You don't have to search very far to see that expectations aren't high for the Texas Rangers heading into the 2021 season. All you have to do is peruse the major publications and betting sites to find that out.
Here is just a glimpse of how low those expectations are:
- Sports Illustrated: 63-99
- ESPN: 73-89
- The Athletic: 67-95
- USA Today: 69-93
- FanGraphs: 72-90
- PECOTA: 67-95
- DraftKings Sportsbook: 66.5 wins
- Caesars Sportsbook: 69.5 wins
In MLB.com's first power rankings of 2021, the Rangers are ranked 27th.
Despite all the pessimism, there's one thing nobody can do. Nobody can tell the Rangers they can't compete this year.
"Outside the walls, some people don't give us much of a chance," Rangers manager Chris Woodward. "It pisses us off. And that's a good thing. We want that."
It's been a long time since the Rangers have gone into a season with expectations this low. Well more than a decade. Though the Rangers finished 67-95 in 2014, a constant barrage of injuries at a near-comical level derailed any postseason or .500 chances in the middle of a contention window. And while the Rangers finished with the second-worst record in baseball one season ago, Corey Kluber's Rangers career lasting one whole inning is a perfection summation of how unlucky they were in 2020.
But let's not deny the fact that the Rangers began taking the steps toward a full-fledged rebuild in September. Maybe not quite as drastic as the route the Pittsburgh Pirates are going (who would have certainly traded Joey Gallo and maybe even Isiah Kiner-Falefa at this point), but there isn't any doubt the Rangers are shifting sharply toward a youth movement. If you need any proof, see the trade of Elvis Andrus in February and the upcoming departure of Rougned Odor that will force the Rangers to swallow a $27-million pill.
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With youth comes inexperience. That inexperience includes nine players — including five that will be on the 2021 Opening Day roster — who made their big league debuts in the COVID-shortened 2020 season without any fans in attendance.
In addition, the Rangers have several pitchers who will have to be on inning limits due to injuries prior to 2020, including Kyle Cody, Dane Dunning, and Taylor Hearn — all of whom are candidates for spots in the starting rotation. Then there are veterans like Jordan Lyles who have to earn their way back to a traditional starter's role.
Simply put, having two tandem roles in their starting rotation isn't sustainable for a six-month marathon. Even Chris Woodward admits that.
“It's gonna be a tough challenge to do the tandem the whole year,” Woodward said. “It was one of those things where I hope one of these guys [steps up]. Especially Jordan, who's got no limit. He's thrown a ton of innings in the past and he can build up to whatever.”
On the offensive side, there are question marks at every position, even with All Star slugger Joey Gallo. While Gallo had a wonderful season where he was awarded a Gold Glove in his first year in right field, his .181/.301/.378 slash line had alarm bells ringing around the fan base.
Gallo has shown a much better approach at the plate this spring, mashing six home runs while making a concerted effort to stay on top of the baseball. But two questions remain: 1) Can he regain his 2019 form? 2) Can he stay healthy?
While there is little doubt (outside of a FanGraphs blogger) that Isiah Kiner-Falefa can play shortstop with relative ease, there remains the questions of how impactful his bat can be. He posted a career-best .699 OPS in 2020, but that mark was 41 points below league average. Chris Woodward plans to have Kiner-Falefa hitting leadoff to begin the season, which begs the question: How much production will the Rangers get from the top of their lineup?
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For the rest of the lineup, you can chalk it up to a lot of inexperience. There are varying small samples of hitting at the big league level regarding Willie Calhoun, Nate Lowe, Nick Solak, Leody Taveras, Eli White, Jose Trevino, and Jonah Heim. And despite winning the Dominican Winter League MVP, Ronald Guzmán has yet to prove he can consistently produce at the big league level.
The Rangers made a nice splash this winter by adding a proven hitter in David Dahl, but there are fair questions about his ability to stay healthy. Veterans Brock Holt and Charlie Culberson are nice additions that will help solidify the defense, but neither bring an impactful bat.
Veteran slugger Khris Davis could provide some much needed power in the middle of the order, but is he the Khris Davis that mashed 40-plus homers in 2016-18 or the Khris Davis that hit two home runs in 30 games last season?
And the one area of the team that was viewed as a strength, the bullpen, has been decimated by injuries. Brett Martin, Joely Rodríguez, and Demarcus Evans will all start the season on the 10-day Injured List. The real big hits to the bullpen are 2020 breakout reliever Jonathan Hernández and former closer José Leclerc, with the former trying to avoid Tommy John surgery and the latter undergoing the surgery earlier this week.
This may seem like a lot of questions and concerns, but it's just the tip of the iceberg. We haven't even touched the minor league system and how the lack of a 2020 season could impact the development of some vital prospects, including Hans Crouse, Bayron Lora, Maximo Acosta, and Luisangel Acuña.
When there aren't a lot of tangible factors to help evaluate how a team might perform, it's difficult to quantify that into more wins than losses.
But the Rangers aren't focused on that. They sure as hell aren't focused on what anyone outside their clubhouse has to say. What they are focused on isn't quantifiable, which is why sports standings can't be decided by a computer.
"The one thing I promise you, they're gonna go out there and do is fight for one another," Woodward said. "At the end of the day, I demand these guys to be prepared, to go out and do everything they possibly can before the game to get ready for that night's game. And then when they do, go compete with one another; for each other."
Woodward's team has taken on the mentality of never taking a pitch off, whether that's at the plate or on the mound. That was personified a few different times during spring training, most notably when Rangers hitters forced San Francisco Giants pitching to throw more than 100 pitches in the first four innings of their contest on March 16.
From the beginning of camp, the Rangers have vowed to establish a competitive culture. Chris Woodward helped his players embody that identity this spring. And Rangers management is also pleased with the early returns from spring training.
"The response has been tremendous," said EVP & general manager Chris Young. "It's been everything we could have hoped for. ... Nobody in that clubhouse right now is excited about what the outside expectations are for our group. Every one of them takes that personally. I think collectively they've bought in to what we're asking of them in terms of the way they play the game, the approach they have on a day-to-day basis, and for whom they're playing, which is each other."
Ultimately, the Rangers hope 2021 is a season that helps propel the organization closer to contention. There's a critical free agent class next winter, and a big step forward from their young core would incentivize the front office to put the pedal down on Story Avenue, Báez Lane, or Seager Street to accelerate their rebuild.
Regardless, the Rangers couldn't care less of what you or I have to say.
"We got a little chip on our shoulder," Woodward said. "There's a lot of good people in that room and a lot of guys that care about each other, and frankly, a lot of guys that don't like to hear the negative chatter about their expectations of them personally and then for them as a team."
Promo photo: Kelly Gavin / Courtesy of the Texas Rangers