Rangers poised for more active offseason
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers, up first this year in MLBTR’s annual Offseason Outlook series, will head into the offseason on the heels of a second straight last-place campaign. Texas will be hard-pressed to compete in 2022, but the front office has offered indications they’ll set out to put some pieces of the next contending Rangers’ club in place nevertheless.

Guaranteed Contracts

– Owe $12.3M (minus the league minimum salary) to the Yankees as part of the Rougned Odor trade
– Owe $6.75M to the A’s as part of the Elvis Andrus trade

Total 2022 commitments: $26.9MM

Projected Salaries for Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Non-tender candidates: Calhoun, Cotton, Guzmán, Bush

Free Agents

The Rangers enter the offseason without much locked down anywhere on the roster. Texas began the transition to what they hope to be their next window of contention last offseason, parting ways with longtime roster fixtures Shin-Soo Choo, Lance Lynn, Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor. That effort continued midseason with deals shipping off Joey Gallo and Kyle Gibson. However the front office wants to define that series of moves — rebuild, retool, etc. — this is clearly a franchise amidst an overhaul to a younger, cheaper core group of players.

With that uncertainty comes opportunity. With very few positions accounted for and most of the marquee names now gone, the front office has a near blank slate to construct the roster. They’re entering the winter with less than $30M in guaranteed commitments and one of the smaller arbitration classes leaguewide. It’d be a surprise to see the club push player payroll up to their $160M+ franchise-record level this winter, but there’s plenty of room even before approaching the approximate $95M mark with which the Rangers opened 2021, itself the club’s lowest figure since 2011.

Regardless of precisely where ownership sets the budget, there should be a good bit of financial flexibility for the front office. General manger Chris Young acknowledged as much this summer, telling reporters he expects “to be very active in the free-agent market, targeting players who fit kind of our next few years and what we’re trying to accomplish.” That’s something of a nebulous quote by design — being very active in free agency doesn’t inherently signify the club will be playing at the top of the market — but the opportunity to add an impact player or two is there.

Signing a high-end free agent wouldn’t necessarily mean the front office believes the team ready to contend in 2022. Young’s mention of the club’s “next few years” could indicate the team is looking at 2023 and beyond as a more realistic contention window. But the front office could identify some marquee, multi-year deal targets this offseason with an eye towards locking in some certainty a year or two down the road when a return to competitiveness looks more plausible.

Ideally, that’d probably be a run at a relatively young free agent, one whom the front office could reasonably expect to continue to be highly productive in 2023 and 2024. An all-out pursuit of the market’s top players like Carlos Correa or Corey Seager would still register as a surprise, but there are plenty of productive under-30 options slated to hit free agency. There’ll inevitably be speculation about a potential run at Dallas-area native Trevor Story, but the soon-to-be 29-year-old makes some sense even independent of geographic connections.

Javier Báez and Kyle Schwarber are also entering their age-29 campaigns, and neither player would cost draft pick compensation to sign (both were traded midseason, rendering them ineligible to receive qualifying offers). Michael Conforto likely would cost a draft choice, although it’s possible the front office takes a shot on him returning to form, particularly if his down 2021 significantly depresses his market.

None of those players would make the Rangers an immediate contender, but they all look like solid bets to offer above-average production for the next few years. There should be appeal for the front office in locking in strong play somewhere on the diamond, adding a still-young building block hopefully supplemented by steps forward from some of the club’s internal talent.

Texas can enter the offseason targeting specific players as opposed to areas of need, since so much of the current roster remains unsettled. Adolis García’s worrisome approach at the plate was exposed a bit in the second half, but he’s coming off an All-Star first half and brings an exciting combination of power and speed to the table. Given where the team is in the competitive cycle, the Rangers should continue to give him everyday run in either center or right field in hopes that increased reps against big-league arms can improve his pitch recognition. Nathaniel Lowe had a nice season and is locked in at either of first base or designated hitter.

Otherwise, the position player group looks to be up in the air. Other than Lowe and Garcia, Andy Ibáñez is the only player still on the roster who hit at an average or better level last season, by measure of wRC+. Ibáñez makes plenty of contact and can bounce around the diamond, but he hadn’t appeared on Rangers’ farm system rankings at FanGraphs or Baseball America for the past three years. Giving him everyday run at second base would make sense, but he  shouldn’t necessarily stand in the way of external upgrades at any one position.

The same is more or less true of Isiah Kiner-Falefa at shortstop. He puts the ball in play and rated very well defensively in his move from third base to short. Kiner-Falefa looks like a solid option at the bottom of a lineup, but he doesn’t hit for enough power or reach base enough to be an impact hitter. Were the Rangers to make a run at Báez or Story, they could bump Kiner-Falefa over to second or back to third (at least temporarily), where he should continue to be a plus defender.

Any move to the hot corner for Kiner-Falefa would be very brief, though, as former top-10 pick and top prospect Josh Jung is on the doorstep of the majors. Jung mashed for his final couple seasons at Texas Tech, and he continued to rake this past season between Double-A and Triple-A. He only has 156 plate appearances at the minors’ top level under his belt, so it’s possible he starts next season in Triple-A. But if Jung continues to hit there as he did in 2021 (.348/.436/.652), he’ll be in the big leagues before too long.

