We continue our series in which we look at how each 2015 playoff team can go about the offseason in order to chase a ring in 2016. For more of an introduction, see the first piece in the series about the Yankees. Here, we will be looking at a team that surprised many by reaching the playoffs before getting knocked out in the divisional round, the Texas Rangers.
Just as a reminder, here are the cutoffs that we are looking at:
Last year’s recap:
Lost in American League Division Series to Toronto Blue Jays in 5 games.
Total WAR: 37.1
Top 12 WAR: 33.5
Top 16 WAR: 29.4
According to WAR, the Rangers were not one of the five best American League teams last year. It actually comes as quite a shock that this team did better than the Astros throughout the regular season. That doesn’t always have to be a problem because there might be a young, improving team that managed to make it to the playoffs and wasn’t quite ready but might be in a couple of years. Unfortunately for the Rangers, I think last year’s division title only gives them false hope. Aside from Delino Deshields Jr. and Rougned Odor, the rest of last year’s returning starters leave almost no room for growth. Sure, they’ll have Cole Hamels for the whole year, but there aren’t any other improvements that can be made with just a little tweaking. The right move for this team would be to retool, which would entail trading Hamels and probably Adrian Beltre for younger players that will help them much more in a couple of years. However, this series is called World Series push, so I will try to find a way to turn this team into a World Series contender. Not all of the moves that I make for this team will be logical and some will seem downright stupid, but I’m arguing that if this team’s only goal is to win a championship in 2016 and ignore everything else, then these are moves that need to at least be considered.
Paxton was once a top prospect for the Mariners and was nearly untouchable in trades. Injuries have played a major part in his slow development, as he is now 27 years old and has pitched just 165 major league innings despite never going to the bullpen. Ideally, the Mariners would like Paxton to bring in more in a trade, but it sounds like Seattle is considering banning him from throwing curveballs this season. I don’t know how front offices think, but I am pretty sure that taking that measure would decrease the value of a pitcher. It also doesn’t sound like the organization is endorsing Paxton as the top of the rotation starting pitcher that they thought he could be.
Moreland, on the other hand, would provide good power to a team that has been searching for a reliable first base option for quite some time now. If they stick with their current roster, Mark Trumbo would be the most obvious choice to start there. If he does, he would follow Justin Smoak, Corey Hart, and Logan Morrison in the line of first baseman that Seattle thought it would get more out of when it acquired those players. Moreland isn’t great by any means, but he has hit 20 home runs in each of his last two full seasons and throws in over 20 doubles as well. He is average defensively and is more likely to hit .250 than .280, which he did last season, but he would represent a sizeable upgrade over Seattle’s current options. As for parting with Paxton, they just acquired a better pitcher in Nathan Karns and still don’t seem too excited about getting the southpaw back from injury. The Mariners could view this as an upgrade at two positions after getting Moreland.
So why do the Rangers want Paxton? For starters, he will be better on a team that doesn’t limit his repertoire. Given that there is no evidence that a curveball hurts your arm more than a fastball and Nolan Ryan doesn’t care about “babying” pitchers anyway, Paxton will be free to throw what he chooses. It is highly unlikely that Paxton turns into more than a fourth starter, especially since his hype was based more on his stuff than his numbers, but Texas needs to take chances. The numbers say that Paxton is probably going to have an ERA in the mid-3’s, which is something that the Rangers do not have too much of right now, but he has a much bigger chance of exceeding expectations than Moreland does. Seattle may be able to get more in this deal simply because of the hype that once surrounded Paxton and the mere fact that he’s a pitcher, but it is more likely that they perform about equally well this season. I don’t expect much more out of Paxton, but the Rangers need a lot to go right for them this season if they want to make it back to the playoffs again. Hoping Paxton performs like a borderline number two starter would be a good place to start. He comes with a lot of injury risk, but the Rangers are running really low on options for their rotation. Starting pitchers are too expensive to sign two or three in free agency, so this would be one way for the Rangers to start putting together a good rotation that currently consists of Hamels and question marks. Paxton has shown decent strikeout and walk numbers during his years in both the majors and minors, so he has a pretty low chance of pitching terribly this year. Terrible pitching was a real problem for the Rangers last year from the third through fifth starters. Moreland is a good source of power, but he can be replaced by …
2. Sign Justin Morneau
I’m leaving the length of this deal open ended because Morneau will likely come at a discounted rate this offseason after he battled a concussion all year. However, it is likely that he will seek a one-year deal to try to prove that he can still hit well. If that is the case, then Texas will have to give him that. If not, then they could try to sneak him in at a bargain price for two or three years. Although he has had various injuries throughout his career and his concussions have become a major problem, Morneau has been a really good hitter when healthy.
