Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers were dismal in 2020. Afterwards, the organization underwent a significant overhaul leading to the departure of several longtime Rangers and team’s best player. There was even a front office shakeup. All of this made for a hectic offseason, which we’ll dig into after reviewing last season.

Looking Back

Texas had the second worst record in the majors last year; only the Pirates were worse. Adding salt to the wound, the team now has a losing record in each of the last four seasons. Its longest stretch of futility since 2005-08.

Being a bottom feeder was a recurring theme for the Rangers, particularly with run production. The following illustrates several common stats and the MLB ranking for each.

Rangers 2020 Offense
Source: Baseball Reference

Texas was the only MLB team without a player having 100+ plate appearances and at least a league-average OPS+. Closest to doing so was 37-year-old Shin-Soo Choo (96).

On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average.

Being average was an accomplishment for Texas hitters. Isiah Kiner-Falefa was team leader in OBP (.329). Rougned Odor blazed the way with a below average .413 SLG. Odor did tie Joey Gallo for team lead in home runs (10). However, both Odor (.209) and Gallo (.301) were well below league-average in OBP.

Overall, the pitching stats didn’t look much better. But there were several solid performers.

Rangers 2020 Pitching
Sources: Baseball Reference; Baseball Savant

Other than Lance Lynn, the starting rotation was a mess. Lynn was a workhorse leading the majors with 13 starts and 84 innings pitched. He also finished sixth in AL Cy Young Award voting. After Lynn, there was a huge drop off.

Mike Minor regressed after a career-year in 2019 with the club trading him to the division rival A’s in August. Two other rotation mainstays also had disappointing seasons – Kyle Gibson (5.35 ERA) and Jordan Lyles (7.02).

Fortunately, Texas did have a decent bullpen. Its .305 xwOBA ranked eleventh best in MLB. Top relievers included Jonathan Hernández (.245), Brett Martin (.254), Wes Benjamin (.256), Taylor Hearn (.268), and Joely Rodríguez (.274).

Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .312

There were a few rough spots, but Texas fielders were collectively above average. The following lists the defensive runs saved (DRS) for each position and its MLB ranking.

Team Defense

The -12 DRS at second base was the combined total of Odor, (-5) and Nick Solak (-5), plus substitutes Derek Dietrich (-1), Anderson Tejeda (-1), and Yadiel Rivera (0).

Two Rangers earned their first Gold Glove. Kiner-Falefa at third base after spending time at second base, shortstop, and even catcher during his first three big-league seasons.

Gallo took home the hardware for his right field defense. He too moved around the diamond earlier in his career. Previous positions played include both infield and outfield corner spots.

Offseason Action

Longtime GM Jon Daniels became President of Baseball Operations with former pitcher Chris Young taking over GM duties. Prior to joining Texas, he worked for MLB. During 13 big-league seasons, Young played for the Rangers, Mariners, Mets, Padres, and Royals.

As far as action involving players, there was a significant exodus. Some left via free agency, others by trades brokered by Daniels and then Young.

Notable Departures
Lance Lynn
Shin-Soo Choo
Corey Kluber
Jeff Mathis
Juan Nicasio
Jesse Chavez
Derek Dietrich
Danny Santana
Rafael Montero
Elvis Andrus
Aramís García
Source: Baseball Reference

Early in the offseason, the team shipped Lynn to the White Sox for pitcher Dane Dunning and minor-league pitcher Avery Weems. Closer Rafael Montero went to the Mariners for prospect Jose Corniell and a player to be named later, who’s likely to be a minor-leaguer.

Young later traded shortstop Elvis Andrus with catching prospect Aramís García to Oakland. In exchange, Texas received designated hitter Khris Davis and 25-year-old catcher Jonah Heim. The other notable named added via trade was Nate Lowe, acquired from the Rays for a pair of minor leaguers.

Notable Additions
Chris Young (GM)
David Dahl
Nate Lowe
Kohei Arihara
Dane Dunning
Drew Butera**
Brett de Geus*
Delino DeShields**
Mike Foltynewicz
Charlie Culberson**
Khris Davis
Hyeon-jong Yang**
Jonah Heim
Nick Vincent**
Brock Holt**
* Rule 5 Draft
** NRI
Sources: Baseball Reference; FanGraphs

Free agent pickups included Japanese starter Kohei Arihara, fellow righty Mike Foltynewicz, and outfielder David Dahl to major-league deals. Several notable players received non-roster invites.

