By Ben Perry
Sep 17, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Derek Holland (45) comes out of the game during the seventh inning against the Oakland Athletics at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports
This past year, the Rangers payroll ended up right around 130 million dollars. It is assumed that 2015’s total payroll should be in a pretty similar range; this makes it easier for we, the spectators, to make assumptions about the Rangers offseason plans. Currently, the Rangers have about 106 million dollars tied up in nine players: Fielder (24 million), Beltre (18), Andrus (15.25), Choo (14), Harrison (13.2), Darvish (10), Holland (7.4), Martin (4.75) and Martin Perez (1.25m).
In addition to these long-term contracts, Mitch Moreland, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, and Adam Rosales are all eligible for arbitration. Ogando might be an option to be non-tendered but I think it is premature to speculate. These players are probably set to make several million dollars each, maybe less in Rosales’ case, maybe more in that of Feliz.
On top of the arbitration eligible players and those already signed to multi-year deals, the remaining players on the roster will make around 500,000 dollars, or near the Major League minimum.
It is not hard to do the math: the Rangers are already right around where they stood last season in salary. The bottom line, then, is that the budget is tight. Despite this, upper management is sure to try and improve the roster for what figures to be (should the players stay healthy) a competitive 2015 campaign.
In my eyes, the Rangers are then at a crossroads; they know that there are holes to fill and improvements that can be made, but they must narrow their scope onto the issues that matter most on the active roster.
In short, should they improve the lineup or the pitching staff?
Without a doubt: the pitching staff.
There are several reasons that the pitching should be Texas’ priority. First and foremost, pitching depth is always a necessity. Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis (maybe?), Nick Martinez, and Nick Tepesch makeup what could be a decent to solid rotation if the bottom half holds up and performs, but there is no room for “if” coming off a season ravaged by injuries. Jon Daniels bolstered the offense last offseason; because of injuries, those improvements to the lineup did not pay dividends. Meanwhile, he failed to create sufficient depth on the mound and it hurt the Rangers from Day One when Tanner Scheppers got the ball on Opening Day.
There are empirical data to back up the assertion that the pitching deserves to take the preponderance of Jon Daniel’s time and energy too.
Delving deeper into the offenses performance this past year, it is pretty evident that the Rangers had a pretty mediocre lineup (clearly capable of more than 67 wins at least, given an equally mediocre staff, which there wasn’t). The Rangers scored the 17th most runs in MLB, leaving them essentially in the middle of the pack. Their cumulative batting average though was in the top third of the game, placing 8th overall with a .256 team average. So they were solid at putting the ball in play and average at getting runs across, regardless of the constant onslaught of injuries.
The Rangers finished with an overall team .314 OBP, which was identical to the league average; despite this, they came in just 24th in walks with 417. 417 bases on balls are 50 walks below the league average of 467. A couple thoughts on that stat: why hasn’t hitting coach Dave Magadan’s emphasis on patience and situational hitting translated into better production? Is he to blame for that deficient total or not? Additionally, that number should shoot up next season with full years from both Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, each of which possess excellent On-Base capabilities. Fielder alone, over the course of a season, could have collected those extra 50 walks to pull the Rangers even with league average (though I am unsure how many walks the plethora of 2014 first basemen acquired).
The largest discrepancy between the Rangers lineups performance and that of the rest of the league was homeruns: the Rangers hit just 111 homeruns, placing them at 27th overall. Still, this number should be bolstered theoretically with the more permanent additions of a healthy Choo and Fielder (and who would have expected just four blasts from Alex Rios either). As far as speed is concerned, the Rangers placed 8th in MLB with 105 swiped bags, but along with that the 28th best stealing percentage at just 64%. Those numbers are likely most subject to change based on the next Rangers manager though, and the philosophy that he brings with him.
On the other hand, the Rangers starting pitching wasn’t even close to average by any standards. As far as ERA is concerned, the Rangers ranked 28th overall with a 4.49 staff ERA; this number becomes even more troubling when considering ML average was a full three-quarters of a run better at 3.74. Essentially, the Rangers pitching staff averaged allowing close to a full run more per nine innings than just an average Major League staff. That cumulative total will have to improve for the Rangers to stay competitive.
Along with giving up runs at a higher rate, the Rangers pitchers were (as someone with common sense might expect) more prone to allowing hits and had trouble getting deep into games. Opponents hit .272 off Rangers pitching, more than 20 points higher than the clip other teams’ pitchers were hit at (.251). A result of these hits were fewer quality starts, in fact, the Rangers finished dead last this season with just 62 quality starts as a team. To put that in perspective, the Rangers tallied 99 (or more than a third more) quality starts in 2011.
Pitchers were not only getting hit with high frequency but with high force: opponents OPS against the Rangers was well above league average (.700) clocking in at .764. Players like Aramis Ramirez, Yoenis Cespedes and Matt Carpenter all had lower OPS’ than .764 last year. To fuel such a high average OPS, it seems fitting that the Rangers were at the top of the list too of homeruns allowed with 160.
These numbers are the primary cause of the Rangers 97 losses this season and should thus be given the primary attention as what to address first this off-season. An impact bat would be huge for the middle of the lineup, but the pitching simply was too poor this past year to ignore or believe it might fix itself.
It is true that the Rangers rotation also had its large share of injuries. True, Derek Holland would have been a huge help had his solid September performance been extrapolated over the course of a full season. True, Martin Perez looked as though he was really putting it all together. True, the offense sustained severe injuries of its own, but still managed to remain in the middle of the pack.
But regardless of these truths, the biggest point to take away is that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. And in a major league rotation, there are constantly five things that can go wrong.