Texas Inks Mahle to Two-Year Deal With Eyes on 2024 Return

Tyler Mahle
Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers love a free-agent starting pitcher: Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray, Andrew Heaney, Martín Pérez. And now Tyler Mahle. The 29-year-old righthander, previously of the Reds and Twins, has signed a two-year, $22 million contract with the Rangers. He will make $5.5 million in 2024 and $16.5 million in ’25, plus up to an additional $5 million in incentives depending on how many innings he throws in the latter season.

This news, which was exciting enough to draw approximately zero eyeballs away from the Shohei Ohtani introductory presser that started half an hour later, is a shrewd signing by the reigning world champions. I encourage you to click More and read anyway, but I’ll give away the ending, I don’t care: I really like this deal for the Rangers, as well as Mahle’s fit with the team.

Having won the World Series this year, the Rangers are now on course to win the Battle of Monmouth as well. Because they signed — and I apologize for dropping the vowel sound here in order to make the joke work — Mahle, pitcher.

For those of you who don’t watch a ton of baseball in the Great Lakes region, Mahle throws a four-seamer in the low 90s, topping out just over 95 mph in case of emergency. To that he adds a slider; a splitter and a cutter, both thrown mostly but not exclusively to left-handed hitters; and a slider, thrown mostly to righties. He arrived at this pitch mix in 2021, having previously thrown a curveball and various other gobbledygook. Once he settled on his current repertoire, he became an excellent starter. In 2021, he threw an even 180 innings over 33 starts, with a 27.7 K%, 8.4 BB%, a 3.75 ERA, and a nearly identical FIP. The fastball-splitter combo made him especially effective against left-handed hitters; in 2021, he held them to a wOBA of only .257, which was seventh-best among right-handed starters with 20 or more starts. For comparison, no. 5 on the list was Corbin Burnes, and no. 8 was Zack Wheeler. Right-on-right was a little rough (.357), but that didn’t stop Mahle from becoming something of a hipster favorite starter after his breakout season.

You’ll notice I’ve been referencing 2021 a lot, and that’s because it’s basically the only season that Mahle has been healthy and effective for an entire year. In 2022, he spent three weeks on the IL with a minor shoulder injury. He got reactivated, made two starts, and got traded to the Twins in a four-player deal. He made about two and a half starts with the Twins, was awesome, and then the shoulder started barking again. After one desultory start in September, Minnesota shut him down. He started 2023 hot — a 3.16 ERA and 28 strikeouts over 25 2/3 innings in five starts — but hurt his elbow at the end of April. In total, he made nine starts and threw 42 innings for the Twins. And in case that weren’t bad enough, the two minor leaguers who went the other way in the trade were Christian Encarnacion-Strand and Spencer Steer. So that’s not what you want.

Mahle didn’t get the internal brace or any kind of Tommy John Lite, and the recovery time from Tommy John Genuine Draft, 12–18 months, puts him on track to return at some point in the 2024 regular season, though there’s a chance he’ll suffer a setback and be out to 2025. So the Rangers are paying $11 million a year to a guy with one really good big league season in his life and a recently reconstructed elbow who might miss the entire 2024 season. And I think this is a good piece of business for them?

In short, yes. An $11 million-a-year deal is innings-eater territory, and the last time Mahle was completely healthy over a full season, he was a legit no. 3 — like, good enough to start in a playoff game. The Rangers, who surely performed a thorough physical on Mahle, must feel confident that they’ll have him back in 2024. That means they expect to get this playoff-quality starter back in time for the playoffs. And after winning the World Series, the playoffs are the Rangers’ expectation now.

How did the Rangers build a World Series-winning roster? Well, they nailed two draft picks on Evan Carter and Josh Jung. They did some good upper-minors and major league developmental work on several other starting position players. They fleeced the Twins in the Mitch Garver-for-Isiah Kiner-Falefa trade. And they spent half-a-billion dollars so the guys who finished second and third in MVP voting could be their double play combination.

