There may still be 23 games remaining in the 2021 season, but it's no secret that many involved with the Texas Rangers already have their eyes on this winter and the 2022 season. Unless the Rangers finish 12-11 the rest of the way, they will lose 100 games in a season for the first time since their second year in Texas in 1973.
Understandably, fans are clamoring for improvement. And with president of baseball operations Jon Daniels, general manager Chris Young and manager Chris Woodward all talking about adding pieces this winter, it's natural for optimists to peak through their crystal ball while skeptics brush off the notion of adding significant free agents to a rebuilding team.
This is probably far too early to predict the 2022 Opening Day roster, but we're going to take a stab at it anyway. This will surely have multiple makeovers over the course of the winter. In fact, our prediction of the position players already needs a makeover with the news that Eli White won't be available until the latter stages of spring training.
Alas, here's a way-too-early attempt at the guessing the pitching staff for March 31 next year.
Starter No. 1: LHP Clayton Kershaw
Here's my other big prediction for this winter. In addition to landing Carlos Correa, I have the Rangers adding a valuable arm to the starting rotation over the offseason.
Now, Kershaw has missed considerable time with the Los Angeles Dodgers this season. It's also pretty clear that the 33-year-old Dallas-Fort Worth native is on the back-nine of his career.
That being said, he's still posted a 3.39 ERA, 2.98 FIP and 0.98 WHIP in 106 1/3 innings over 18 starts this year. When healthy, Kershaw can still pitch.
There will definitely be other suitors for Kershaw this winter. However, the Rangers have home field advantage. 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.
Starter No. 2: RHP Dane Dunning
Being the main piece acquired in the Lance Lynn trade, there were going to be sizable expectations for Dane Dunning. All in all, the Rangers have gotten everything they needed from him this season. Of the pitchers still on the roster, he's been the most consistent starter the Rangers have had this year, despite the innings limit put in place to protect his health after barely pitching in two years.
While the 4.27 ERA and 1.42 WHIP don't jump off the page, a 3.66 FIP might better reflect the value Dunning brings to the table. There's definitely room for growth, but with the ability to pitch more innings next year, Dunning has shown more than enough to earn a spot in the 2022 rotation.
Starter No. 3: RHP Spencer Howard
Fans won't get the look at Spencer Howard that they want this season. The Rangers have to be careful with how they stretch Howard out due to the role he was serving before Texas acquired him from Philadelphia at the trade deadline.
However, the Rangers had sought after Howard for quite some time. He was once the No. 1 prospect in the Phillies organization, and Howard has flashed the stuff he is capable of in the short time he's been able to pitch in a Rangers uniform. But next season will be Howard's first true audition for a permanent spot in the rotation. He'll be able to go through the right offseason program and head into spring training ready to take on a full starter's role.
Howard might have an innings limit of some kind next season due to the lack of innings this year. But like they did with Dane Dunning this season, there is no doubt the Rangers want to get a long look at Howard in the 2022 rotation.
Starter No. 4: LHP Taylor Hearn
This is the story of a guy who seized a job this year. Taylor Hearn came into 2021 with one role and pitched his way into being a full-time starter. Manager Chris Woodward has even called Hearn one of the " biggest bright spots" of the season. In a year of evaluation, it's difficult to find higher praise than that.
Hearn's growth entails changes on the mound, like pitching exclusively out of the stretch. He's also added a sinker this year that gives him more confidence to attack the strike zone. The 4.87 FIP might scare off some fans, but the drastic improvement in walks this season is a huge step in the right direction for Hearn.
Hearn still has to win a starting job in spring training next year, but he has done more than enough over the last couple of months to go into Surprise as one of the favorites to win a spot.
Starter No. 5: RHP Kohei Arihara
This is where things get a little difficult to predict. Part of me wants to go with one of the young guys like A.J. Alexy or Glenn Otto in this spot. However, the Rangers didn't get a full look at Kohei Arihara this year due to an aneurysm in his shoulder that affected his last few starts in May, required surgery and sidelined him for more than half of the season.
Arihara was very successful in Japan, and the Rangers might want to get another look at him in 2022. He could be a bit restricted due to the lack of innings this year, but the Rangers believe they could still get enough from him to help round out the rotation.
While I am confident that Arihara could start 2022 in the rotation, I would almost guarantee — one way or another — he won't be by season's end.
Long Reliever: LHP Kolby Allard
Instead of having Alexy or Otto pitch out of the bullpen, I believe the Rangers could have them start the season at Triple-A Round Rock to put some finishing touches in their development. That being said, a lot can happen between now and next April.
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Since I currently have Alexy and Otto in Round Rock to start 2022, I have Kolby Allard pitching in a long relief role. It's been a bit of an up-and-down year for Allard. But he has taken a step forward from a very rough 2020 season. He can give the Rangers length and innings next season, which makes him a valuable arm in 2022.
It will be a critical year for Allard. With more pitching from the pipeline on the way, Allard will need to separate himself and pitch his way into a full-time starting role, much like Taylor Hearn has done this season.
Middle Relief 1: RHP Josh Sborz
It's been a bit of an inconsistent season for Josh Sborz, but with 2022 still likely to be another evaluation year, there is enough there to warrant another season out of the bullpen.
The 4.06 ERA and 1.41 WHIP aren't great out of the bullpen, but he misses a good amount of bats with a 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). Sborz has a lively fastball that the Rangers like. If they can get Sborz to attack hitters more consistently, he could pitch his way into a bigger role in 2022.
Middle Relief 2: LHP John King
Injuries have derailed John King's 2021 season. But before a shoulder injury derailed his campaign, he was pitching his way into a starter's role before Taylor Hearn got his opportunity.
King has nasty stuff and generates a lot of swings and misses and gets hitters to chase his devastating changeup out of the zone. He could get a chance at a do-over in 2022, starting the season in a relief role. However, the Rangers showed during the trade deadline that they are willing to part with him, as he was initially part of the trade that sent Joey Gallo to New York.
Taking that into account, it's very possible that King is pitching for another team entirely in 2022.
Middle Relief 3: RHP Dennis Santana
Along with DJ Peters, Dennis Santana is another former Dodger that the Rangers swiped during the 2021 season.
Santana has had more big league exposure while wearing a Rangers uniform than he had with the Dodgers. Overall, it's gone relatively well, though Santana has struggled with walks and has given up nearly one hit per inning pitched. But as the Rangers continue to evaluate who they have internally that can be part of the core moving forward, Santana could at least start next season with an opportunity to earn a permanent role in the bullpen.
Middle Relief 4: RHP Demarcus Evans
2022 hasn't gone exactly as expected for Demarcus Evans. It's been a season of ups and downs, in more ways that one. He's had successes and failures at the big league level, and has bounced back and forth between the big leagues and Triple-A Round Rock.
Even so, Chris Woodward said recently that he is proud of the growth that Demarcus has shown this season. He also said he believes Evans is still part of the Rangers' future. As long as he has a solid spring and avoids any injuries, it's hard to imagine the 2022 Opening Day bullpen without Evans.
Setup 1: LHP Brett Martin
No surprise here. From April to September, Brett Martin has been the most consistent reliever for the Rangers. Through September 11, he leads the pitching staff with 59 appearances and has posted a 3.38 ERA in 56 innings of work.
The Rangers would still like to see Martin hit another level. If he does, he could be one of the Rangers' more valuable trade pieces next July.
Setup 2: RHP Spencer Patton
Spencer Patton has done a fantastic job since joining the team in June. He's pitched in a variety of roles out of the bullpen, and has even recorded two saves since the Rangers traded closer Ian Kennedy at the trade deadline. In 33 1/3 innings, he has a respectable 3.51 ERA and 1.23 WHIP.
Unless then Rangers sign a free agent reliever to pitch in a late-inning role, and with Jonathan Hernández and José Leclerc not being able to return from Tommy John surgery until after the season starts, Patton is in line for high-leverage innings to start the 2022 season.
Closer: RHP Joe Barlow
Joe Barlow is the biggest development out of the bullpen for the Rangers this season. He went on an absolute tear from July 7 through August 15, pitching 12 2/3 straight scoreless innings. He pitched his way into the closer's role after Kennedy was traded, and has done very well since, despite his worst outing of the season on September 1, which resulted in his only blown save.
Overall, Barlow has a 1.66 ERA and 0.92 WHIP 21 2/3 innings this season, while displaying a cool and collected mentality on the mound. High-leverage innings haven't gotten to Barlow this season, which puts him in line to be the team's closer to start 2022.
After that, we'll have to wait and see what happens when Jonathan Hernández and his 98-mph "turbo sinkers" make their return.
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