Why the Rangers Should Keep Spending After the Lockout

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Many teams effectively sat out the free-agent market prior to the lockout, and the Rangers took full advantage of the lack of activity from some of the sport’s top spenders. Led by longtime president of baseball operations Jon Daniels, second-year GM Chris Young and an ownership group that clearly isn’t interested in a protracted rebuild, the Rangers doled out more than half a billion dollars to sign Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Jon Gray and Kole Calhoun. For most clubs, spending more than $500MM in free agency would seem a defensible point at which to call it a day, but if the Rangers are serious about returning to contention sooner than later, they’re not likely to be satisfied with, ahem, “just” Seager, Semien, Gray, etc.

The 2021 Rangers, to put things charitably, were a disaster. Texas lost 102 games and batted a combined .232/.294/.375. The resulting 84 wRC+ (indicating that their collective offense was 16 percent below league average) tied for the third-worst mark in MLB. Rangers hitters ranked 28th in total runs scored, 26th in home runs, 29th in walk percentage and dead last in on-base percentage.

If the Rangers boasted a deep and talented pitching staff, perhaps the additions of Seager and Semien alone would be enough to foster hope, but we know that’s not the case. Texas starters ranked 28th in the Majors in ERA (5.33) and FIP (5.19) alike — and that’s including the contributions of the since-traded Kyle Gibson, who provided 113 innings of 2.87 ERA/3.76 FIP ball.

The signing of Gray gives the Rangers a big arm on which they can dream, but Gray, Dane Dunning and Taylor Hearn are the only pitchers on the roster who reached 100 innings and posted even passable results. It’s questionable to even include Hearn in that trio, as nearly all of his success came out of the bullpen (5.82 ERA in the rotation versus 3.54 out of the ’pen in near-identical samples of innings). The only pitcher currently on the roster who posted an ERA better than Dunning’s 4.55 out of the rotation last season is right-hander A.J. Alexy, who logged a 2.79 ERA in 19 1/3 innings but also walked nearly as many hitters as he struck out (13 walks, 14 punchouts).

Things are a bit rosier in the bullpen, where Texas will welcome back injured closer Jose Leclerc, who missed 2021 due to Tommy John surgery. Impressive young righty Jonathan Hernandez is likely to return at some point in 2022 as well after missing this past season following his own Tommy John procedure. The Rangers can also look forward to full seasons from standout rookie Joe Barlow and NPB returnee Spencer Patton, who began the 2021 season in Triple-A but pitched effectively following his June call to the bigs.

Suffice it to say, even with the big splashes they’ve made to date, the Rangers don’t yet look like a contender. That’s not news to the Texas front office, which made these moves despite surely being aware that even if everything breaks right in ’22, they’re at best a long-shot to vie for a playoff berth.

That said, there’s already indication that the Rangers aren’t planning to take their foot off the gas when transactions resume. Texas has been linked to star NPB outfielder Seiya Suzuki, who has been posted by the Hiroshima Carp and will sign with an MLB club once the transaction freeze lifts. The Rangers were also reportedly looking into the asking price on division-rival star Matt Olson, and they chatted with the Reds about Cincinnati’s collection of available starting pitchers. Manager Chris Woodward even went so far as to acknowledge that the team has been in contact with free agent Clayton Kershaw — a Dallas-area resident who is a first-time free agent this winter.

Onlookers may question how the Rangers can afford this level of spending spree. However, Texas has gone to great lengths to pare its payr0ll in recent years, and rather than “rebuild” through three to five dismal seasons of tanking and cultivating draft picks, it seems the Rangers plan to instead use their fiscal might in conjunction with a pair of lofty draft statuses (2021 and 2022) in hopes of an accelerated retooling.

In terms of club payroll, the Rangers only have about $127MM committed to next year’s books, in the estimation of Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez. That figure will drop to around $80MM in 2023. For a club that has previously run payrolls as lofty as $165MM (in 2017), there’s a good bit of financial leeway for further additions — particularly those that could impact the roster beyond the 2022 season.

A multi-year deal for the 27-year-old Suzuki, for instance, makes good sense for a Texas club that currently figures to shuffle Nick Solak, Willie Calhoun and Eli White through left field and DH at-bats. Texas is also among the more reasonable fits for 29-year-old lefty Carlos Rodon, who was one of the best pitchers on the planet in 2021 but ended the year with some troubling shoulder concerns. Agent Scott Boras — who also represents both Seager and Semien — has said Rodon is seeking a multi-year deal. We’ve seen the Rangers issue some surprising three-year deals in the past (e.g. Lance Lynn, Mike Minor, Gibson) — albeit in the $30MM range, which is likely a good ways south of where Rodon is aiming. Trade candidates like Luis Castillo, Frankie Montas, Pablo Lopez and other starters with multiple years of control should also be squarely in the Rangers’ sights, particularly if any are amenable to extensions.

Relatively youthful free agent pitchers and trade targets with multiple years of club control (and/or an openness to an extension) will be paramount, given the lack of high-end pitching prospects knocking on the door in Arlington. This past season’s No. 2 overall draft pick, Jack Leiter, could be a fast mover but has yet to throw a professional pitch. Righty Cole Winn, a 2019 first-rounder, briefly reached Triple-A last season and could eventually give the team a mid-rotation arm. That’s about the extent of the team’s high-upside pitching prospects who are at least within striking distance of the big leagues, so pairing some veterans with Gray and Dunning will be crucial if Texas hopes to turn things around come 2023.

Around the diamond, things are a bit more steady. Adding Seager and Semien gives the team a pair of lineup linchpins, and top prospect Josh Jung should debut in 2022, pushing slick-fielding Isiah Kiner-Falefa to a utility role in which he could thrive. There’s room for a bat like Suzuki in left field, as previously alluded to, and the team’s interest in Olson suggests a willingness to upgrade over Nate Lowe at first base (or at least to push Lowe to a DH role). Catcher Jonah Heim has a brutal season at the dish in 2021, but the Rangers are hoping prospect Sam Huff can eventually seize that spot.

By 2023, the Rangers will be free of the dead-money commitments owed to Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor. The only arbitration raise of any note slated for the 2023 payroll (and for the 2022 payroll, for that matter), is that of Kiner-Falefa. Semien, Seager and Gray are the only three players whose ’23 salaries are guaranteed. You can argue that it’s wiser to wait until next offseason, but if that were the plan, the team wouldn’t have already spent to the extent it has. To give their aggressive mindset the best chance to succeed, the Rangers should add at least one more arm and one more bat to the mix. They certainly have the payroll capacity to do just that.

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