Two winters ago, the Rangers weren’t looking to contend, but they were looking for undervalued pitching. They gave reliever money to starter-turned-very-good-reliever Mike Minor in early December to join the rotation with a three-year, $28 million deal that has proved to be a massive bargain, as Minor’s 6.7 WAR over the last two seasons ranks 29th among all pitchers. Last December, the still-rebuilding Rangers signed Lance Lynn, whose very good FIP in 2018 was marred by an ugly 4.77 ERA across stints with the Twins and Yankees, to a three-year deal worth $30 million. Lynn delivered with a seven-win season and a fifth-place finish in the AL Cy Young award voting. Now the Rangers have reached a three-year deal with Kyle Gibson worth $30 million, according to Jeff Passan, with Jon Morosi first reporting the team and player.
How Gibson fits in with Lynn and Minor goes beyond just the identical contracts. Over the last two years, Gibson put together a pair of solid 2.6-WAR seasons with the Twins, but a low BABIP in 2018 meant a 3.62 ERA, while a higher one last season resulted in a 4.84 ERA that made him look worse than he deserved. Gibson’s strikeout rate climbed to 23% with his walk rate dropping to 8%, all while maintaining his high groundball rate. His home run rate went up in a fashion consistent with the rest of the league. With his sinker, assuming a good infield defense (yet to be determined, given that the Rangers likely aren’t done making moves), he should put up very good numbers even in a hitter’s park (we don’t yet know how Texas’ new ballpark will play).
Gibson’s peripheral numbers aren’t the only aspect of his game that could make him an underrated signing. The prescient Kiley McDaniel had this to say in FanGraphs’ Top 50 Free Agents post:
It’ll surely hurt the Division Champion Twins to lose 9.6 WAR and 60% of their rotation with Gibson, Odorizzi, and Pineda hitting free agency. Gibson was the player with the most helium amongst team-side analyst-types consulted for the first iteration of this list. Some have him over Keuchel, in part because his 92-95 mph heater gives more margin for error in games, in projecting his future, and in projecting a role in a playoff rotation. His ERA indicators suggest he’s a sub-4 ERA type and he’s made 25-plus starts six years in a row. Gibson seems like a solid candidate for a sneaky big and/or early deal from a club confident he offers the best value among the 10 or so starters with a solid chance at a multi-year contract.
Gibson’s contract splits the difference between McDaniel’s $45 million estimate and the crowd’s $20 million figure, but Texas certainly struck early. At the end of August, Gibson’s 4.04 FIP put him just shy of three wins above replacement and his 4.54 ERA was above average considering the home run environment. A strong September might have netted a four-year deal him. Unfortunately, Gibson had lost about 10 pounds over the previous six weeks and with his strength waning, he was ultimately diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Gibson went on the IL and in a handful of appearances in the season’s final month, split between starting and relief, he was unable to get his strength back; the bad month caused some of his numbers to plummet.
With a full offseason to regain his strength and hopefully gain a better understanding of his condition, Gibson should look a lot more like the pitcher who had been successful for much of 2018 and 2019. While there is some downside risk given the way Gibson finished, the Rangers’ salary commitment isn’t sizable enough to cause concern should he fail to recover completely. If Gibson is the same pitcher he was prior to his illness, the Rangers will again have gotten a bargain on the free agent market.
Gibson’s signing isn’t exactly like Minor and Lynn’s in that the Rangers were rebuilding the last few years. Signing an undervalued starter to plug into the rotation was a very good strategy as the team committed a small amount to net a potentially large return, either in performance or return in trade. The Rangers elected to hold on to Minor at the trade deadline, presumably because they weren’t blown way by any of the offers they received, but also because Minor is a pitcher who can help the team contend in 2020. Gibson’s signing wasn’t made with an eye toward potential trade value. Minor and Lynn helped accelerate the Rangers rebuild and with Gibson, they’ll probably jump into the top 10 projected rotations even without much quality outside of their top three.
But while recognizing that the Gibson signing puts the Rangers closer to contention, it comes with the obvious realization that the team still has a ton of work to do. The Rangers could certainly use another starting pitcher. Gerrit Cole might give the team the best rotation in baseball. More than Cole, though, they need to fill an absurd number of holes across the diamond. Right now, our Depth Chart projections put the Rangers ahead of only the Marlins, Tigers, and Orioles on the position player side. Only Joey Gallo projects as an above-average player. Six of the nine positions project for 1.5 WAR or fewer, and two (catcher and first base) are at replacement level. Kyle Gibson gives the Rangers a great start to filling their needs to compete next year, but he’s still just a start. The Rangers should have a very busy offseason ahead if they want to get back to the playoffs.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.