Rangers need to do something. Is Stanton the answer?
On the heels of their stunning ouster from the playoffs in the AL wild-card game, it's been a relatively subdued winter for the Rangers. They lost out to the Dodgers in their pursuit of Zack Greinke, their top free agent target, and failed to retain either Mike Napoli, who agreed to terms with the Red Sox but has yet to close the deal, or Josh Hamilton, who defected to the Angels. They didn't land either of their top trade targets, R.A. Dickey, whom the Mets sent to Toronto instead, or Justin Upton, who remains a Diamondback. For a team that has become accustomed to winning, both on the field and on the transaction wire, Texas is in a slump.
At this writing, the 2013 Rangers don't appear to be a finished product, but they are starting to come into focus. Last month, the team unloaded Michael Young on the Phillies and signed free agent A.J. Pierzynski. This past weekend, they added free agent Lance Berkman; both additions come via one-year deals. On Monday, general manager Jon Daniels announced that Ian Kinsler will remain at second base instead of switching to first base to open up a spot for top prospect Jurickson Profar. Barring further trades or injuries, both Profar and Mike Olt, their other highly-regarded position prospect, will start the year in the minors, where they can play every day instead of sitting on the big league bench.
The addition of Pierzynski simplifies the Rangers' catching situation, since Napoli had split time between catcher, first base and designated hitter during his two years in Texas, requiring frequent use of lesser-hitting backups such as Yorvit Torrealba and Geovany Soto. Texas signed the 36-year-old Pierzynski to a $7.5 million deal coming off a year in which he hit .278/.326/.501 with a career-high 27 homers for the White Sox. Though he's unlikely to retain that level of production, he's moving from one favorable hitting environment to another, and his durability — an average of 133 games a year over the past 11 seasons — will be an asset that should minimize the exposure of Soto, who was re-signed to a $2.75 million deal despite hitting just .198/.270/.343 for the Cubs and Rangers last year. With Napoli starting just 69 games behind the plate, the Rangers received just a .228/.312/.397 line from their catchers in 2012.
Berkman could potentially upgrade a DH slot that provided a relatively meager .265/.323/.432 line in 2012, with almost exactly half of those plate appearances coming from the departed Young and Napoli. The 36-year-old slugger is going to have to avoid the disabled list to do so, however. Coming off a stellar 2011 campaign in which he batted .301/.412/.547 with 31 homers for the Cardinals and helped defeat the Rangers in the World Series, he was limited to just 32 games in 2012, hitting .259/.381/.444 in 97 plate appearances and making three trips to the disabled list for leg problems, not including a September spent mostly on the shelf. He underwent two separate surgeries on his right knee that have left him with little cartilage in the joint, and not surprisingly, he was mulling retirement near the end of the season.
Texas signed Berkman to an $11 million deal — $10 million in salary plus a $12 million club option for 2014 that vests at 550 PA — slightly less than the $12 million he made last year, but still a pricey sum for a player who's likely to be confined to the DH role and who has averaged just 100 games and 1.9 Wins Above Replacement Player over the past three seasons. At a going rate of around $6 million per win, he's a break-even proposition if he meets that average, but as he's failed to do so in two of those three years, he carries significant risk — risk justified, perhaps, by the Rangers' status as contenders still in need of a few fixes.
As for Kinsler, he had initially agreed to move off second base for this season, but recently backtracked, telling Daniels he wasn't comfortable doing so at this stage of his career, with the GM respecting his wishes. Even so, the decision to keep Kinsler at the keystone has its pros and cons. Though he set career highs with 157 games and 731 plate appearances in 2012, he's coming off a down year in which he hit just .256/.326/.423, with the lowest on-base percentage of his career; his .255 True Average was 22 points below his career mark, and thanks to subpar defense (-5 Fielding Runs Above Average), he dropped from a career-high 5.6 WARP in 2011 to a career-low 0.9 in '12; other value metrics suggest average defense but still a steep dropoff from the previous year.
It's possible that Kinsler's 2012 showing was an aberration both at the plate and in the field; after all, this is player who had averaged 4.3 WARP and 11 FRAA over the previous five years. If this is the start of his decline phase, the timing is awful, as his five-year, $75 million extension has just taken effect. Moving him to first base might mitigate a defensive decline, but he would no longer be a significant asset offensively; his career .277 True Average is slightly below the historical major league average at his position.