It seems safe to assume the Rangers will have García, Lowe, Jung and Kiner-Falefa in their regular lineup relatively early into next season. That leaves catcher, a couple outfield positions, either of shortstop or second base (with Kiner-Falefa taking the other position) and designated hitter as possible areas of upgrade. Willie Calhoun looks likely to get another shot at DH, since his projected $1.6M arbitration salary is eminently affordable. But he’s been plagued by both an unfortunate series of injuries and underperformance over the past two seasons, and manager Chris Woodward implied last month there might be some debate about whether to tender Calhoun a contract on the heels of those back-to-back disappointing years.

The Rangers aren’t likely to plug all those holes externally, and talented but unproven players like Nick Solak, DJ Peters and Leody Taveras could still get another opportunity to break through. But the broad uncertainty around the diamond highlights the freedom president of baseball operations Jon Daniels, Young and the rest of the front office have in looking for upgrades over the coming months.

While free agency would be the most straightforward way to bolster the roster, the Texas front office could also look to the trade market for controllable targets. They’re not in position to make the best offer for a star in the Ketel Marte or Cedric Mullins mold, but they could look into some lower-tier options of interest. Ha-Seong Kim won’t have an obvious path to playing time in San Diego, for instance, and the Rangers were among the teams with interest in the 25-year-old during last offseason’s posting process.

Texas probably wouldn’t want to assume the remaining $23M in guaranteed money on Kim’s deal after he struggled to a .202/.270/.352 line over his first 298 MLB plate appearances. But if San Diego were willing to pay down some of that money and/or include a prospect to facilitate a Kim trade — the Friars were reportedly looking to clear some payroll space to accommodate a big-ticket pickup at the deadline and might do the same this winter — then perhaps the Rangers consider buying low on a young player for whom they had some affinity not long ago. Kim’s just one speculative possibility, to be clear, but this type of general scenario is one that figures to be kicked around by the front office.

It’s a similar story on the pitching side. With Mike Foltynewicz and Jordan Lyles hitting free agency and the aforementioned Gibson trade, Dane Dunning is the only returning Rangers’ starter who topped 100 innings in 2021. Texas broke some young pitchers into the mix late in the year, but none of Spencer Howard, Glenn Otto or A.J. Alexy was especially impressive altogether. Alexy flashed the most promise when he tossed eleven innings of shutout ball over his first two starts, but he was hit hard in his next couple outings and ultimately posted matching 17.5% strikeout and walk rates.

Howard, Otto and Alexy were, to varying degrees, well-regarded as prospects. All three figure to get rotation opportunities at some point next season. But the Rangers can’t go into next year with an Opening Day rotation comprised only of Dunning, Howard, Otto, Alexy, Kolby Allard and Taylor Hearn. That’d be one of the worst starting groups in the majors on paper, and they’ll no doubt want to keep an eye on the innings tallies of their younger options.

Kevin Gausman, Robbie Ray, Max Scherzer and Marcus Stroman are among the options at the top of the market, although it seems likelier Texas would look below that tier. Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Steven Matz could be counted on for more reliable mid-rotation production, but the Rangers are also in position to offer innings to rebound candidates. Last year’s flier on Foltynewicz didn’t pan out, but there’d be similar logic in scouring the lower tier of free agency and/or the non-tender market for starters coming off down years.

Taking a low-cost flier on a Dylan Bundy or Andrew Heaney type would address concerns about their other pitchers’ workloads, and it could give the Rangers a midseason trade chip if the free-agent pickup turns things around. Signing a player who gets non-tendered — perhaps the Rays deem Ryan Yarbrough’s projected $4.4M arbitration salary too expensive, to name one speculative example — could give the Rangers a much-needed controllable starting pitching option beyond next season.

It’s probably too early in the competitive cycle for the Rangers to devote much attention to upgrading their bullpen. They’ll surely be on the lookout for low-cost options in free agency or on the waiver wire, but a pursuit of Raisel Iglesias or Kendall Graveman in free agency seems unlikely. Spencer Patton, Joe Barlow, John King, Josh Sborz and Brett Martin all had nice seasons and should be in the mix for high-leverage innings next year, while José Leclerc and Jonathan Hernández should be back midseason after undergoing Tommy John surgeries this spring. The Rangers probably wouldn’t rule out trading anyone from that group, as something similar to last year’s Rafael Montero deal with the Mariners could still be in play. But Texas’ currently healthy relievers are more solid than elite, and none would bring back a top prospect.

The Rangers have torn things down over the past calendar year, and there are no longer any obvious trade candidates in the Lynn or Gibson mold on the roster. While the front office would no doubt remain open to inquiries about some of their role players, the bigger focus now seems to be on reconstructing a contending club. It’s probably not feasible for Texas to put together a strong roster almost from scratch in the course of one offseason, but they can begin to lay that foundation by identifying and pursuing a few primary targets who could be parts of the next competitive club. This winter should kick off the next phase of the organizational restructuring — adding some external big-league talent to make contention by 2023 a more realistic proposition.

This article first appeared on MLB Trade Rumors and was syndicated with permission.

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