Texas Rangers: Middle infield shakeup expected for 2021

Texas Rangers Isiah Kiner-Falefa is fighting for a starting role entering the 2020 season (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Texas Rangers Isiah Kiner-Falefa is fighting for a starting role entering the 2020 season (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) /

A changing of the guard is coming to the Texas Rangers’ middle infield ahead of the 2021 season.

The Texas Rangers have made their first major move of the 2020-21 baseball off-season.

No, it’s not a splashy free agent signing or trade that fans might have been hoping for as the hot stove begins to cook heading towards the virtual Winter Meetings.

That doesn’t take anything away from the significance of this decision, however.

With the news that the Rangers will be relegating long-time infielders Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor to utility roles in favor of younger stalwarts Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Nick Solak signals a shift in the team’s vision as they look ahead to the future.

Kiner-Falefa, who won a Gold Glove at third base in 2020, will now take over as the Rangers’ starting shortstop in 2021. Kiner-Falefa is a homegrown talent, taken by the team with a fourth round selection back in 2013. He has played all over the diamond in his short career so far, including at catcher.

Solak, who mostly played outfield for the Rangers after being acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for reliever Pete Fairbanks in 2019, will become the full-time second baseman in 2021. Solak is a second-baseman by trade, but has not had much experience there since making his big-league debut.

Each player possesses different strengths, with Kiner-Falefa’s being his glove and Solak’s being his bat and speed. These should complement each other well over the course of a long season.

While manager Chris Woodward has stated that none of these decisions are final (Kiner-Falefa and Solak will have to earn their jobs), these actions echo the sentiments of Rangers brass, specifically GM Jon Daniels and owner Ray Davis, who have made clear that payroll will be dropping in 2021 as the team looks to get younger. (For what it’s worth, Texas will spend a combined $169 million on just Andrus and Odor alone by the time their contracts expire).

The team also has top infield prospect Josh Jung waiting in the wings, and these moves will effectively create a vacancy for Jung at third base should he emerge in 2021 as expected.

For Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor, both of whom now serve as the longest tenured Texas Rangers along with Joey Gallo, the move is a sign of the impending times.

Andrus has served as the Rangers’ starting shortstop since 2009, playing on two pennant winning teams in 2010 and 2011, and providing a steady presence at the position over the last decade.

The veteran infielder has never been anything more than solid over the course of his career, both with the bat and the glove. Save for two seasons (2016 and 2017) where he finished with an OPS+ above 100 (meaning above average offensive production), his production has been middling.

In 2020, Andrus finished with a negative bWAR (-0.6) and an OPS+ of just 58. Even if the Rangers aren’t planning on contending in the near future, Andrus has now become a liability, and no baseball team would want to field a liability in its starting nine.

As for Rougned Odor, he’ll always be remembered for his legendary on-field scuffle with former Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista during the 2016 season.

Ah yes, a classic.

But despite Odor’s place in Rangers’ lore, he too posted a negative bWAR in 2020 (-0.8) while failing to post an OPS+ of over 100 for the fourth consecutive season.

One advantage Odor does have over Andrus is his power tool, having belted 30 home runs in a season as recently as 2019. However, his overall inconsistency with the bat means he’s better suited for the utility role he will soon occupy.

Odor could be a viable pinch hit option late in a game with his left-handed power, an attribute that might be enticing to a contending team looking to add depth as the 2021 season plays out.

It’s a changing of the guard for the Texas Rangers’ middle infield as we move towards a new season. Only time will tell how it plays out.