Perception and Priorities
By Eric Reining
One of the symptoms of being a successful franchise is possessing the ability to be highly selective when filling the holes within the roster. As a byproduct, it acts twofold: winning organizations generally don’t have as many spots available (because there’s an established compendium of talent), and free agents looking for work generally want to sign with contenders (unless they are strictly at it to make top dollar, which is understandable). Over the last 4 years the Rangers have proven they are a championship-caliber organization, and have a solid foundation to continue succeeding, which has likely played some role in acquiring highly sought after veterans like Adrian Beltre and Joe Nathan over the offseason the last couple years.
However, an effect to such selectiveness is having to squeeze players off the 40-man roster at the threat of watching them prosper elsewhere *. That’s why it’s easy to look at a team like the Orioles, with ex-Rangers like Darren O’Day, Chris Davis, Tommy Hunter and Pedro Strop, and wonder how Texas could have let them all slip away. The answer is as mundane as it is universally relatable: The Rangers were simply doing what they thought was right — at the time — to get better.
*(O’Day didn’t exactly mesh with the Rangers’ philosophy of unleashing power arms in the late innings; Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter were past the point of being meaningful contributors to a 2011 playoff run; Pedro Strop was erratic and the team wanted something more proven. The return for the latter three were Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez, and, nearly taking the World Series in 2011, it would be shortsighted to say Jon Daniels wasn’t justified in making the moves when he did.)
This offseason offers a bit of a different twist on the same narrative. Even if we assume Texas’s most gifted baseball player, Josh Hamilton, chooses to leave for greener pastures, the Rangers will remain as one of — if not the — most talented organizations from top-to-bottom in all of baseball. From the lower levels featuring Joey Gallo, Jairo Beras, Jorge Alfaro, Luis Sardinas, Rougned Odor, Ronald Guzman, Nomar Mazara, Lewis Brinson, Nick Williams and C.J. Edwards, to the upper levels which have given us Jurickson Profar, Mike Olt, Martin Perez, Leonys Martin and Cody Buckel; the future of the franchise is fruitful, and losing any one player will not cripple us. In short, things are going to be okay.
That said, I’m not suggesting Hamilton’s absence won’t be felt; it will. His departure will trigger a domino effect, dictating just how successful this offseason is going to be. I’ve contended that the most efficient way to lubricate our transition from the Hamilton to post-Hamilton era will be to trade the club’s star shortstop, Elvis Andrus, recouping a stud outfielder to take his place. However, a major question remains: What do we really want more? Do we want a bat to help supplement the offense we’ll be without, or do we want a top-flight starter who will make runs less necessary altogether?
The most obvious answer is that we need rotation help. After all, Scott Feldman was horrible, Derek Holland had a down year he clearly can’t recover from, and both Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz were done for the year before the summer even started. Right? Plus, pitchers can’t deal with the heat in Texas and the offense will always be what carries the team. Am I right?
Well, if you listen to the national media outlets, yes. If you look at the objective data, then not necessarily.
In 2011, in what can justifiably be viewed as the most successful season the Rangers organization has ever had, the offense was 2nd baseball with a wOBA of .347, and 4th in wRC+ at 111. In 2012, the Rangers found themselves in familiar placement; they were 2nd in wOBA (.336), and tied for 4th in wRC+ at 105. However, even though they occupied the same position in terms of league ranking, the numbers declined, and rather sharply in the wRC+ department.
If you’re telling me that we’re going to lose our most imposing offensive force off a team that had trouble maintaining its 2011 success, then you’d have to figure something will be done about that.
On the pitching end, surprisingly to the casual fan, the Rangers’ staff accumulated nearly 23.0 Wins Above Replacement, 2nd in all of baseball behind the Detroit Tigers (led by Justin Verlander who produced 6.8 fWAR on his own). The club will almost certainly exercise the $600K buyout on Scott Feldman‘s contract, and will also shed Roy Oswalt and Ryan Dempster, with a strong likelihood they don’t retain Koji Uehara or Mike Adams. That’s a decent amount of pitching the team will be without.
What really crippled the success of the 2012 team were the losses of Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz. With each of them occupying the final two spots in the rotation behind the Darvish/Harrison/Holland troika, you’re likely looking at 2 more wins per pitcher over any of their replacements. That’s 97 wins instead of 93, and at least two more games past 163.
I know there’s this perception that originated sometime in the Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro and Ivan Rodriguez days where the Rangers were all hitting and no pitching, but the tables have shifted quite dramatically at the point we’re at today. Offense still has to come from somewhere. Without Hamilton, and the potential of losing Mike Napoli to free agency, the Rangers are all of a sudden running dangerously low on impact bats. If the team decides to trade Elvis Andrus for some kind of TORP (top of the rotation pitcher), they’re essentially banking on Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz to not only restore themselves to their career norms, but to surpass them, and that Adrian Beltre and David Murphy will maintain their amazing 2012 campaigns. That’s a pretty tall order.
Acknowledging that, the Rangers have two advantages on the rest of the league: (1) The aforementioned bevy of minor league assets (plus Elvis Andrus), and (2) one of the most talented, most creative GM’s in baseball. I don’t exactly know which direction he’s going to take this most pivotal of off seasons, but if his recent track record is any indication, then the Rangers will have yet another strong product on the field next year.