The Rangers Are Building for the Second Half

Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers have a problem you don’t see every day. They have three pitchers, each likely out until halfway through this season, who all look like surefire starters when healthy. Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer need no introduction; deGrom is looking at an August or September return, while Scherzer will likely be back in July. Add Tyler Mahle to the list, too: the Rangers signed him to a two-year, $22 million deal this offseason, but he won’t be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery until around midyear.

Let’s get the easy caveat out of the way: it’s not clear how good any of these three will be in 2024. Scherzer and Mahle weren’t exactly setting the world on fire before they got injured, and deGrom is coming off a nerve wracking second TJ. But I think it’s reasonable to look at that trio and see at least two elite starters. A rotation with a healthy deGrom, Scherzer, and Mahle at the top would probably be one of the best in baseball. That doesn’t even account for Nathan Eovaldi and the rest of the team’s arms – Jon Gray looked pretty good in his own return from injury this past October.

That starting five sounds incredible to me. There’s room for one of those pitchers to get hurt – and with that collection of guys, one of them getting hurt seems likely – and still have a fearsome playoff rotation. That’s almost certainly the team’s plan – signing deGrom is one thing, but signing an already-hurt Mahle makes it pretty clear that they’re building in some injury tolerance and aiming for the postseason. I like the plan – look no further than the Braves and Dodgers to see how teams struggle to find top tier pitching to pair with excellent offenses. But it does raise a question: What do they do for the first three months of the season?

The accepted industry standard way of building a rotation these days – well, unless you’re in a Central division – is to start with four-ish good options and then bulk up on potential injury replacements, either via minor league depth or just extra major league pitchers who can work as swingmen or who bounce on and off the IL. You can think of the Giants’ mix-and-match staffs of recent vintage for an example, or any number of Rays outfits. It only makes sense to build that way – regular seasons are arduous slogs that often end up as wars of attrition as much as elite talents facing off. Teams plan on using their depth to bolster any regular season shortfalls from the talented top part of their staffs, then hope that enough of their good pitchers are healthy in October to minimize how much they have to use the fill-ins in the playoffs.

The Rangers have to accomplish this act in reverse. They’re starting the season with three holes in their rotation and hoping to finish it with zero or one. If things go according to plan, two or three of the guys in their Opening Day rotation will end up in the bullpen or otherwise out of the loop by season’s end. That’s a much harder feat than the “standard” way, because few teams plan to have their eighth-best starter in the rotation for half of the season at a minimum.

Luckily, the Rangers are built for exactly this kind of problem. In fact, I think it’s a key reason why they signed Mahle; their roster was already set up for this exact strategy. Take a look at their projected Opening Day rotation:

Rangers Projected Opening Day Rotation
Pitcher 2023 IP 2024 Proj ERA Ideal Role
Nathan Eovaldi 144 4.19 Playoff Horse
Jon Gray 157.1 4.33 Back End Starter
Andrew Heaney 147.1 4.29 LOOGY/Long Relief
Dane Dunning 172.2 4.53 Swingman
Cody Bradford 56 4.54 Swingman

Eovaldi’s 2024 projection is worse than you’d expect, but ignore that for now, because he’s clearly penciled in as one of their top four starters regardless of how the injured trio perform next year. The rest of these guys have ERA projections in the mid-4.00s — not quite the arms you’d hope for in the playoffs but totally respectable options in a pinch. If Dane Dunning is your plan in Game 3 of the ALCS, something has gone wrong. If he’s pitching for you in June, that’s perfectly acceptable.

If you’re searching for a proof of concept of this idea, look no further than the 2023 playoffs. The Rangers had all five of these pitchers available, though Gray wasn’t stretched out as a starter and thus worked long relief. They tried to use all four non-Eovaldi pitchers primarily out of the bullpen; Heaney is the only one of the group who drew a start, and the plan was to use him sparingly until Scherzer could return from injury. In his three playoff starts – two before Scherzer came back and once after Gray had to be moved up from starter to emergency reliever – he lasted a combined 9.1 innings.

That role – guy who can start if things go really wrong, but who you’d prefer in shorter stints – is in short supply across the majors. The common version of this type of emergency depth is someone like Steven Matz, or perhaps AJ Smith-Shawver; either a veteran hanging on or a prospect who hasn’t quite put everything together yet. Most playoff teams have a few such arms, and all of them surely want more. The problem is that developing pitching prospects is hard, while signing pitchers for uncertain roles is perhaps even harder.

The Rangers have phenomenal depth there. It might seem like it’s by accident. After all, Heaney was signed as more of a good-or-hurt type than a swingman. Dunning had mid-rotation potential when the Rangers traded for him; one of he or Spencer Howard was supposed to end up as one of Texas’ next generation of aces. Cody Bradford is a former sixth-round pick; he improved greatly in the minors to end up where he is now.

But while those three all sound like serendipitous finds, I think the Rangers are working towards this construction on purpose. They made a long series of trades last summer to bolster their team for the stretch run. It would have been relatively easy to move one of Dunning or Bradford in those trades; the pitching-needy Cardinals and Royals were involved in the deals, and the Mets need help all across the board. But instead, the team traded higher-upside but more speculative prospects and kept their glut of borderline starters. It seemed like backfill for deGrom at the time, but the approach looks pretty good now that they’re assembling a roster of hurt but excellent starters. As an aside, adding Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery at the trade deadline last year got to the same packed playoff rotation using a different mechanism. The Rangers seem committed to making sure they have impact starters for the postseason, even if they can’t have them for a full year.

