Rangers Put Finishing Touches On Title-Contending Roster

It doesn’t really matter how you think the Rangers got here. Whether you think it’s been team skill or team luck, whether you believe more in the third-best record or 14th-best run differential, today is the first day of August, and only the Cubs have a bigger division lead around the rest of baseball. The way things are set up, the Rangers are almost certainly going to the playoffs. They need to hang tight, sure, but they’ve been free to build for a playoff series. They sit in an enviable position.

The front office has been busy. A few days ago, they brought in Lucas Harrell and Dario Alvarez. Monday, they paid for Carlos Beltran. And most significantly, they’ve now also paid for Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress. This post is about that last move, and obviously, the key is Lucroy, who’s looked like an excellent fit for the Rangers for months. Lucroy will provide something the Rangers didn’t have, and they’ll get to keep him for another year in 2017. Yet don’t sleep on the Jeffress addition. He’s far from being a throw-in, and he’s going to help this team in October.

The whole of it: It’s Lucroy and Jeffress to Texas, and Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and a player to be named later to Milwaukee. Lucroy was a near-lock to be moved, and if you were paying attention over the weekend, Lucroy was sort of traded twice. In one move, Lucroy was sent to a team the Rangers will be fighting against. But Lucroy turned that one down, and now here we are. The Rangers get to benefit, and while the Brewers did well for themselves — and we’ll get to that — it’s the Rangers who deserve the most attention.

I liked the Alvarez pick-up, because he fits a hole in the bullpen. Beltran basically slides in to replace the hurt and ineffective Prince Fielder. Lucroy immediately becomes the starting catcher, and while I don’t know specifically what Jeffress will do, he’s going to throw some high-leverage innings. It’s what he did as a Brewer, and it’s how he’s succeeded.

To the Rangers catchers’ credit, the position hasn’t been a black hole. A group effort has yielded a roughly league-average batting line with roughly league-average defense, and that’s one of the factors that’s helped the Rangers to get where they are. Yet a team always has to keep in mind what it expects going forward, and that’s where Lucroy is a big help. The performance from the others was likely to drop off, and Lucroy is a proven regular with a proven bat and no real weaknesses.

He’s a catcher who can start most days a week. If you’re a real baseball dork, you might be interested to know that, by the numbers, Lucroy’s pitch-framing hasn’t bounced back. From Baseball Prospectus, here’s Lucroy’s year-to-year framing in runs above average per 7,000 opportunities:


This is a weird decline. For no great reason I can think of, Lucroy went from being a true elite to being basically average, and that’s where he’s been for more than a year and a half. So, can we really think of Lucroy as being a great framer anymore? I’m comfortable just saying this: Lucroy is a perfectly fine defensive backstop. Pitchers aren’t going to complain about him.

And more important than that is this:


The bat has come back after an injury-plagued 2015. So even if Lucroy is no longer lifted by a ton of hidden value, he still delivers a ton of obvious value, and he’ll be a mostly everyday presence for the Rangers’ pitching staff. They’ll get to know him in the coming weeks, and then those relationships will be preexisting come next spring. It’s pretty rare for a regular catcher to get moved midseason, but these were unusual circumstances, and the Rangers have a buffer while Lucroy gets used to his new surroundings.

Great catcher for now, great catcher for 2017. You know all about why Lucroy was so desirable. Let’s switch to Jeffress. One thing to know: He has another three years of team control. Another thing to know: This year, he’s thrown 69% strikes, after previously hovering around 63%. Though he’s not a strikeout machine, he does keep the ball on the ground, with his fastball averaging better than 95. And according to Statcast, by way of Baseball Savant, Jeffress has allowed baseball’s second-lowest average exit velocity, and he’s No. 1 among pitchers with at least 100 batted balls tracked. Jeffress throws hard and gets hit soft. It’s a little Sam Dyson-y. And he stays around the zone, so he seldom gets himself in trouble.

Just in isolation, Jeffress is a good get. He’d help every bullpen in baseball. What I like about the Rangers in particular, however, is the depth they’ve amassed. Earlier I talked about how the Rangers can start to plan for a playoff series. Now look at this. From the right side, the Rangers bullpen can throw Sam Dyson, Jeremy Jeffress, Keone Kela, Matt Bush, and Tony Barnette. From the left side, they can throw Jake Diekman and Dario Alvarez. These seven have combined for a 2.60 ERA, almost all with power fastballs. Shawn Tolleson is around if he figures things out — he was good a year ago. This bullpen has some really good depth.