I know he is 34 years old, but in his last full season he posted a .319 batting average to go along with 17 home runs and only 60 strikeouts. His strikeout rate has to go up, but he was pretty good at putting the ball in play while he was with Minnesota. I know he played in Colorado the last two seasons, but that ballpark alone won’t increase your average by 60 points. He was doing something right there, and Arlington is a pretty good place for hitters too. He is about the same as Moreland defensively, but would get on base a lot more, so this is a nice upgrade, assuming that Morneau plays the full season.
There is no guarantee that he can even get through the All-Star break, but this one is not as risky given that his price tag will be so low. Colorado opted to buy him out at $750,000 instead of agree to his $9 million mutual option. That doesn’t mean that he can’t get more money, but I am surprised that the Rockies didn’t try to trade him at that reasonable salary. If they weren’t willing to do that, then the Rangers probably won’t have to go over $10 million to make this signing. Considering that Morneau posted a 3.2 WAR in 2014, that could be well below market value in the first year or two of this deal.
The Rangers probably would want someone who is more likely to stay healthy all year, but they really have no choice but to hope that this works if they want to upgrade at first base. They could spend $100 million on Chris Davis, but they are already paying off the terrible contracts to Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder, and, to a lesser extent, Cole Hamels. Unless they want to force themselves into the no flexibility zone, the Rangers can’t spend too much money until the end of those big contracts is a little bit closer. Morneau represents a cheaper option who would be a huge upgrade for this team if he stays on the field. I know this is adding one more item to the Rangers’ list of things that need to go right in 2016, but they aren’t going to find a better, available first baseman than Justin Morneau.
3. Trade Rougned Odor and Luke Jackson to the Chicago White Sox for Jose Quintana
It is extremely difficult to part with a 21-year-old player who is already good enough to have spent two years in the major leagues. To make matters worse, Odor is a middle infielder. My guess is that there is absolutely no way that Odor gets traded, but Texas should think long and hard before coming to that decision. Unfortunately for Texas, I don’t think Odor is going to get much better during his career. Even though his 16 home runs in 120 games were very impressive for a second baseman and his .261/.316/.465 slash line was well above average for his position, it’s hard to see him ever becoming even a borderline All-Star. He has posted two straight below average seasons defensively and refuses to walk, so he doesn’t have much to fall back on if his hitting doesn’t progress much. Speaking of his hitting, he is going to have to add to his 170-pound frame if he wants to continue to produce really good power numbers, and he has yet to post an on-base percentage above .320. Not only that, but if he does add weight, then he better make sure that it doesn’t come at the cost of his speed. Odor has hit 35 doubles and 16 triples in 812 at-bats, and that is where most of his current offensive production lies. Speaking strictly from a total bases standpoint, adding four home runs only to lose six triples will hurt his team.
The real problem with Rougned Odor, though, is that he has no clue how to run the bases. There is the obvious metric that he has stolen 10 bases and been caught 14 times, which is even worse when you factor in that he has the speed to hit that many triples. WAR, however, paints a more accurate picture. In 2014, Odor posted a .1 WAR including 1.2 offensive WAR and -.7 defensive WAR. In 2015, those numbers were 1.9, 2.7, and -.4 respectively. In two combined seasons, that leaves -.8 between positional value and base running. Fangraphs rates second base as below average during that time frame, so Odor has cost his team close to two wins on the base paths during his time with the Rangers. That is even more disappointing when you consider the fact that his on-base percentage has been subpar. To recap, he’ll probably max out as an average fielder who might not help his team too much by adding power, and will help his team only a little bit by being on base more, since he has a tendency to find ways not to score once he’s there. He somehow managed only 54 runs last year, despite hitting 16 home runs and leading off or batting second a decent portion of the time. The general consensus is that he is a young player who is already good and still improving. My recommendation is that the Rangers trade him now before other teams realize that he won’t improve by much. Let someone else have those extra years of team control in exchange for a better player. Jose Quintana is a much better pitcher, and would help their rotation tremendously.
