With pitchers and catchers reporting next month, it’s time to reflect on what the Seattle Mariners’ divisional rivals have done to improve their respective rosters thus far. It’s important to emphasize “thus far” because there’s still time to make deals, especially with several notable names still on the free agent market.
Manager Jeff Banister led his club to its second consecutive division title and the most wins in the AL. But, the Rangers lost several key veterans to free agency — designated hitter/outfielder Carlos Beltran, outfielder Ian Desmond, first baseman Mitch Moreland, and starting pitchers Colby Lewis and Derek Holland.
Needs: SP, RP, B/DH
To help offset the losses of Lewis and Holland, general manager Jon Daniels signed free agent starters and former San Diego Padres teammates Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross. Each pitcher enters 2017 with lingering questions.
Cashner was awful last year and has seen his walk rate progressively increase since 2014 peaking at 10.2-percent last season — seventh highest among starters with 120-plus innings pitched. If the right-hander can reverse that trend, he’ll be a fixture in the middle of the Rangers’ rotation.
Currently recovering from October thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, the right-handed throwing Ross may not be ready for the start of the season. The Rangers are hoping the 29-year-old will return to his 2015 form when he was the Padres’ ace. If that happens, Daniels will have pulled off a coup by signing the former second round pick.
Daniels also signed Dillon Gee to a minor league deal. The 30-year-old spent last season with the Kansas City Royals starting 14 games and making 19 relief last season.
The Rangers retained the services of Carlos Gomez, who belted 8 home runs and slashed .284/.362/.543 in 33 games after his mid-August release from the Astros. It’s worth noting Gomez hit 9 home runs with a .221/.277/.342 slash during 486 plate appearance with Houston dating back to July 2015.
Gomez is set to patrol center field, but could slide over to left field if Delino DeShields wins his starting job back after a disappointing 2016. If he rebounds, sophomore Nomar Mazara would man right field and veteran Shin-Soo Choo — coming off an injury-plagued season — would likely see more time at designated hitter. Otherwise, Mazara and Choo will flank Gomez in the corners.
The top of the Rangers’ rotation is the best in the division with Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish serving as co-aces. Hamels has pitched 180-plus innings in 10 consecutive seasons, while Darvish posted a superb 3.41 ERA during 17 starts after returning from Tommy John surgery.
Martin Perez was the third best starter last season, although a healthy Ross and/or a resurgent Cashner could overtake the southpaw. Back-end candidates include Gee, A.J. Griffin, Chi Chi Gonzalez, and Nick Martinez.
First base remains an enigma. Internally, the club could turn to highly touted prospect Joey Gallo or holdovers Jurickson Profar and Ryan Rua. A familiar face recently joined the mix — fan favorite Josh Hamilton. It’s worth noting the 35-year-old has never played first base during a professional career that spans back to 1999.
Daniels recently signed first baseman James Loney to a minor league deal. The left-handed hitter has a reputation of being a good glove, who thrives against right-handed pitching. Adding Loney doesn’t necessarily mean the Rangers’ search for help is over.
Texas was reportedly interested in adding free agent Edwin Encarnacion prior to his signing with the Cleveland Indians. Perhaps, a reunion with former Ranger Mike Napoli is an option. Bringing the 11-year veteran back to Arlington would give Gallo more time to develop and add another power threat to their lineup.
The bullpen bounced back nicely last season after a dismal first half. The returning cast includes closer Sam Dyson, hard-throwing Matt Bush, former Milwaukee Brewers closer Jeremy Jeffress, Tony Barnette, and Keone Kela of Seattle’s Chief Sealth high school.
The club’s best left-handed reliever last season — Jake Diekman — had surgery related to his chronic ulcerative colitis yesterday and will miss at least half of the 2017 season.
The best internal option to step into Diekman’s role from the left side is Alex Claudio. The 24-year-old isn’t a hard thrower like Diekman. He’s a ground ball pitcher who held left-handers to a .190 OBP during his first full season in the majors in 2016.
Adding a proven lefty reliever such as free agents Boone Logan, Jerry Blevins, or even starter/reliever Travis Wood would hedge against the realistic possibility that Diekman’s recovery takes longer than expected.
The Rangers haven’t made significant improvements “thus far.” It certainly helps having a core that includes Darvish, Hamels, future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre at third base, Elvis Andrus at shortstop, budding star second baseman Rougned Odor, and Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate. Still, there is cause for concern.
Last season, only the Athletics and the Minnesota Twins surrendered more runs in the AL than Texas pitching. Overall, the club had a +8 run-differential. According to the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball, the Rangers should have been closer to a .500 team than one leading the league in wins.
How did a team that barely scored more runs than it surrendered win so often?
By having the best winning percentage (.766) in one-run games during the modern era of baseball. Bannister’s squad was 36-11 in contests decided by a run last season. The Rangers are a good, but what’s the likelihood they’ll be as fortunate at winning close contests in 2017?
If Texas had upgraded their rotation and reinforced their batting order, the club’s 2016 mediocre run-differential wouldn’t appear so ominous. But, they haven’t.
Is the sky falling in Arlington? Of course not. Texas is a franchise with a winning history. But, they risk being overtaken by the Astros and Mariners, unless they upgrade their roster.
The saving grace for the Rangers and their loyal fans is Daniels’ history of making big in-season trades to guarantee success. As the roster stands right now, he’ll be busy in July — maybe sooner.