Which isn't to say that there aren't benefits to moving Kinsler. The primary one would be to open up a spot for Profar, considered to be the top position prospect in the minors. As a 19-year-old, he hit .281/.368/.452 with 14 homers and 16 steals in 526 PA at Double-A Round Rock, and played nine games for the Rangers in September. Given the continued presence of Elvis Andrus at shortstop, a promotion would require Profar to switch from short to second base, where he saw duty in 30 games (including five in the majors) last year.
Such a move would also bump Mitch Moreland from regular first base duty. The 27-year-old lefty is himself a below-average hitter for a first baseman; in 2012 he hit .275/.321/.468 for a .264 True Average, and in three years and 1,042 plate appearances, he's at .267, 15 points below that of the major league average first basemen in that span. A typical season from Kinsler at the plate beats a typical season from Moreland, and would almost certainly be better than the .251/.301/.399 the Rangers collectively received from their first basemen (Moreland, Young, Napoli, Olt and Brandon Snyder) in 2012. For that matter, Olt, a 24-year-old third baseman who is blocked at his natural position by Adrian Beltre, could likely provide a significant upgrade given his showing at Round Rock (.288/.398/.579 with 28 homers) before a late-season stint with the Rangers.
Beyond the catching and DH upgrades, the Rangers still haven't done anything to their outfield to offset the loss of Hamilton to free agency. While his 2012 season was maddeningly inconsistent, the slugger's production (.285/.354/.577 with 43 homers in 148 games) is hardly trivial to replace. At this juncture, the Rangers have Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry as their top options in centerfield. Martin, a 24-year-old Cuban defector, lit up Triple-A pitching at a .359/.422/.610 clip, albeit in just 260 plate appearances; meanwhile he struggled in 52 PA in the majors. Gentry, a 29-year-old righty-swinging speedster, hit .304/.367/.392 in 269 PA for the Rangers; manager Ron Washington often used him off the bench as a late-game replacement for lefty David Murphy, sliding Hamilton from center to left. While that combination may make for a productive platoon — atop the lineup, rather than in the middle of it — the expectation that the 31-year-old Murphy can repeat his .304/.380/.479 showing may be a stretch. Murphy set slash-stat career highs across the board, and even hit a vastly out-of-character .347/.405/.440 in 84 PA against lefties, well above his career .266/.313/.361 line against them.
The addition of another power hitter would help the Rangers, and while they're known to covet the 25-year-old Upton, he's coming off a season in which he hit .280/.355/.430 with 17 homers and 18 stolen bases, solid but hardly exceptional numbers given the favorable hitting environment of Chase Field. Given the package of prospects it would take to obtain him, it makes more sense for the Rangers to focus on trading for the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton, who's more than two years younger than Upton, and an even greater threat with the lumber; he hit .290/.361/.608 with 37 homers in 2012 despite playing in just 123 games due to in-season surgery to remove bone chips from his right knee. Upton, who has $38.5 million remaining on his contract over the next three years, offers cost certainty, whereas Stanton, who won't even become arbitration-eligible until next year, does not, but he does have the extra year of club control remaining. His youth and track record of consistency suggests he's a much greater investment for a nine-figure extension than either Hamilton or Upton.
As if they didn't have other concerns, the Rangers' rotation behind Yu Darvish remains in flux. Matt Harrison is coming off a strong season (3.29 ERA in 213 1/3 innings) but Derek Holland was roughed up for a 4.67 ERA and 1.6 homers per nine, and Alexi Ogando and Martin Perez, the presumptive fourth and fifth starters, combined for just 11 big league starts, with Ogando mainly working out of the bullpen and Perez spending most of the year in Triple-A. Colby Lewis just began throwing again following July 18 surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon, and isn't expected back until June, while Neftali Feliz, who underwent July Tommy John surgery, won't be back until late in the year and may be bullpen-bound once he is. Justin Grimm, a 24-year-old righty who split his season between Double-A, Triple-A and the majors, could figure into the equation as well, particularly if the team wants to avoid having three southpaws (Harrison, Holland and Perez) in the rotation. One way or another, it appears that the team could stand to flesh out the rotation with another proven starter. Add it up, and that's a whole lot of question marks for a team that has compiled the majors' third-best record over the last three years while making the playoffs each time. That said, there are still almost three months until Opening Day. In Profar, Olt and a minor league system that ranks among the game's best, they still have their best trade chips in hand, and even with the arbitration-based salaries of Murphy, Harrison and Feliz yet to be determined, they're well under last year's $120 million payroll, leaving them room for at least one more substantial salary.