Now, of course, we have to understand what the Rangers are getting in return. The White Sox probably think that they are ready to make another run at the postseason and their second basemen were the target of many jokes last season. Odor would be a huge upgrade at that position even if he doesn’t improve. Jose Quintana is a large asking price, but Chicago isn’t going to find a better way to upgrade at that position. Besides, they already have Chris Sale and Carlos Rodon, which should be a good top of the rotation for many years. In the minors, they have two starting pitching prospects ranked in the top 100 overall plus Spencer Adams, who pitched very well in high A last season. As of now, there is no real plan at second base. Odor is controlled for several more years, and they have pitchers that they can control for a while too, so this seems like the right type of deal for Quintana. Luke Jackson is a relief pitcher who maintained a strikeout rate around 10 per nine innings but struggled with control and is mostly just there to even out the value. Quintana for Odor would be the real headline, and Texas would win this trade in a landslide.
Over the past three seasons, Quintana has never dipped below 200 innings and has provided 12.9 WAR during those years. He walks about one batter every four innings and strikes out around 7.5 per nine innings. His ERA has been in the mid-to-low 3’s, but that could decrease even more once he is pitching behind a different defense. The White Sox struggled defensively all the way around the diamond and although Texas isn’t a great fielding team, Adrian Beltre alone probably beats the entire White Sox infield. As a result of this poor fielding, Quintana gave up more hits than expected last year, so it is believable that his ERA would sit closer to 3 in Texas. Quintana would make a very nice addition to a rotation that struggled mightily last season and provide the Rangers with a good number two pitcher to follow Hamels.
4. Sign John Lackey to a two-year contract
Now that Quintana and Paxton are in Texas, the Rangers only have to worry about getting adequate pitchers at the four and five slots, for which they currently have no solutions. Let’s start here: John Lackey got extremely lucky last season. He gave up 21 home runs and 211 hits in 218 innings and somehow only 71 runs were scored against him. For reference, in 2014 he gave up 24 home runs and 206 hits in 198 innings while 94 runs were scored against him. In general, though, Lackey has been a very solid pitcher. He won’t overpower anyone and he doesn’t strike out too many batters. He just doesn’t walk that many batters either, and the home runs are mostly a result of him being a fly ball pitcher. Sure, there would be concerns over Lackey as a fly ball pitcher in Texas, but the reason I went with him here is that Texas can’t afford to spend big on another starting pitcher and when Lackey has gotten lucky, he has posted really good numbers. There are other cheap options out there, but I don’t think that any of them could be as good as Lackey was last season, regardless of how unlikely it is that he will repeat his 2015 performance. Getting a 37 year-old pitcher doesn’t make much sense for the team right now, but if they want to make a run at the World Series, their best bet is to hope that Lackey outperforms his peripheral numbers. If not, he most likely will be a good number four or five starter with an ERA somewhere in the high 3’s. That would be a considerable upgrade over the pitchers that Texas was throwing three and sometimes four out of every five games last season.
5. Trade Sam Dyson to the Detroit Tigers for Andrew Romine
Although their starting pitching was nothing special, the Rangers’ bullpen was very strong last year. Their big guns in Keone Kela, Shawn Tolleson, and Sam Dyson are all returning, and they just added Tom Wilhelmsen. Although these players were all key contributors, the Rangers would probably benefit from trading one of them. None of these guys are Wade Davis, but they are all very good relief pitchers. A team like the Tigers could really benefit from getting one of these arms. Speaking of the Tigers, they seem to be the only team that believes they have a shot in 2016. Instead of trying to get rid of big contracts, they gave Jordan Zimmermann a six-year deal that will just keep adding to their massive payroll problem with an average team that is getting older. All of this is to say that Detroit would be willing to part with one of the best fielders in the game at multiple positions for one relief pitcher.
