It’s been a whole week since the abrupt ending to the 2012 Rangers season. And yesterday, the last two Division Series’ concluded, already making it seem like forever ago that the Rangers were still battling for their ticket to play on. It’s amazing, an entire 6-month stretch of life ebbs and flows to the rhythm of the baseball year, and it ends — almost unjustly — at the mercy of a 5 or 7-game playoff sample. We as Rangers fans have been lucky — no – fortunate, to have been on the positive end of both the ALDS and ALCS the last two years, only to fall short of the bottom line that defines greatness from its running mate in the history books. As we look on to see if the Yankees or Tigers, or Cardinals or Giants, will gravitate to their respective league pennants, I can’t help but think to myself . . . that’s supposed to be us.
But since it isn’t, the only productive option is to envision what’s ahead of us. In the last week, on separate occasions, we’ve heard David Murphy and Elvis Andrus publicly disclose that the team essentially ran out of gas in the final weeks of the season, and, to further the notion, Ron Washington lament that he probably should have done a better job giving rest to his regulars as the schedule wore down. There’s also been some mundane rhetoric involving Josh Hamilton and the curiosity of him quitting on the team, and Nolan Ryan stating it was probably a mistake that Josh quit using chewing tobacco mid-season, which enabled an egregious slump. This article isn’t dedicated to funneling through the minutiae of the perception the organization is laying unto the media in retrospect, but rather what moves could or should be made for the progression of the franchise.
The first priority will be to replace the most polarizing baseball figure ever to dawn a uniform in Arlington, the aforementioned Josh Hamilton. To “replace” him probably isn’t the appropriate way of putting it, for he almost single-handedly made the Rangers relevant from a national perspective. Look, by now we all should be keenly familiar with the type of Hall-of-Fame caliber talent Josh is, however, understanding his mammoth amount of production on the field is also to know the baggage he brings in the hours he’s off it. As much as I’ll miss having him in the lineup, I’m even more looking forward to the next chapter of the team from where he’s departing.
So, how do the Rangers do this? There’s a thin market for outfielders this winter, headlined by the likes of Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and B.J. Upton (who, outside of Hamilton, figure to receive the largest paydays). Although Texas could find practical usage for each of the three, none provide the type of offensive punch the Rangers crave in the middle of their lineup *, especially not at the prices they figure to net. To that end, they wouldn’t be more than Plan B or C options to pursue if the Rangers front office strikes out on the object of its desire.
* I referenced a couple months ago the most realistic and efficient way to compensate for the loss of Josh’s bat. With the top prospect in all of baseball, Jurickson Profar, in the fold to be the shortstop of the future, it now makes Rangers All Star, Elvis Andrus, expendable. With two years remaining on Andrus’s contract (due a team-friendly $11.275M over that time), and without a true outfield replacement on the free agent market, now is the most rational time to move him. A name that’s received buzz on the trade front since the July deadline is young Diamondbacks star Justin Upton (due $38M over the next 3 years), an intriguing replacement candidate. Over the last four seasons Upton has generated 16.4 fWAR, or, in monetary terms, $73.8M worth of value, given the price of each WAR standing at $4.5M. Being that he is currently just 25 years old, he’s exactly the type of young, athletic, controllable outfielder the Rangers will be looking at. If a hypothetical trade between the two teams does indeed take place, it would likely take Andrus and a couple future Major Leaguers from the bevy of tier-2 prospects the Rangers possess to facilitate getting back Justin Upton as the return. But if it’s feasible, it’s definitely worth heavy consideration.
If, as I expect, Texas does find a way to bring in a power-hitting outfielder, it would essentially mark the end times for fan-favorite David Murphy as a member of the Rangers. With Murphy due some $6M-$6.5M through arbitration this offseason, it would be more cost-effective to roll with an outfield of player X_ (via the hypothetical Elvis Andrus trade), Nelson Cruz, and a center field platoon consisting of Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry. In such a case, Martin would play against righties; Gentry against lefties — a lot like what the Rangers did for the first few months with Murphy and Gentry this past season. What could the Rangers get in return for one year of Murphy? I imagine not a whole lot. Perhaps he would be a player associated in the Elvis Andrus trade, or, if dealt straight up on the trade market, some kind of medium-leverage bullpen arm.
After all, the bullpen was a great strength for the Rangers in 2012, but it will take a couple substantial hits if Mike Adams and Koji Uehara walk in free agency. If I had to handicap it right now, I’d say Adams is 80% likely to leave (unless he can’t find a suitor after his offseason surgery, then I could see the Rangers low-balling their way into a good value signing), and Uehara more at 50-50. I’d love to have Koji back, but he may find something better than a 7th or 8th-inning gig.
Bullpen arms are usually the lowest offseason priority, because they are (a) generally inexpensive and (b) the pool of talent is abundant in guys who would more or less give the team similar production.
A position that is of priority is catcher. As you probably know, Mike Napoli is a free agent, and likely to look for a 3-4 year deal in the $33M-$46M range. You might think that price tag is a little steep given the type of year Napoli just came off of, but consider this: In the history of baseball, Mike Napoli ranks 13th out of all catchers in career wRC+ (weighted runs created) at 128. With the sparse collection of truly elite catching talent in baseball, it might be a smart option to spend a chunk of the free agent budget on Napoli.
And finally, having already discussed the outfield, bullpen and catchers, how about the starting pitching? If we concede Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland are three rotation locks, that leaves us internally with Alexi Ogando, Robbie Ross, Martin Perez and Justin Grimm as realistic options for the last two spots. Given the inconsistency of Derek Holland in 2012, and a pretty lucky Matt Harrison (who finished the year with an ERA of 3.29 despite an xFIP nearly a full run higher), that leaves us with only Darvish as a starter we can look to as a stopper. Something is missing.
Since the Nolan Ryan/Jon Daniels era began in Texas, the organizational philosophy has stayed fairly basic: Grow the hitting, buy the pitching. With this in mind, it would seem sensible that the Rangers would look to make a serious run at the best starter on the free agent market, Zach Greinke. Though I believe the rotation above could make the Rangers an 84-88 win team, the addition of Greinke would probably again make us the division favorites (particularly if Upton is also on the roster).
So there you have it. Do I think any of these moves are actually going to take place? Not necessarily. But I do believe this is an overall strategy, or blueprint, that would make a lot of sense.