But on the pitching side, the Rangers dined out on contracts just like this one. And they had to, because they have developed absolutely diddlysquat in terms of homegrown starting pitching. Texas used 10 starting pitchers in the 2023 regular season; seven of those, accounting for 133 starts, were not drafted or signed by the team. One of the exceptions, Pérez, was signed by the Rangers as an amateur free agent, left to play for the Twins and White Sox for a couple seasons, and came back to Texas as, you guessed it, a free agent. So the Rangers got 94% of their starts, and 96% of their starters’ innings, out of pitchers they either signed or traded for as major leaguers. And they’ve also been weirdly fixated on ex-Twins, I’m coming to learn, making Mahle a fit in that respect as well.

Since the World Series, the Rangers have lost Pérez and Jordan Montgomery to free agency. Max Scherzer, who made limited contributions after being acquired at last season’s deadline, just had surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back. He’ll miss at least the first two months of the season.

Even so, if everyone either stays healthy or gets healthy when expected, the Rangers will have seven starters by season’s end: The two TJ guys, Scherzer, Eovaldi, Gray, Heaney, Dane Dunning. Everyone except Dunning will be making at least $10 million a year. Depending on how Dunning’s arbitration case plays out, the Rangers will spend something like $104 million on starting pitching next season. And that’s just in cash, accounting for Mahle’s backloaded deal and the Mets paying about three-quarters of Scherzer’s salary.

But you know who needed more than five starting pitchers because some of their guys got hurt? The 2023 Rangers. A front four of Eovaldi, Gray, Heaney, and Dunning can keep the Rangers afloat until midseason. And while Mahle won’t be ready for Opening Day, he has a much higher upside than the other free-agent starters in his price range. Enough that I’d rather have, say, 35 or 40 of his starts over two seasons than 60 of Kyle Gibson’s.

The one interesting stylistic thing about Mahle is that he’s a heavy fly ball pitcher. The 2021 season was the last time he allowed more grounders than fly balls; his GB/FB ratio over the past two seasons is 0.77, which is the 47th-lowest mark out of 335 pitchers who have thrown 100 or more innings over the past two seasons. And that could still be a problem. Once a fly ball goes off the bat, Mahle isn’t particularly good or bad at containing such batted balls to Texas Leaguers and easy outs. Since his breakout season, his opponent xwOBA on fly balls is .401; out of 319 pitchers who have allowed 100 or more fly balls over the past three seasons, that’s 79th. It’s fine.

Ordinarily, such a pitcher going to Texas would be concerning. Globe Life Field plays neutral-ish overall but is the sixth-most home run-friendly park in the majors. Mahle might not mind for two reasons: First, the outfield is where Leody Taveras and Adolis García are, and the infield is where Jung and Corey Seager are. In other words, a fly ball pitcher on the Rangers will get batters to hit into the best part of the defense behind him. Second, he cut his teeth in Cincinnati, and Great American Ball Park makes Globe Life look like the Oakland Coliseum. A fly ball pitcher who comes up with the Reds is about as screwed as a mosquito that’s born in a bug zapper factory. The Twins obviously thought that getting Mahle out of there would do him good, but then he got hurt.

Between the injury, the relative lack of track record, and (to a certain extent) the fly ball tendencies, Mahle is a risk. But he’s a risk worth taking for a team that’s not afraid to spend and already has enough pitching depth to justify taking a bit of a gamble. And as Mahle’s contract indicates, this move is partially about 2024 but mostly about 2025, by which point Scherzer, Heaney, and possibly Eovaldi (he has a mutual option) will all have returned to free agency. The Rangers have plenty of success swimming in this end of the free-agent pool. There’s no reason to stop now.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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5 months ago

I think this is a quality signing that, like you said, fits right into the Rangers’ wheelhouse. The problem for the Rangers is that they particularly need a starter for the FIRST half of the season, not the second with DeGrom and Scherzer out until the All Star Break. The fit is a bit odd here.

5 months ago
Reply to  Sertorius

This is a signing for 2024, really. He’s not going to be very good right when he gets back from TJ.

5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I assume you mean to say it’s for 2025.

I still think it’s a bit odd. The Rangers are heavy on back-of-’24 into ’25 guys. I guess the idea is this gives depth in case some of the recoveries don’t go well. But it’ll make more sense if they add someone who is ready right away. I don’t especially fancy starting the season relying on Cody Bradford, let alone what happens if an injury happens in the top 4.