Romine played only 212 innings at shortstop but had seven DRS at the position and four at third base while only playing 147 innings there. In just over 500 innings on the year, Romine saved the Tigers 11 runs across multiple positions with a 1.4 DWAR. He can play every infield position, although first base is his weakest spot and even though his bat provides almost no value, he does add something on the base paths, stealing 25 of 32 bases for his career. Consider this: in 184 at-bats he had a 1.6 WAR on the season. That is about the same as you will get from a good reliever, and Romine’s numbers will go up if he is given more time in the field. I don’t recommend that they start him, but he is perhaps one of the most valuable backups in the game right now. With Beltre’s nagging injuries, he could see more starts in Texas and that will mean more innings of stellar defense.
As for the piece going to Detroit, Dyson rarely gives up home runs and maintains a fantastic ground ball per fly ball ratio. In addition, his strikeout and walk numbers are solid, so Dyson would add a nice piece to a very shaky bullpen. The Rangers wouldn’t be looking to trade him, but they do need to find ways to upgrade and a bullpen piece is expendable.
6. Start Jurickson Profar at second base and Joey Gallo in left field
I started this exercise by saying that I would suggest moves that don’t make sense but need to be considered if Texas wants to win it all in 2016. That may not have been apparent until now, where these moves will most likely cost the team some wins relative to signing other free agents, keeping Odor, or starting someone else over Gallo. Reports are that Profar has been impressive in the Arizona Fall League, but his speed looks diminished. That could end up being a problem, since the Rangers were hoping for a 20 steal guy when he was coming up in their system. In the minors, his walk rate was pretty good and he showed good power at the plate. If his performance this past fall is any indication, then Profar will be able to make use of those tools this season. His on-base percentage would probably have to be above .350 to make this move worth it, but he is still only 22 and coming off of a major injury, so that will not be so easy.
There also remains the question of how good he will be defensively. In 2013 he saved three runs at shortstop, but cost his team four runs at second base in nearly double the number of innings. Given how much more difficult it is to play shortstop, one of those numbers is an anomaly and I’m not sure which one. He reportedly had good fielding tools in the minors, but with the diminished speed we may have to throw those reports out the window. Essentially, the Rangers just have to hope that he is a decent fielder and that his bat will not take a step backwards as he recovers from injury. Profar was once the top rated prospect according to many scouts, so there are still high hopes for him, but I don’t think it will all come together for him this year. So much would have to go right for him to perform at the level necessary for the Rangers to take a step forward, and I don’t think we will see Profar at his best in 2016. That being said, Texas doesn’t have an option that could get them further than Profar at his best, so this has to be tried.
Joey Gallo, on the other hand, is a much more entertaining story. If given the opportunity, Gallo will strike out 200 times this year, but he might also hit 35 home runs. Ever since he started his career in the minor leagues, Gallo has either walked or struck out more than 50% of the time. He also had a two-year stretch in which he hit 82 home runs going all the way from low A to AA in that span. Last season, he hit only 29 home runs in 123 games, no doubt hampered by his abysmal 36 game appearance at the big league level. He hit just .204 in those games, raising his strikeout rate to a career high 46.3% in the process. Then again, the Rangers shouldn’t expect a high average from him. The only thing that they can hope for is that he gets his strikeout rate back under 40%, which is where he was in the minors. They are solely interested in his power. If he can hit 35 home runs with a .220 average (I’m not sure which is more likely given a full season) to go along with a decent on-base percentage, then he will have provided about as much value as he can provide.
In theory, the Rangers could pay for a free agent outfielder since they don’t owe Josh Hamilton anything. However, neither Justin Upton nor Yoenis Cespedes would turn this team into a contender. Cespedes is not the player you saw with the Mets, as he has performed much more like he did with Detroit throughout his career. In other words, seeing if Gallo can mash his way to more home runs than any free agent is their riskiest play, but also the only one with a chance of turning them into a contender. Surprisingly, he is a good fielder, as he saved the Rangers 2 runs in 120 innings in left field last season, so he isn’t the adventure out there that you would expect from a power hitter like him. The other in-house option is Hamilton, so taking the player with better defense who has a chance to turn in an Adam Dunn-like season offensively is not a tough decision to make. My guess is that neither of these moves would work right away and I would start both in AAA, but this team has no other options if it’s goal is a championship next year.
