It's been a difficult season for the Texas Rangers and their fans. It's August 24 and the Rangers have already lost 81 games, meaning it's only a matter of time before Texas officially makes 2021 the club's fifth consecutive losing season.
But help might be on the way.
As Chris Young addressed the media on Monday, primarily to address the team's COVID-19 outbreak, the Rangers general manager also entertained some baseball-related questions, including an offseason that is rapidly approaching.
"Given where we are, with the financial flexibility moving forward into the offseason, I expect us to be very active in the free agent market," Young said. "[We'll be] targeting players who fit our next few years and what we're trying to accomplish, surrounding the next wave of talent that come through our minor league system — the players that we think are going to be part of our future with the right veteran players."
Young's remarks are nothing that hasn't already been said by president of baseball operations Jon Daniels or manager Chris Woodward. As the club has offloaded veterans with big contracts (Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor) and traded valuable pieces to further deepen the farm system (Joey Gallo, Kyle Gibson, Ian Kennedy), they've created that term, "financial flexibility".
While there's a sect of the fanbase that likes to define that as "cheap", it's anything but the truth. Heading into 2022, the Rangers have only $28 million on the books:
- Kohei Arihara: $3,600,000
- José Leclerc: $5,250,000
- Rougned Odor: $12,333,333 (minus the league minimum paid by the Yankees)
- Elvis Andrus: $7,250,000
The Rangers also have nine arbitration-eligible players for 2022, but it's a good bet that a few of these names don't even make it past the non-tender deadline. In addition, none of these names are even heading into the final, most expensive year of their arbitration:
- RHP Drew Anderson
- RHP Matt Bush
- OF Willie Calhoun
- RHP Jharel Cotton
- 1B Ronald Guzmán
- SS Isiah Kiner-Falefa
- OF Jason Martin
- LHP Brett Martin
- RHP Hunter Wood
Are you ready for more financial flexibility? The only money on the books for 2023 is José Leclerc's $6 million club option. Unless Leclerc comes back from Tommy John surgery with a vengeance, it's at least a thought the Rangers don't pick up that option.
In other words, there's a lot of money the Rangers can spend over the next two winters. And when management has asked ownership to spend, they've spent:
- 2010 Opening Day payroll: $55.25 million (27th in MLB)
- 2011: $92.3 million (13th)
- 2012: $120.5 million (6th)
- 2013: $114 million (11th)
- 2014: $136 million (8th)
- 2015: $142.1 million (8th)
- 2016: $144.3 million (8th)
- 2017: $175.9 million (6th)
But why start spending this offseason? The Rangers are far from competing. Even if everything were to go right this winter and they add two or maybe even three impactful free agents, it won't make the Rangers a playoff team. 2021 was dedicated to evaluation, growth and development. The Rangers needed to find players who can be a part of this team when it's time to put their foot on the gas and go for it.
However, only a few players have really stood out. And even then, there are still questions to be answered about some of them.
Dane Dunning? He looks like a rotation piece, and he should be let loose next year after pitching on a limit this season.
Adolis García? He looked like a guarantee in the first half of the season, but his steady-yet-rapid decline has raised questions about whether he can be an everyday player.
Jose Trevino and Jonah Heim look like they'll be the catching duo next year for now, but both of them have questions to answer at the plate. In addition, what about Sam Huff's return to catching next year?
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Joe Barlow and Nick Snyder are very intriguing pieces for the bullpen, but are just getting their big league careers started.
Nathaniel Lowe has done enough to earn another crack at things, but he needs to provide more from the plate in order to stick.
Nick Solak, DJ Peters, Willie Calhoun, Jason Martin, Eli White, Ronald Guzmán and several arms all have many questions left about their potential or ability to stay healthy.
That's not a core that sounds like it's ready to be supplemented. However, what's happening in the top two levels of the minor leagues is what the Rangers are banking on. Most of the players the Rangers are putting their hopes into have spent time at Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock this season. Josh Jung, Cole Winn, Justin Foscue, Sam Huff, Jack Leiter, Josh Smith, and several others are all expected to get their shot in Arlington over the next couple of seasons.
Five of those players are ranked in MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospect rankings, and the Rangers are putting their stock in the next crop of prospects and plan to supplement them with adding free agents.
“There’s a lot to be excited for as we move forward, especially next year,” Woodward said last week. “We’re, obviously, going to have a higher payroll. We're going to add a lot of pieces, and then you have these younger guys coming up at the same time. It could all come together pretty nicely, as far as just having a lot of quality additions when we need it. And being able to honestly put these guys in position to succeed when they get here."
Traditionally, baseball clubs waited until they had an established core of players at the big league level before they started supplementing with free agency and trades. However, a team like the San Diego Padres went against tradition and bought a couple of big free agents (Eric Hosmer in 2018, Manny Machado in 2019) before they were considered to be "ready" to compete.
Granted, the Rangers do not have a Fernando Tatis Jr. waiting in the farm system. But they have a deep crop of hitters that are known more for their contact and ability to control the strike zone — a lesser number of Anderson Tejedas and more guys like Josh Jung, Justin Foscue, and so on. The Rangers have built their farm system much more like Tampa Bay or Oakland, but have the financial ability to shell out money in the upper tiers of free agency.
It's a bit of a risky move to spend and add free agents before most of the Rangers' top prospects have even seen one inning in the big leagues. We've seen a core of Joey Gallo, Jurickson Profar, Nomar Mazara, Rougned Odor, Martín Pérez fail, which ultimately led to the current situation now. But the Rangers are ultimately trusting the changes they've made on the player development side. Adding several players that are known more for their hit tool rather than their power is a huge sign of those changes.
There are a number of big name free agents available this winter. The Rangers have already been reportedly interested in Colorado Rockies shortstop — and Dallas-Fort Worth native — Trevor Story, and could make a play for any of the other big names shortstops like Carlos Correa, Javier Báez or Corey Seager.
There are also several starting pitchers available, including Dallas native Clayton Kershaw. Prior to the season, Kershaw expressed a desire to spend more time with family. He and his family reside in Dallas during the offseason, and his children are getting closer to school age. With the World Series monkey off his back, the Rangers could offer Kershaw a big three-year deal and help lead a young rotation into years of contention.
Of course, you may wonder why any free agent would want to join a team that's on the verge of their fifth straight losing season. The Rangers will have to sell their exciting future crop of players that will start making an impact next season. And, of course, money talks.
The Rangers have yet to set their budget for next season, and the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players Association will have an economic impact on all 30 clubs heading into the winter. While those circumstances remain unclear, the Rangers have been very clear: they will play in the free agent market.
"I think we're in a good position," Young said. "I think we've got a pretty good feel for where we are and what we need to do moving forward."
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