A non-roster invite (NRI) is an invitation to players not on a team’s 40-man roster to attend Spring Training. This includes upper-level minor leaguers and free agents signed to minor-league contracts in the offseason.

Looking Forward

Ronald Guzmán once appeared destined to be the long-term answer at first base, but he’s yet to take hold of the job. Enter Lowe, who’d seem to have an advantage over the 26-year-old heading into Spring Training. Still, it’s worth noting Guzman was Dominican Winter League MVP this offseason and he’s out of minor-league options.

Players on a 40-man roster have three minor league “options.” Teams can send players with options to the minors without first having to clear waivers. Only one option is used annually regardless of how many times a player goes to the minors. Players without options must pass through outright waivers before being eligible for assignment to the minors.

Prospect Sherten Apostel could eventually enter the first base picture. Primarily a third baseman in the past, four of Apostel’s six starts with Texas last year were at first base. Still, Apostel hadn’t played above High-A before 2020. Expect the 21-year-old to begin the season in the minors.

Rangers Without Minor-League Options
Joely Rodríguez
Ronald Guzmán
Source: FanGraphs

Solak gets a shot to be the full-time second baseman. The 26-year-old had a solid rookie debut in 2019 with a 123 OPS+ in 33 games. Last year, he followed up with a less impressive 84 OPS+. Despite the dip, Solak holds the edge over Odor.

Odor followed up leading the AL with 178 strikeouts in 2019 with another bleak campaign – 64 OPS+ in 148 plate appearances. Heading into 2021, the veteran seems destined to be a utility player. However, he’s only played second base in seven big-league seasons and 15 games at shortstop as an 18-year-old minor leaguer. That said, Odor did play third base for Venezuela in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Kiner-Falefa and his Gold Glove move from third base to shortstop. Assuming the defense doesn’t regress at his new position, the issue will be whether the 25-year-old can generate enough offense to remain a starter. In 846 plate appearances spanning three seasons, he’s hit .260/.319/.351 with a 77 OPS+.

With Kiner-Falefa abandoning hot corner, it’s likely utility-men Charlie Culberson and Brock Holt vie for playing time with Odor. Still, neither Culberson nor Holt has appeared in 130 games since debuting in 2012. Perhaps manager Chris Woodward platoons the right-handed Culberson and the lefty bats of Odor and Holt. That said, it’s difficult imagining a scenario that includes all three players on the Opening Day roster.

Realistically, the Opening Day third baseman is only a placeholder while top-100 prospect Josh Jung continues his development in the minors. The 23-year-old, who hasn’t played above Single-A, likely begins his year with Class-AAA Round Rock.

This year’s outfield unit has a chance to be better than the 2020 group with Dahl and Gallo in left and right field respectively and presumably Leody Taveras patrolling center field.

Once ranked a top-50 prospect by MLB Pipeline, injuries have sidetracked Dahl’s development since his big-league debut in 2016. The most games the 26-year-old has played in a season is 100 in 2019 with Colorado when he was an All-Star. Obviously, the Rangers hope Dahl repeats his 2019 form. It’s worth noting he underwent season-ending shoulder surgery last September, which bears watching during Cactus League play.

Despite playing just 33 games last season, Taveras tied Houston’s George Springer for fifth most DRS (6) among center fielders. The 22-year-old’s elite-level sprint speed also led to steal eight stolen bases. As with several youngsters getting the chance to be a regular, Taveras must prove he can hit big-league pitching.

A year removed from being an All-Star, Gallo had his worst offensive campaign since his rookie debut in 2015. Certainly, the offensively challenged Rangers need a rebound from their star right fielder in 2021.

It’ll be interesting to see how management handles the remaining outfield spots and designated hitter. In the mix are Davis, Delino DeShields, and Willie Calhoun. DeShields spent five seasons with Texas before the team dealt him to Cleveland for Corey Kluber in December 2019. The 28-year-old likely competes with Taveras for time in center field. Fourth outfielder seems like a realistic outcome.

Davis and Calhoun appear to be better fits at designated hitter than the outfield. Their bats are their most valuable weapons and advanced metrics rates both players as below average defenders. Still, there’s uncertainty surrounding the pair’s ability to contribute in 2021.

In 2015-18, Davis averaged 40 home runs with a .528 SLG and 127 OPS+. Over the last two seasons, he averaged a .378 SLG and 83 OPS+. Is the 33-year-old on an inevitable decline or can he rebound with a change of scenery?

Ever since the Rangers acquired Calhoun in the deal sending Yu Darvish to the Dodgers, the narrative has been he could hit. The issue was always where he’d play in the field. The 26-year-old seemed destined to start in left field last year. Unfortunately, a broken jaw suffered in Spring Training and poor results during the regular season have clouded his outlook.