So much talk come playoff time concerns the tops of bullpens. And, yeah, you can use your best relievers disproportionately often. But the Rangers will have choices. And, you know, they should be good with Cole Hamels. They should be good with Yu Darvish. After those two, the rotation dramatically drops off, but thanks to all the reliever depth, third and fourth starters shouldn’t have to be pushed. The Rangers can go to the pen in the fourth or fifth inning if they want, and every inning can bring a big and dangerous fastball. Jeffress doesn’t make this bullpen complete on his own, but he’s an important addition, after the Alvarez get. The Rangers want every important inning to be tough.

Most of the focus is on 2016, because that’s the season we’ve been watching, and that season is the highest priority. Lucroy, though, helps next year. Jeffress also helps next year. The Rangers might lose both Beltran and Ian Desmond, but they aren’t a roster with too many short-term pieces. So they could be right back next year, and while it’s hard to care too much about that in the immediate, they’ll be happy for these moves next December and July.

One thing the Rangers did here was deal a blow to the farm. It’s no secret they’re trying their damnedest to win this year and/or next. One thing the Rangers also did here was hang on to both Jurickson Profar and Joey Gallo. Brinson looks like a dynamic young player, and Ortiz feels like an unusually safe and effective pitching prospect, but the top of the system remains. If Profar and Gallo still count as being parts of the system. I’m not familiar with the boundaries.

To run down the usual: In the recent Baseball America midseason top 100, Brinson ranked No. 30, and Ortiz ranked No. 74. In the MLB.com top 100, Brinson ranked No. 65, and Ortiz ranked No. 86. Brinson was ranked fourth in the Rangers system, with Ortiz right behind him. That’s drawing from a list that includes Nomar Mazara — who’s been starting in the majors — and Dillon Tate, who’s gone to New York. Brinson was maybe the toolsiest player they had. Ortiz was the young starter with the most upside.

Brinson won’t blow you away with the numbers, since he’s sitting on a sub-.300 OBP in Double-A. What he comes with is power, center-field range, and improving contact. He’s pretty newly 22, so he has plenty of time to put everything together, and the defensive skill establishes for Brinson a fairly high floor. The bar to clear at the plate is lower, because of the peripheral ability. The Brewers now get to pair Brinson with Brett Phillips in the system, and though I don’t know which is the center fielder of the future, and though both have their own bust potential, those are two very high ceilings. A year away, at least, but these could be future stars.

Where Brinson is a highly-regarded prospect for his tools, Ortiz is at least in part a highly-regarded prospect for his statistics. The usual pitches are there for any righty, but Ortiz this year has moved up to Double-A as a 20-year-old. Over just shy of 40 innings at the level, he has 34 strikeouts and seven walks, showing a feel for the strike zone most pitchers his age don’t have. Some people prefer swing-and-miss ability; some people prefer the ability to get ahead and stay ahead. Ortiz has more of the latter than the former, but the former could develop, and the latter is difficult to teach. Ortiz could be also at least a year away, but young pitchers who throw strikes can move fast. And so you don’t get the wrong impression, Ortiz has gotten his fastball into the mid-90s.

As for the player to be named later, well, I’m sure whoever he is, his parents love him. I don’t know if it’ll be someone significant, but the Rangers are already giving up two top-100 prospects. Even without the PTBNL, it feels like an even swap. The Brewers assume the risk of prospects not panning out. The Rangers assume the risk of win-now players not doing enough to help the team win now. Of course, the same two players could and should help win in a year. You wouldn’t pay this price for rentals.

The Brewers did what they wanted to do, and between this and the Will Smith trade, that rebuild is going terrific. The Rangers did what they wanted to do, adding more than even those other contending teams who chose to make additions. Not every team that goes for it can win. Most of them actually lose. It’s horribly depressing. But you can’t just not try. The Rangers definitely aren’t not trying.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Getting Jeffress is what got me. Considering what relief pitchers have been going for over the past week or so, that seems like an awfully hefty supplement to a Lucroy deal.

7 years ago

Agreed. Jeffress has been very strong since his call-up in 2014. He’s not quite elite since he lacks a change-up against LHPs, but he’s death to righties.