was never really all that likely to be good, and I suspect that the organization wasn’t surprised by the results.
Texas’s goals after the first month, I believe, were to play non-horrible baseball with recognizable names, use prospects and interesting Triple-A talent to fill holes, and avoid sabotaging the future. While that’s likely what most rebuilding teams try to appear as if they’re doing, I think Texas accomplished this goal, which is easier said than done.
Jurickson Profar was used as a fill-in — but a high-value one, who will have recorded 120-125 starts by the time 2018 ends. The team didn’t have an obvious slot for Profar and needed to see what they had in him, a very open question after years lost to injury and mixed results in the time since. The 2018 was a success in this way, with Profar hitting .258/.342/.465 and playing lots of games at three positions. There’s more clarity on Profar than there ever was before.
While I would have liked to see Joey Gallo get some time at third base just to see if that’s a lost cause or not, Profar was the better option to spell/replace the aging Adrian Beltre. Simply handing the job to Gallo would have been difficult given Beltre’s popularity and present ability when healthy. While the former probably wouldn’t be a good full-time option anyway, I appreciate the creativity the team displayed by giving Gallo some center-field time.
The team also deserves credit for their patience with Rougned Odor. With a month missed due to a hamstring injury, Odor was below a .600 OPS into mid-June, standing at .214/.290/.297 after the games of June 15th. Sink or swim, the Rangers have Odor signed to a long-term contract that can go as long as 2023, and the team is in the Rougned Odor business. Odor’s hit .281/.351/.521 since then, with 26 walks in 325 plate-appearances, not exactly Joey Votto territory, but a significant improvement relative to his own standards. Odor’s struggled a bit in September, but I still think 2018’s a success.
Texas has gotten more mixed results from Ronald Guzman and Nomar Mazara. Mazara’s still developing, and Texas has been smart to just give him the job and stick with him, but even though he’s made progress offensively this year, it’s still a rather modest three-year improvement for an offensive prospect in his prime development seasons. He hits the ball harder every year, but his launch angle has decreased, as well, making him effectively a ground-ball hitter who occasionally crushes a fly ball. Consider his batted-ball profile relative to teammate Joey Gallo’s, for example (care of Baseball Savant):
He still feels like someone who ought to be hitting 35 homers a year. I’m sure Mazara will make my breakouts piece yet again in 2019, but I’m starting to become concerned how many times he’s appearing there.
As for Guzman, he started hot in the majors, but a .730 OPS for Texas is well below where he needs to be and in-line with the .731 OPS that ZiPS projected coming into the season — itself a figure that was already more optimistic than Steamer’s .708. I remain far from sold on him developing into a big part of the club’s future.
As for pitching, Jose Leclerc managed to ax half of his 2017 walk rate without sacrificing significant heat in the exchange. He’s one of the relievers I would least like to face in baseball. (In this scenario, assume I’m a major-league hitter, not a doughy 40-year-old writer.) If you haven’t seen his chlidder, fire up a couple of Rangers games and marvel at his changeup-splitter-slider chimera that breaks pitch-classification algorithms.
One final note of appreciation goes to Texas’s creativity with Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Never a top prospect, Kiner-Falefa nevertheless played well enough last year to merit a long look. Without a logical position at which to play him, however, the team continued to experiment with him at catcher as they had in the minors. He’s been competent if not amazing, and having a utility guy who can play catcher — or a starting catcher who can play shortstop — offers many deliciously nerdy scenarios to contemplate.
What Comes Next
As is the case for the last couple teams I’ve covered in this series, this isn’t the winter that Texas whips out the checkbook and throws big money at the top names out there. The Rangers don’t sign as many giant free-agent contracts as you think. If I’m not mistaken, the last time the Rangers spent $50 million on a free agent was Shin-Soo Choo after the 2013 season. The team was burned horribly in their return from both the Choo contract and the Fielder trade — both extremely ill-advised, very expensive moves (even when you consider the money the Tigers threw in).
Adrian Beltre and Yu Darvish worked out significantly better, but the team’s been a bit more careful about how they spend their money; they also likely still have mixed feelings about the Elvis Andrus contract, even after his 2016-17 resurgence.
I suspect they’ll have to at least eventually spend big again if they want to be good in time for 2020, as they’ve suffered some setbacks in the farm system. Willie Calhoun was one of my biggest disappointments for 2018, while Kyle Cody, Cole Ragans, and Alex Speas all had Tommy John surgery, and Chris Seise missed the season after surgery on his rotator cuff. I’m not remotely sold on Ariel Jurado‘s future as a starter. Yohander Mendez remains interesting and Jonathan Hernandez is someone of whom I’m a fan and who I believe can stay as a starter, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty when cobbling together a 2020 rotation in-house. I shouldn’t leave without mentioning that Joe Palumbo’s return from Tommy John surgery has been successful, so he may be a possibility as well.
Way-Too-Early 2018 Projection: Rougned Odor
ZiPS is far more optimistic about Odor now than it was following his dreadful season, but the computer’s not yet at the point where it’s comfortable declaring Odor has returned to the level he exhibited in 2015-16. While he’s made great strides in plate discipline and his defense continues to improve — he always had the tools to be a good defensive player but was erratic — there’s still a lot we don’t know about him. It’s easy for forget he’s still a young player, not turning 25 until spring training next year.
One plate-discipline concern kind of gnaws at me: while he’s swinging at fewer pitches than before, he’s actually cut back on swinging at in-zone pitches rather than out-of-zone pitches. The numbers indicate, as well, that he’s still not hitting fastballs the way he used to; he has four homers off fastballs this year compared to 24 over 2015-16 and still managed nine in 2017. Odor has the ability to be even better than this, but there remains serious downside. Still, a league-average second baseman wouldn’t be the worst thing in the history of the world.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.