Prince Fielder, the last major potential free agent acquisition for the Rangers, has signed with the Detroit Tigers. The Rangers tapped out very late in the process, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, meaning they were probably ready to commit at least $150-$160 million, given that his final purchase price was $214 million. Assuming those financial resources are still available next year, I’m going to look at how the Rangers could put those dollars to work during the 2013 offseason, which will have a radically different free agent class in terms of positional scarcity.
In 2013, the Rangers will have several positions to fill on the Major League roster. Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba will be free agents, creating a significant void at catcher. Josh Hamilton is also a free agent, creating an opening in LF. Colby Lewis and Mike Adams will both be free agents, creating an opportunity to sign both a free agent starter and reliever. Apart from the departing, the Rangers will no doubt still have CF and 1B as position that are occupied by platoons or weaker players, meaning elite free agents at those positions might be signed as well.
Of course, the Rangers will no doubt try to shore up some of their weaker positions by turning to their robust farm system. I haven’t scouted any Rangers prospects, so credit any knowledge I drop here to the excellent work of Jason Parks, the writers for Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, and of course the Rangers featured in the Top 100 Prospects list over at Seedlings to Stars.
The easiest holes to fill will undoubtedly be the relief pitching spots. Martin Perez, who is widely regarded as a top-50 prospect, will spend next year in AAA, and could begin his Major League career in 2013 the way several current Rangers starters have: in the bullpen. Another good bullpen candidate is Neil Ramirez, who came out of nowhere to have an excellent showing in AAA in 2011, and could get some Major League playing time in 2012. Of course, eternal prospects Michael Kirkman and Tanner Scheppers will have either graduated to the Majors as relievers by then, or will have left the league entirely.
However, it might be harder to fill the void at SP. At this point, it is unclear if any of the current Rangers pitching prospects will be far enough along in their development to have earned the responsibilities of a full-time starting job. This is one area the Rangers can look to for free agency help.
Catching is another area the Rangers will need to address through FA. The only Rangers catching prospect of note, Jorge Alfaro, is still only 18, and incredibly raw. Even if he were ready to go full-time, the Rangers would need to sign a backup. As for the outfield, CF prospect Leonys Martin will be starting in the major leagues next season. If he has the ability to stick there, and the Rangers certainly seemed to think he did when they invested a near-record amount to sign him, Martin should solve the CF dilemma for the foreseeable future. That leaves 1B and LF. Many analysts have talked about moving 3B prospect Mike Olt to 1B or the OF, but that would waste his excellent defensive skills. Other than that, the Rangers have a excellent 1B prospect in Ronald Guzman, but he is just 17, and far from the majors.
So, what does the free agent class of 2013 have to offer in the Rangers’ areas of need?
It will be an incredibly deep offseason for catchers. Mike Napoli, Yadier Molina, and Miguel Montero head up a spectacular class that also includes some big names like Russell Martin, Yorvit Torrealba, and Chris Ianetta. Open season on arguably the league’s three best catchers should dilute their prices somewhat, even though good catchers are very hard to find. The Rangers should be able to comfortably resign Napoli. Many good options also present themselves to back up Napoli. The Rangers could also resign Torrealba, but I suspect there will be a team who needs a catcher but wants to avoid the big names and the pricetags that go along with them, like the Twins. Instead, the Rangers could look at bringing back Matt Treanor, or signing Ryan Doumit or Kelly Shoppach. If, however, the Rangers have signed Napoli to a long-term contract and are interested in preserving his health as long as possible, they might go ahead and buy another starting catcher, since this offseason represents such a terrific opportunity to do so.
2013 is a great year for pitchers. Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Francisco Liriano, Shaun Marcum, Brandon McCarthy, Colby Lewis and Anibal Sanchez are all well-regarded pitchers, and the first three are legitimate No. 1 starters. Ace pitching is always in high demand, and some of these pitchers, like Cain and Hamels, may well receive extensions before hitting FA, so the market may not be as excellent as it looks at first glance. I don’t think outbidding high-payroll teams that may be looking for rotation help like the Phillies, Yankees, and Red Sox is a wise move, so that leaves out some of the big names like Cain, Greinke and Hamels. However, there may be an opportunity to grab an inexpensive but excellent pitcher like McCarthy (if he repeats his excellence from last season, where he cut his walks in half and went from below to above average in inducing groundballs), or Sanchez (who has also recently experienced a breakout), or even to resign Colby. Liriano is fairly mediocre, apart from a brilliant 2010, and Marcum has been in decline, so I would steer clear of them irrespective of price.
Unfortunately, 2013 doesn’t offer much in the way of help for the outfield, or 1B. In the outfield, Hamilton is an obvious choice. If it turns out we badly need CF help because Leonys Martin doesn’t pan out, we could explore signing either B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn or Shane Victorino to a long-term deal. I worry that the Nationals, who have tremendous financial resources at their disposal, and who have long been involved in trade rumors concerning Upton, will overwhelm him with cash in a way the Rangers are not prepared to match. It is entirely possible that the availability of two excellent CF players will dilute their price sufficiently to allow the Rangers to nab one with some of the leftover Fielder money, although I am skeptical. CF is a position of extreme scarcity, and teams are always looking for a good option. If Leonys Martin is even serviceable, we will probably press on with him. 1B is a barren wasteland, and I doubt the Rangers would be interested in any of those players as a viable replacement to Mitch Moreland. Lance Berkman is a possibility, but I suspect some other team will be only too happy to overpay him. Considering recent 1B contracts, I am uncomfortable with the Rangers entering that arena.
Although the 2013 free agent class has some opportunities to sign excellent players in positions of need, many of those players are currently Rangers. It is possible that we find ourselves in 2014 having signed Napoli, Torrealba, Hamilton, Lewis and Adams, leaving the 2013 team largely intact. However, considering the market, the easiest position to upgrade is SP, and the front office has reiterated time and time again that starting pitching is their priority. In a follow-up post, I will examine which starting pitchers the Rangers should pursue next offseason.