In fact, Mahle is likely only on the team because of that unique roster construction. He’s great for a team with extra regular season-caliber starters but a shortage of playoff arms; at his best, he’s a clear fit in a postseason rotation. The AL West isn’t exactly a cake walk, but with three Wild Card slots and a talented roster, I like the Rangers’ chances of finding their way past 162 games. Given that, someone like Mahle makes perfect sense; they already have the first half covered for him, which makes him a much better fit for them than for a team that is truly pitching-needy.

That’s not to say that there are no risks with this plan. The Texas bullpen was shaky last October, and that was with Heaney, Gray, Dunning, and Bradford covering 22 innings. We project them as one of the worst bullpens in baseball in 2024; the guys they’re using as injury fill-ins in the first half might have helped make that unit less of a liability, but instead they’ll have to deal with weak relief pitching for at least the first half of the season, and potentially the entirety of it. The resources the team spent on Mahle could likewise have gone to adding another trustworthy reliever; instead, they’re going towards shoring up the playoff rotation.

The other question: Where should the team put all these guys when their injured trio of starters returns? Bradford is the youngest and has the least service time, but I think he’s probably up for good; he looked good out of the bullpen in the playoffs and in limited major league work last year. Dunning is miscast as a reliever; he’s more of a command and variety type. I’m not sure the bullpen has room for both of them as well as Heaney; that’s a lot of long relief types for one roster, and the Texas bullpen is lacking impact late-inning arms more than anything else, so it’s a slightly awkward fit.

Of course, it probably won’t come to that. If the Rangers have taught us anything about pitching in assembling this crew, it’s that health is never a given. Sure, few teams have eight starters as solid as Texas’ crop, but eight will no doubt become seven or six or even five by September. In fact, another risk to the plan of building in a second-half rotation upgrade is that if anyone in the rotation gets hurt early on, the depth dries up fairly quickly. Owen White is probably the best option here, but he looked uninspiring in the minors in 2023, and he’s the good option. Sure, the Rangers have eight solid starters – but when three of them are starting the year injured, there’s plenty of risk.

Just so we’re clear: I think the risk is worth it. As far as I’m concerned, this is a brilliant team-building plan. It’s really hard to find four starters that you trust for the playoffs. Excellent teams like the Dodgers, Braves, and Astros struggle with it. It feels much easier to upgrade a leaky bullpen or find an extra left-field bat than to add premium arms. The Rangers are leaning into that, and supplementing their plans with pre-determined injury fill-ins. This is really smart roster construction; when Texas brings a fearsome rotation into the playoffs next year, it might feel like luck, but the team is putting in a lot of work now to make that future possible.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 months ago

I don’t think the Rangers planned for deGrom and Scherzer to get hurt six weeks into their Rangers tenure. Signing Mahle would fit this, but not the other two.

I like this setup way more if they turn around and sign a couple more serious injury risks to fill things out at the beginning of the year before they inevitably get hurt in July. I don’t think Leiter is going to be pitching in the rotation and Owen White and Cody Bradford are still unproven. If any set of Heaney or Gray or Eovaldi (all of them having some serious injury questions themselves) go down they could find themselves with Zak Kent in the rotation pretty quickly. Kenta Maeda would have fit this pretty well. James Paxton might not last until July but seems like he would fit. Maybe Hyun Jin Ryu or Alex Wood if they’re not totally broken.

3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Also, the bullpen has a couple sleepers. Josh Sborz got super unlucky with long balls and hard contact in general last season, and looks a tweak or two away from a potential closer-caliber reliever. Brock Burke is due a bounceback. Jonathan Hernandez has the whiffs and grounders to be very solid even if his control isn’t perfect. And Yerry Rodriguez is poised for a full-time bullpen role at the MLB level. They have enough that they don’t need to panic, so much as be aware.

Last edited 3 months ago by EonADS
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

As a Rangers fan, it is sad to see Montgomery walking without much fuss from Texas. I get it, TV contracts and everything, but still, that man was a stud and there are rings on many fingers now.

3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

They obviously didn’t plan for DeGrom and Scherzer to get hurt so soon, but they did knowingly sign the most injury prone star pitcher and trade for a 39 year old pitcher who had dealt with multiple smaller injuries of varying concern over the preceding 1.5 years. I think those two still fit the broader theme/strategy of acquiring surefire playoff starters even if they are big injury risks (or are already injured in the case of Mahle).

Lots of contenders have done something similar, acquiring either injury prone guys or guys who used to be stars and might be an adjustment away from returning to that level. The teams know these players might return no value whatsoever, but if things break right they can be real playoff difference makers. That’s often more valuable to a contender than a guy who is a reliable 4th starter, even if their expected WAR values are the same.

The interesting thing about the Rangers is that they signed Mahle while already knowing their 2 other aces will be hurt for most of the season. A different team in a similar situation might opt for a reliable innings eater instead to stabilize the rotation around the injured stars. To me, that indicates that the Rangers are really diving into this strategy to an extent we haven’t seen, so from that standpoint I agree with the premise of the article.

3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Zak Kent is a beast.