Eli White is an interesting option to serve as minor-league depth. Currently on the 40-man roster, White played a considerable amount at shortstop in the minors, plus he spent time at second and third base. Lately, the 26-year-old has been an outfielder, primarily playing left field.  White has proven to be a strong defender even if he may not hit.

Jose Trevino projects to start behind the plate. However, the recent arrival of the 25-year-old Heim puts pressure on Trevino. Depth candidates include veterans Drew Butera and John Hicks, and top prospect Sam Huff. Although Huff appeared in 10 games with Texas last year, the 23-year-old may remain in the minors a little longer to hone his skills.

Arihara, Foltynewicz, Gibson, and Lyles enter camp holding the first four starting rotation spots. The right-handed Arihara should provide a valuable resource to the Rangers after a pandemic-shortened 2020 MLB season – innings. With the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters last year, the 28-year-old tossed 132.2 innings. For context, Lynn led the majors with 84 frames.

Foltynewicz had a career year in 2018 posting a 2.83 ERA in 31 starts with the Braves. But the 29-year-old has struggled ever since. So much so, Atlanta outrighted him last season. Now, the right-hander gets a chance to redeem himself in Texas.

As noted earlier, Gibson and Lyles each performed poorly in 2020. The Rangers need quality innings from both veterans to depressurize the workload on younger arms likely to see action during the upcoming season.

Dunning, a top-100 prospect, is the logical choice to earn the fifth spot. The 26-year-old rookie had an impressive .287 xwOBA during seven starts for the White Sox last season. He even earned a spot on Chicago’s postseason roster.

Behind Dunning, there’s a plethora of youngsters. Notable candidates include Benjamin, Hearn, Kyle Cody, Kolby Allard, John King, and Joe Palumbo. Several served as relievers in 2020 and may do so again this year.

José Leclerc enters camp as the closer, although he did miss most of last season with a torn shoulder muscle. Setting up before Leclerc will be Hernández and Rodríguez.

The remaining candidates are a mix of holdovers, newcomers, and youngsters: Martin, Hearn, Benjamin, Josh Sborz, Nick Vincent, Hunter Wood, former Ranger Matt Bush, Sam Gaviglio, Demarcus Evans, Joe Gatto, and Rule 5 draftee Brett de Geus.

Unless injured, Rule 5 Draft picks must remain on the drafting club’s 26-man roster through the following season. Otherwise, a player must pass through waivers and then be offered back to his original club $50 thousand.  If the original team doesn’t choose to pay, the drafting club can then send him to the minors.

Pressing Business

FanGraphs projects the Rangers with a 1.7-percent chance of reaching the postseason this year. That’s reasonable considering the club is rebuilding with many holes to fill. One method to add talent is offloading pending free agents to contenders at the July 31 trade deadline. Not counting non-roster invites, Texas doesn’t have many of those players.

Pending Free Agents
Jordan Lyles
Khris Davis
Joely Rodriguez*
* Club Option For 2022
Source: Baseball Reference

Still, the team could find ways to be active sellers. Assuming he’s having a good season, Gibson could interest contenders looking for rotation depth. He’s under contract for a relatively affordable $7.7 million next year. Foltynewicz might also be attractive, if he’s performing well. Next year will be his final year of arbitration eligibility.

Leclerc is set to earn $9.7 million through 2022, so he may not draw much attention. However, every other reliever performing well would be potential trade chips.

Several other personnel issues could potentially come to a head this summer. Odor is set to make $24.7 million over the next two seasons with a $3 million buyout for 2023. If he doesn’t rebound, how long does the team retain him? Considering his contract size, finding trade partners will prove challenging.

With a pair of 40 home runs seasons, Gallo certainly possesses a potent bat. Yet, the 27-year-old hasn’t put together consecutive seasons with at least a league-average OBP since debuting in 2015. With one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining, will Young consider moving Gallo this summer? It may make sense if he’s having a strong first half.

Woodward is entering the final year of his contract, although the team holds an option for 2022. Will the third-year manager enter the season as a lame duck or will management commit to their skipper past this year?

The Rangers won’t be good this season. However, there are signs of what the future may hold. Expect to see some of the club’s best prospects reach the majors. When they arrive and how they perform likely sets the tone for 2021 and beyond.

Such is the life of a rebuilding organization and its fan base.

My Oh My…

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Image courtesy of Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire
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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins