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2018 MLB team preview: What are the Texas Rangers doing, exactly?

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The Rangers were in baseball’s no-man’s land last year, and didn’t do anything to change that this winter.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Texas Rangers Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Following one of the most frugal offseasons in MLB history, it’s hard to bemoan just one team for not spending enough money. Free agents sat by idly for months, even creating their own training camp to prepare for the upcoming season before teams finally decided to open their wallets. There’s enough blame to go around.

But man, it’s hard to see exactly what the Texas Rangers were trying to do this winter.

Following two years atop the AL West, the Rangers took a step back in 2017. They battled injuries, underperformance, and a shoddy bullpen throughout the year to finish 78-84. It was only the second time they had finished under .500 in a decade, and the other was a 2014 season so ravaged by injuries it might as well not even count. Meanwhile, the present day Rangers have cleared nearly $40 million from last year’s payroll.

The bargain hunting in the 2017-18 offseason means that the Rangers are going to likely start the season with a payroll almost $40 million below the team’s 2017 payroll, and more than $20 million below the 2016 payroll level, which g.m. Jon Daniels said was what the team had budgeted for.

It doesn’t seem entirely fair to blame ownership given how much they have invested in the team in the past. They won the bidding war for Yu Darvish in 2012, and took on both the Prince Fielder and Cole Hamels contracts in trades. They signed Shin-Soo Choo to a long-term deal, and extended Elvis Andrus for a cool $118 million. Their Opening Day payroll last year was over $160 million.

However, now doesn’t seem like the time to get stingy. The Rangers have a young core to build around, along with a couple of aging veterans that might not stay productive for much longer. They are projected by FanGraphs to win 79 games, and improvement from any of those young players could move them closer to the playoffs. Mike Minor and Doug Fister may very well be productive starters this year, but it’s not hard to find other areas where Texas could have upgraded their roster. Even their insistence on manipulating Willie Calhoun’s service time could come back to bite them. Will their current roster be able to overcome management’s sluggish offseason? Or will their lack of spending be the reason they fall short of the postseason again?

Team at a Glance

2017 record: 78-84 | 2017 pythag: 79-83 | 2018 farm ranking: 23
Manager: Jeff Banister (4th year)
SB Nation site: Lone Star Ball
Key additions: LHP Matt Moore, RHP Doug Fister, LHP Mike Minor, RHP Kevin Jepsen, RHP Bartolo Colon (!), RHP Tim Lincecum
Key departures: RHP Andrew Cashner, OF Carlos Gomez, RHP A.J. Griffin, RHP Nick Martinez, RHP Tyson Ross

Lineup

Four years ago, the Rangers traded second baseman Ian Kinsler to the Tigers in order to make room for Jurickson Profar, then the top prospect in all of baseball. That deal worked out fabulously for Detroit, but Profar missed two full seasons due to a shoulder injury. When he was finally healthy enough to get on the field, that job he was promised belonged to Rougned Odor. A strong 2016 season from the then-22-year-old Odor led to a six-year, $49.5 million extension, and Profar was a man without a position. He has hit well in Triple-A over the past couple years, but is now out of options and fighting for a 25-man roster spot. The Rangers have promised him a “significant” role, likely one that involves multiple positions.

Profar will have to move around the diamond in large part thanks to Odor and shortstop Elvis Andrus. The diminutive second baseman had one of the weirdest 30-homer seasons in baseball history last year, one that saw him finish below replacement level. His 24.9 percent strikeout rate wasn’t all that bad, but a five percent walk rate and a .224 BABIP (supported by an awful batted ball profile) exacerbated those issues. He should get better in 2018, but his plate discipline will always hold him back somewhat. Andrus, on the other hand, showed us that his 2016 resurgence was no fluke. He posted nearly identical offensive numbers and hit a career-high 20 home runs. His strikeout and walk rates trended in negative directions, but not significantly so. One imagines the juiced baseball had something to do with last season’s power surge, so odds are the double-digit home run pop will stick around in 2018.

On Andrus’ right is future Hall of Famer and occasionally grumpy (if you touch his head) third baseman Adrian Beltre. Although he missed nearly two months of action with a calf strain last year, the 38-year-old once again looked a decade younger. He hit .312/.383/.532 with 17 home runs in 389 plate appearances, good enough for a 135 OPS+ right in line with what he has done during his prolific Rangers career. Texas may look to give him a few more days off this year — they are limiting his playing time in spring training to keep him fresh — but it will be hard to bench him too often if he stays this productive. Across the diamond, Joey Gallo finally has a permanent(ish) home at first base. The human dinger machine mostly played third base and left field last year, all the while hitting for enough power (.327 ISO!) to be worth 3.2 WAR. If his subtle offensive improvements from the second half of last year stick around, he could be even better despite the positional downgrade.

The Rangers used a revolving door of left fielders last season, but seemed to have the position settled when they acquired Willie Calhoun from the Dodgers at the trade deadline. Calhoun only played 13 games at the major league level, but hit 31 home runs in a productive season at Triple-A. While Texas optioned him to the minors to start the 2018 season, he probably won’t be there for long. Until then, expect Drew Robinson and Ryan Rua to handle the duties. Neither was terribly productive last year, but manipulating Calhoun’s service time seems to be more important. Delino DeShields split time between left and center last season, but will take over the center field job full-time now that Carlos Gomez is gone. He will also serve as the team’s leadoff hitter after a productive spell in that role last summer. Over the final two months of the season, DeShields got on base at a .354 clip and stole 10 bases at the top of the order. The Rangers have committed to keeping Nomar Mazara in right field this season, a move presumably intended to simplify things for the 22-year-old. Mazara has mostly kept his head above water while learning on the job over the past couple years, but hasn’t come anywhere close to matching the gaudy numbers he posted in the minors. While his average dipped last year, fans should be encouraged by the jump in walk rate and slight bump in power.

