DALLAS — Since Mitch Moreland departed and Prince Fielder was forced to retire in 2016, the Texas Rangers have needed stability at first base. After the 2021 season, we may have seen the beginning of it.
The Rangers acquired Nathaniel Lowe from the Tampa Bay Rays last December in an attempt to create more internal competition with the incumbent Ronald Guzmán, who had struggled to take hold of the position after multiple opportunities. In fact, the Rangers were straight forward and said after the trade that Lowe was expected to be the No. 1 guy. And despite Guzmán's torrid performance in Dominican winter ball and decent play during Cactus League action, Lowe earned that spot coming out of spring training.
Lowe's season couldn't have started any better. He recorded a remarkable 14 RBI in the first five games of the season, and quickly earned comparisons to former Rangers great Mark Teixeira. But Lowe cooled off and went through a series of ups and downs throughout his first full season as an everyday player in the big leagues. And after Ronald Guzmán's season was derailed with a torn meniscus in mid-April, all the pressure was on Lowe to perform.
Like many players on the 2021 Rangers, Lowe didn't have the luxury of blending in or being hidden by other veteran hitters in the lineup. Conversely, he was thrown into the fire. Of his 157 games played, Lowe batted in the cleanup spot for 53 of them, batted fifth in 34 games, batted third in 33 games and hit second in 24 games. Though he didn't qualify as a rookie, it was a difficult position for him to be in with very little big league experience.
The overall numbers from Lowe were definitely something to build on. He put up a respectable 2.3 bWAR and slashed .264/.357/.415/.771 with 18 home runs, 72 RBI and a 113 OPS+.
Lowe's strengths revolved his ability to draw walks, make hard contact and hit to the opposite field. His on-base percentage was 40 points higher than league average, and his chase rate was in the 82nd percentile. He also ranked in the 91st percentile in maximum exit velocity, 77th percentile in average exit velocity and 74th percentile in hard hit percentage. Finally, 33.7 percent of Lowe's batted balls went to the opposite field, the fourth-highest rate in all of baseball. Teams quickly learned to not employ "the shift" against Lowe.
The two largest flaws in Lowe's offensive game were his struggles to hit the ball in the air and catch up with elevated fastballs. His ground ball rate of 54.5 percent was seventh-highest in Major League Baseball. Lowe also struck out 162 times, 17th-most in baseball. 67 of his strikeouts were on four-seam fastballs, and 21 more were against sinkers. Given his exceptional chase rate, that means most of his strikeouts occurred in the zone.
The defensive side of the ball is where Lowe needs to improve the most. Lowe ranked 30th of 36 first baseman in MLB with a -3 Outs Above Average. He was also 16th of 21 qualifying first baseman with a -3 Defensive Runs Saved. In the latest SABR Defensive Index—a stat that helps decide Gold and Platinum Glove winners—released on August 22, Lowe was the second-worst first baseman in the American League with a -3.4 SDI.
The only other traditional first baseman to get a look this year was Curtis Terry. And after he raked at Triple-A Round Rock with a .294/.375/.583/.958 slash line, 17 home runs and 53 RBI in 65 games, the Rangers gave him a call-up.
However, Terry struggled mightily in his first big league exposure. After slashing an abysmal .089/.146/.133/.279 with no home runs and just one RBI, he was optioned back to Round Rock after only 13 games.
Projected Starter: Nathaniel Lowe
Internal Options: Ronald Guzmán, Curtis Terry, Sam Huff
Offseason Priority: LOW
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All in all, Lowe did more than enough to earn another crack at the everyday spot at first base. While the club is poised to add impactful players via free agency and trades this winter, 2022 is still not quite time for the Rangers to be a legitimate postseason contender. It will be another year—perhaps one final season—for several of the internal players to plant their flag at their respective position before the Rangers pivot towards contention.
Down the stretch, Lowe hit the ball in the air more often and it showed in the box score. In his final 42 games of the regular season, Lowe registered a .873 OPS and .493 slugging percentage. Given his ability to hit the ball hard, if Lowe can maintain a slightly higher launch angle, he'll hit more line drives. That means more extra base hits and more home runs. Couple that with his ability to draw walks and get on base, and the Rangers might really have something.
The intrigue is worth another look, especially if the Rangers are successful in luring a big name or two in free agency to deepen the lineup.
As for Ronald Guzmán, the Rangers have decisions to make. Guzmán is out of options, and with the upcoming 40-man roster crunch, the Rangers might have to risk removing him from the roster to protect an asset they don't want to risk losing in December's Rule 5 draft.
Any decision to move on from Guzmán, fair or unfair, would not be easy. He is beloved by fans and his attitude in the clubhouse is valued by virtually everyone in the organization. With the injury concern and lack of consistency at the plate, Guzmán could possibly clear waivers and remain in the organization.
Since he missed nearly the entire 2021 season, Guzmán has expressed interest in playing winter ball again.
The Rangers still view No. 5 prospect Sam Huff as a catcher, and the plan is for him to return to his duties behind the plate after knee surgery limited him to first base and DH duties in the minor leagues this season. That being said, if Jose Trevino and/or Jonah Heim takes significant strides forward in their performance, the Rangers always have the option of Huff playing first base. It's not their preference, given the bazooka that is attached to his shoulder and the inconsistencies that remain with the bat.
With the Rangers poised to loosen the pursestrings this winter, the Rangers could turn to an interesting class of first basemen if they feel the need to upgrade externally. Freddie Freeman, Brandon Belt, and Anthony Rizzo highlight the group, and Yuli Gurriel could be added to the class if the Houston Astros decline his $8 million club option.
Freeman is poised for a big payday, and the Rangers can afford to throw down with any club in baseball regarding cash. However, it would take a remarkable sales pitch to lure the 2020 National League Most Valuable Player from the clutches of the Atlanta Braves.
Ultimately, the Rangers have more important fish to fry regarding free agency. They are already known to covet Corey Seager and Trevor Story from the elite class of shortstops, and Carlos Correa is likely on their radar too. Nicholas Castellanos is expected to opt out of his contract with the Cincinnati Reds, and the Rangers courted him two winters ago. It would be a shock if they lost interest in him.
In addition, the Rangers need innings for the starting rotation. The club is expected to sign or trade for at least one, if not two starters to aid in that effort.
Given all of these factors, first base just isn't a high priority. If they were closer to contention, maybe the Rangers would look for a quicker improvement from 19th-ranked OPS and a 23rd-ranked slugging percentage at first base. Since 2022 is still a year for growth, the position is Nathaniel Lowe's to lose.
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