7. Get Shane Robinson as a backup outfielder
Robinson recently signed a minor league pact with the Cleveland Indians, which is another way of saying that he can be had for almost nothing. This move is actually a logical one to make for this team, since Delino DeShields Jr. and Shin-Soo Choo make for an awful defensive pairing in the outfield. Despite being recently outrighted off of the Minnesota Twins’ 40-man roster, Robinson is a really good fielder. He can play all three outfield positions and consistently saves his team runs at all three. Like Romine, he provides very little offensively and can steal bases on occasion, but that shouldn’t matter. With Prince Fielder taking up the DH spot everyday and Hamilton taking up a roster spot everyday (unless they cut him), the Rangers will need versatile backups who can man multiple positions well. That is exactly what Romine and Robinson bring to the table, as they cover the entire infield and outfield between the two of them. Although I’ve said that some of these moves should not be done, I think this one would be a good move to make regardless of what the goal is for next season. Robinson could help cover some of their defensive faults when in there and help DeShields Jr. develop a bit more on that end as a good veteran who is great at getting a good read on the ball.
The Final Team and Projections
Robinson Chirinos (2.8 WAR) – If given a full year, this is probably what his WAR would look like. He has been a fantastic defensive catcher.
Bobby Wilson (.3) – Had some options here, but Wilson is the best pitch framer and fielder of the in-house candidates.
Justin Morneau (2.8) – He has been a consistent performer when healthy.
Jurickson Profar (1.3) – This probably won’t work, but they have to try it.
Andrew Romine (1.2) – He is a good fielder everywhere.
Adrian Beltre (5.1) – Usually players get worse when they reach the age of 36, but this guy didn’t.
Elvis Andrus (1.8) – He’s owed too much money to be able to move on from him.
Joey Gallo (1.2) – Like Profar, they have to try this.
Delino DeShields Jr. (1.8) – He needs to work on his defense, but he should be a good leadoff hitter.
Shin-Soo Choo (2.5) – The good news is that he walks and gets on base a lot. The bad news is that he is one of the worst fielders in the game.
Josh Hamilton (.3) – He’s just not that good anymore.
Shane Robinson (.5) – Great defensive outfielder.
Prince Fielder (1.8) – His value is capped because of his baserunning inability, and he’s no longer a great hitter, just a good one.
Cole Hamels (4.1) – Every time I think he isn’t doing that well, I realize that his WAR has been over 4 for six straight seasons and he still strikes out 200 batters.
Jose Quintana (3.8) – He was hurt a lot by bad fielding.
James Paxton (1.9) – Let him throw what he wants and hope it works out.
John Lackey (1.9) – He got lucky last season but he should still be decent.
Fifth starter competition until Yu Darvish gets back: Nick Martinez, Chi Chi Gonzalez, Anthony Ranaudo, Michael Kickham, and Martin Perez (.3) – My guess is that Martinez wins it and does nothing.
Andrew Faulkner (.8) – He’s a 23-year-old relief pitcher who showed great strikeout and walk numbers last season.
Shawn Tolleson (1.7) – He has struck out 184 batters and walked 67 in 181.2 innings throughout his career. That shouldn’t change much.
Keone Kela (1.6) – He was great in his rookie year in 2015 and he should be no different in 2016.
Tom Wilhelmsen (1.0) – Wilhelmsen just doesn’t let the ball leave the park.
Alex Claudio (.8) – Another 23-year-old relief pitcher with good strikeout and walk numbers.
Jake Diekman (.7) – Strikes out over nine per nine innings but control is a concern.
Runner-Up to 5th Starter Competition (.5) – One of these guys will be decent as a long relief pitcher, but I have no idea which one.
Here are the numbers for the Rangers:
All of that isn’t to say that this isn’t a better team. This team would improve the top 12 by 2.6 WAR, the top 16 by 1.8 WAR, and overall by 5.4 WAR. Again, that is assuming that nothing hits perfectly among the gambles that I made. Given that the team is not very young, they should consider retooling. MLB.com rates five of their prospects in the top 100 and that doesn’t count Profar, so help is near but not close enough that they can stick with their current roster. They have some very tradable pieces, too. They know firsthand what Cole Hamels can fetch in a trade, and Beltre should still get a very good return. Even smaller moves like dumping the almost free Hamilton on somebody might net an average prospect in return. They would still be stuck with Choo and Andrus, and possibly Fielder, but they can work around those problems and start building a younger and better team that can reach the World Series at its peak, unlike the team they currently have.