Winter Report Card: Despite hole in leftfield, Rangers don't do much
With less than three weeks left before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Texas Rangers. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
88–74 (.543), first place in American League West (Hot Stove Preview)
RHP Anthony Bass, 1B/OF Kyle Blanks, C Carlos Corporan, RHP Yovani Gallardo, OF Leonys Martin, 1B Mike Napoli, OF Drew Stubbs, OF Will Venable, RHP Ross Ohlendorf, RHP Spencer Patton
RHP Tony Barnette, RHP A.J Griffin, OF James Jones, OF Justin Ruggiano, RHP Tom Wilhelmsen
Off-season In Review
It's been a rather quiet winter for the Rangers, who rebounded from a dreadful, injury-wrecked 2014 season to return to the playoffs for the first time since '12 despite losing front-line starter Yu Darvish to Tommy John surgery before Opening Day. The good news is that Texas has retained key pieces from last year's set of midseason fortifications—ace lefty Cole Hamels and relievers Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson—and is targeting mid-May for Darvish's return. The bad news is that the Rangers have at least one glaring hole where they'll need somebody to step out of the crowd to pick up the slack.
The most substantial 2015 contributor to depart is Yovani Gallardo, who made 33 starts and pitched to a respectable 3.42 ERA (124 ERA+) in 184 1/3 innings en route to 4.1 Wins Above Replacement. Even given the fact that manager Jeff Banister kept Gallardo on a very short leash to the point that he delivered a mere 36% quality-start rate and reached the six-inning mark just twice in his final 16 turns, that's a substantial gap to fill. Ideally, full seasons from Hamels, Derek Holland and 2015 Tommy John surgery returnee Martin Perez will offset the loss, though the fact that Holland has made just 15 starts over the past two seasons due to injuries should temper some enthusiasm.
Elsewhere in the rotation, the Rangers did re-sign 36-year-old Colby Lewis to a one-year, $6 million deal on the heels of an unexceptional 4.66 ERA and 4.17 FIP, though he delivered that over 204 2/3 innings—bulk whose value shouldn't be downplayed. Rounding out the rotation will be Nick Martinez, who stepped forward with a 3.96 ERA (but a 4.98 FIP) in 125 1/3 innings, with the return of Darvish providing an upgrade.
Among Texas' depth pieces, the new name to keep an eye upon is A.J. Griffin, who was signed to a minor-league deal after being released by the Athletics in November. It's been a rough couple of years for Griffin, who missed all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery and then made just four starts in the minors last year before being lost to a shoulder strain. The 28-year-old owns a career 3.60 ERA (108 ERA+) and 4.34 FIP in 282 1/3 big-league innings.
In addition to full seasons from Diekman and Dyson, the Rangers' bullpen has a pair of interesting additions in 32-year-old righties Tony Barnette and Tom Wilhelmsen. Barnette, a 2006 10th-round pick by the Diamondbacks, topped out at Triple A in '09 before spending the past six seasons with the Yakult Swallows of the Japan Central League, with widely varying results but recent dominance as a closer. In 2015, he tied for the Central League lead with 41 saves and posted a 1.29 ERA with 8.0 strikeouts per nine in 62 2/3 innings; for his NPB career, he owns a 3.58 ERA with 9.6 strikeouts per nine. The Rangers signed him to a two-year, $3.5 million deal that includes incentives and a 2018 option, none of which amounts to more than chump change even if he does wind up closing.
Wilhelmsen adds another late-game option to the stable, as he saved 13 games and recorded a 3.19 ERA, 3.33 FIP and 8.7 strikeouts per nine in 62 innings for the Mariners. He, outfielder James Jones and utilityman Patrick Kivlehan were acquired as part of a five-player deal that sent low-leverage righty Anthony Bass and outfielder Leonys Martin to Seattle. Bass pitched to just a 4.50 ERA in 64 innings, and Martin, after two useful seasons, flopped completely at the plate (.219/.264/.313 in 310 PA) to the point that he was worth just 1.0 WAR despite 15 Defensive Runs Saved. Also gone from the pitching picture are Spencer Patton and Ross Ohlendorf. The former, who was torched for a 9.00 ERA in 24 innings, was traded to the Cubs for 20-year-old–switch-hitting second baseman Frandy Delarosa, who slashed .273/.315/.367 in Class A last year. Ohlendorf, who gave the Rangers a 3.72 ERA with 8.8 strikeouts per nine in 19 1/3 innings (mostly in September), has yet to find a new home.