Catcher Robinson Chirinos is one of the more fascinating players in baseball. He spent a decade in the minor leagues with the Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays, receiving only a cup of coffee in the majors with the Rays in 2011. Two years later, the Rangers acquired Chirinos for cash. Since then, Chirinos has provided 7.8 rWAR, and has been an above-average hitter for each of the past three seasons. Last season’s .255/.360/.506 line and 17 home runs were both career bests. Behind him will be career journeyman Juan Centeno, who has been a replacement level player in a handful of major league appearances. He isn’t much of a pitch framer either, but has seemingly won the job over non-roster invite Curt Casali, who was released on Wednesday.

Pitching staff

Texas’ pitching was their downfall last year, as it had been for so many years prior to their run of dominance earlier this decade. Lefty ace Cole Hamels lost his strikeout touch last season, which could have been the after-effects of an oblique injury that caused him to miss two months. However, he didn’t look great prior to the injury either (despite a 3.03 ERA in five starts), and seemingly got worse the further he distanced himself from the injury. Age is also a possibility, especially following a 1.5 mph drop in fastball velocity from 2016. While he should theoretically age well due to his plus command, he becomes extremely vulnerable if he loses that too. Matt Moore, on the other hand, just allowed the worst ERA of his career despite posting an identical walk rate to his much better 2016 season. He hasn’t been the same pitcher since having Tommy John surgery in 2014, with a 4.85 ERA and 2.30 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His $10 million option for 2019 is very affordable, but might not be worth the trouble if he doesn’t improve in 2018.

After that, the Rangers will rely on what columnist Tim Cowlishaw (I know) described as a “clown car” of a rotation. Old friend Doug Fister got off to a rough start with the Boston Red Sox last season, but settled down to give them some solid innings throughout the summer. While his overall numbers weren’t great, he enjoyed a 2.79 ERA in a seven-start stretch reminiscent of the quick-working ground ball machine we came to know and love while he was in Detroit. If he can limit home runs, he will benefit from Texas’ plus infield defense behind him. However, that defense hasn’t been all that helpful for Martin Perez over the past few years. The 27-year-old southpaw has a 4.56 ERA over the past four years. He managed a ground ball rate north of 50 percent in three of those four seasons, but has allowed allowed BABIPs of .315 or higher three times. He may also not be ready for Opening Day after a bull at his ranch charged him in December, injuring his left elbow.

Lefty Mike Minor quietly had a dominant season for the Kansas City Royals last season, striking out over 10 batters per nine innings. He did so out of the bullpen, though, only working 77 23 innings. While this seems like enough evidence to leave him in the ‘pen, the Rangers will use him. He has looked good in spring training so far, but has a history of injuries that could be exacerbated by the increased workload. It’s possible the Rangers shuttle Minor to the bullpen at some point, but the only feasible alternative at this point seems to be 44-year-old Bartolo Colon. Baseball Twitter would love to see Big Sexy make the roster, but he coughed up a 6.48 ERA in 143 ugly innings last year. He hasn’t been very good this spring either, giving up 16 hits in 12 23 frames. With Minor looking strong and Perez close to full health, it’s best to assume Colon gets dumped.

And then there’s the bullpen. The Rangers had the second-highest bullpen ERA of any American League team last season. While they didn’t blow too many opportunities overall, they had one of the lowest save conversion rates in baseball. Opening Day closer Sam Dyson barely lasted two weeks in the role, and was out of the organization by early June. His replacements were only slightly better. Righty Matt Bush held the job for two months, but he too was booted from the role by the end of June. Young righty Keone Kela could have been one to take over, but the organization had trouble trusting him after a late-spring dust-up of sorts with teammates. Instead, the job went to lefty Alex Claudio, who eventually led the team with 11 saves in 13 opportunities. While he doesn’t even touch 90 miles per hour with his sinker, he managed a solid 3.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 2.50 ERA in 82 23 innings. Bush and Kela are back in 2018, joined by hard-throwing lefty Jake Diekman and veteran Tim Lincecum. The two-time Cy Young winner won’t be ready for Opening Day, but should be in the mix for late inning opportunities.

Down on the farm

For years, the Rangers had one of the better farm systems in baseball while still producing a competitive product at the major league level. This was the result of an aggressive approach on the international market, where they signed and developed many of the players on their current roster (including Profar, Odor, Andrus, Mazara, and Martin Perez). That well has dried up somewhat, and was also hurt by the prospect package the Rangers had to send to Philadelphia for Cole Hamels. Now, they have a system lacking in top-end talent, especially in the upper levels of the minors. Calhoun is still considered a prospect, but center fielder Leody Taveras is neck-and-neck with him at the top of the system. Just 19, Taveras is coming off a solid season in Low-A. He has five-tool potential, but is a few years off from the majors. Lefthander Cole Ragans is FanGraphs’ pick for the top arm in the system, but he will undergo Tommy John surgery. Lefty Yohander Mendez and first baseman Ronald Guzman are both major league ready, but nearly everyone else of note in the system is in A-ball or lower.

Player to watch: Joey Gallo

I mean...

...yeah.

Outlook

Even though their lineup is nearly identical to last year, the relative volatility of their hitters and sweeping turnover on their pitching staff makes them one of the hardest teams in baseball to predict. They could anywhere from 70 to 90 games, and I wouldn’t really be all that surprised. I think they will fall close to the middle of that mark, slightly beating out their projections, but a lack of depth may pose problems throughout a 162-game season. Things would look a lot better if they had managed to re-sign Yu Darvish or landed Shohei Ohtani over their division rivals, but their lack of a Plan B last winter may ultimately be the difference between making the Wild Card and heading home early.