As for the hitters acquired from Seattle, neither of them is an impact player. The 27-year-old Jones went 3-for-29 in 28 games for the Mariners last year after hitting just .250/.278/.311 (71 OPS+) in 328 plate appearances in 2014. He's not much on defense, either, with a -14 DRS in 105 games in centerfield; his struggles in the field will make it harder to hide Delino DeShields Jr.'s questionable work (-10 DRS in 85 games) in the middle pasture. Kivlehan, a 2012 fourth-round pick who's now 26 years old, is a former football player who made at least nine starts at five different positions in 2015—both infield corners and all three outfield spots—but managed just a .256/.313/.453 line with 22 homers at Triple A Tacoma. He could compete for a bench spot.
The most useful addition to the outfield picture is 33-year-old righty Justin Ruggiano, who hit .281/.337/.429 with six homers in 141 plate appearances split between the Mariners and Dodgers. Signed to a one-year, $1.65 million-plus incentives deal, the well-traveled veteran is a lefty-masher (.272/.336/.520 in 535 career PA) who could fit into a leftfield platoon, more on which below.
Gone from the pool of outfielders are oft-injured Kyle Blanks and midseason pickups Drew Stubbs and Will Venable. Blanks, who played just 18 games for the Rangers, signed a minor-league deal with the Giants. Stubbs, who received only 26 plate appearances in 27 games after being acquired from the Rockies, is still a free agent, as is Venable, who hit a weak .182/.325/.227 in 82 PA after being acquired from the Padres. Also gone: August pickup Mike Napoli (.295/.396/.513 in 91 PA), who signed a one-year, $7 million deal with the Indians, and backup catcher Carlos Corporan (.178/.244/.299 in 121 PA), who signed a minor-league deal with the Yankees. Corporan's departure leaves Chris Gimenez as the primary backup.
Unfinished Business: Leftfield
Leftfield was a sinkhole for the Rangers last year. Banister tried no fewer than a dozen players in the spot—even Napoli, who had never played there before—who combined to hit a meager .225/.295/.393. If there's any consolation to that, it's that the Angels, who punted Josh Hamilton back to Texas, were even worse by 94 points of OPS, a gap that basically cost them a playoff berth. Despite the number of quality free-agent outfielders on the market, the Rangers came up empty, with a failure to convince Justin Upton to take a one-year deal the closest they came in any pursuit.
Currently, the team's primary plan is for Hamilton and Ruggiano to platoon, but the former hit just .253/.291/.441 in 182 plate appearances during a tumultuous season that began with a drug suspension, ended with off-season surgery on his left knee—his second in two months—and included the variety of aches, pains and drama that come with a typical Hamilton season, including a lengthy trip to the disabled list. Last week, it was reported that he needed a cortisone shot in his left knee to manage inflammation and will have to carefully manage the problem throughout the season—something that isn’t likely to help him regain his stroke. The bottom line is that it's a good thing the Rangers are chipping in pennies on the dollar for his services, as he may not provide much over the remaining two years of his deal.
At this point, the best in-house alternative would be for 22-year-old slugger Joey Gallo to assert himself and make the transition from third base. Last year, Gallo hit .204/.301/.417 with six homers in 123 plate appearances, showing off his light-tower power but striking out in a whopping 46% of his trips to the plate; he made 13 starts at third base during Adrian Beltre's absence and 14 in leftfield. Top prospect Nomar Mazara, a 21-year-old who ranked fifth among Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 prospects, is probably at least half a season away after a year in which he hit a combined .296/.366/.443 with 14 homers at Double and Triple A. It’s also too soon to think about the prospect of infielder Jurickson Profar moving to leftfield after two seasons lost to a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
With so many question marks in leftfield as well as center, a case could be made to sign Dexter Fowler, one of the top remaining free agents on the market. The soon-to-be-30-year-old spent last season with the Cubs, hitting .250/.346/.411 with 17 homers, 20 steals and a 107 OPS+, though the value of his offense was offset by his -12 DRS in centerfield. He hasn't played leftfield since a one-game cameo in the Arizona Fall League back in 2007, but between him and DeShields, there has to be some configuration where the value of the two bats offsets those of their gloves, leaving Hamilton and Ruggiano as bench/designated hitter options. The latter fits with first baseman Mitch Moreland and rightfielder Shin-soo Choo, though that presumes Prince Fielder is still capable of competently manning first base more than once in a blue moon. The reason this probably won't happen, though, is Fowler's attachment to a qualifying offer, but since Gallardo is tethered to one as well, it's not as if the Rangers would be without some kind of first-round pick if they made such a move.
Preliminary Grade: B-
The Rangers haven't done anything earth-shattering this winter, but they further upgraded a bullpen that made great strides down the stretch and added depth with some low-cost investments. It's not a sexy set of transactions, but particularly in the context of the rest of the division's moves, it's not a debilitating one by any means.