Building the 2016 Rangers – The Position Players
Let me lead off with a qualifier: I’ve tried to be both optimistic and realistic in the moves below. I’ve given us the benefit of the doubt in places, both in terms of trade partners and in terms of contract workability. But I have tried to apply some realism, otherwise we’re just dreaming. I could be way off; if I were this good, I’d be sitting in some baseball operations office, not at my laptop blogging about moves with someone else’s money. Also, I don’t harbor ill-will towards any Ranger.
My suggesting a trade is generally because they’re not performing up to either 1) their positional standard or 2) what their contract suggests. Even when they are, trades are only repeatable if you have a reputation for making win-win deals, so I’ve not tried to fleece anyone. If I ask for value, I understand I’m giving up value as well. Unsaddling myself from unwieldy contracts, I’ve factored in both cost (the ever-mysterious “cash considerations”) and limited value coming back, even for talented players, because of salary weight.
Also, this piece, and it’s companion piece on the pitching staff for next year, has caused me the most consternation and sleepless nights of any I’ve written for SDI. I can second-guess and question almost every move, and it wouldn’t take much arm-twisting to have me scuttle this move or that and stand pat. But I don’t think you progress as a team without taking chances. Sometimes that’s moving a guy with just as many positives as negatives, or who’s good “in the room”, or who the numbers say should be better, but just isn’t. Sometimes, the economics of the game supersede all else. And sometimes, you just bet big. The Cole Hamels deal, if anything, showed us that Jon Daniels is willing to do that.
So with all that out of the way, let’s put on our builder hat and see how we might make a second-division team into one that can stand up to Houston, Kansas City, New York, and the cream of the league.
What are the goals for the 2016 Texas Rangers? First, build off momentum from this season, limited as it might be. That equates to keeping Prince Fielder in the lineup, have a spark plug role for Rougned Odor, give Joey Gallo regular enough playing time to prove himself, and team Cole Hamels with Yu Darvish and Derek Holland for one of the more solid 3-man combo in all of MLB rotations.
Second, trade for flexibility and right-handed offense to firm up the outfield bats without killing our defense.
Third, add to the bullpen with proven arms.
So how do we do that? We’ll, here’s my proposition for the position players; I’ll delve into more detail on our rotation and bullpen next time around.
- SS Elvis Andrus, C Robinson Chirinos, and prospect 3B Ti’Quan Forbes with cash considerations to Washington Nationals for CL Drew Storen, C Wilson Ramos, and RHP Prospect Jefry Rodriguez
Why the Rangers make this trade is simple: Elvis’ contract far exceeds his value, and he needs a fresh start to try to re-discover whatever magic he had in 2011. These days, his WAR (0.7) puts him just above replacement level thus far this season. Defensively, his range factor is above league average (4.69 vs 4.23) but because of the plays he doesn’t make, his defensive runs saved still falls in at a negative (-6). That continues a trend from last season, and is a complete flip from early in his career, where we was statistically well above-average. For this deal, Washington is gambling that a change of scenery recovers the old Elvis, and Texas is banking that a team needing a shortstop (Ian Desmond departs via free agency) is willing to make a deal for a disgruntled former closer. Elvis is still a playoff-proven performer, and when he’s hot, he is an elite-level shortstop. He’s still young, and with my estimate of Texas eating ½ of his remaining salary to make this deal, we can get talent for salary. That’s a deal I make to get the chess pieces to slide my way.
On that latter note, let’s look at the major piece coming back to Texas: Drew Storen.
He’s arbitration eligible, and despite being demoted with the acquisition of Jonathon Papelbon, he’s an elite-level arm at the end of a bullpen. He has a 5.33 K-to-BB ratio, and strikes out 11.3 per 9 this season. He’s having his best season, and being demoted is not sitting well with him, which makes a trade for value all the more likely, regardless of how Papelbon finishes this season. Washington has signaled that Storen is replaceable, and that’s the kind of move that necessitates a change of venue. We’re trading $6M-plus for a season, and half of Elvis’ contract, for the freedom to move. Elvis’ contract is sunk cost, so the best move is to make it up in talent. Storen is the first and key piece of that.
I’ll delve more into Storen’s numbers and dominance in the follow-up to this article, where we look at the men on the Texas mound.
Beyond Elvis, I use a catcher-for-catcher swap to save Washington some money and free us up for a key 2017 move on Jonathan Lucroy. Robinson Chirinos is an average defensive catcher based on dWAR (0.9) and has managed to put up above-replacement oWAR numbers this season as well (1.3).
The key to Chirinos to Washington is economics. For a 1.8 WAR player, they pay somewhere around $600,000 in arbitration. Texas, meanwhile, gets back Wilson Ramos at probably $3 million above Chirinos’ salary. His numbers have been off this year, but he’s a young, high-caliber catcher who has proven in Washington that he can work with a high-caliber but young staff. This season, he’s actually been below Chirinos in both oWAR (0.4) and dWAR (0.8), but as a solid young catcher who is a key chip in moving a bullpen piece and only commits us for a season, that’s a push-value trade I’m willing to make. The reason is, clearing half our salary from Andrus and Shin-Soo Choo (more on that in a moment) frees us up for a run on our key chess piece for 2017, in an MVP-caliber catcher in Lucroy. That’s an article for another day, but as a piece for 2016, Wilson Ramos is a good gamble. At his age and with his pedigree in Washington, he could prove to be more than he’s been so far, which makes him a high-value alternative for 2017 and beyond if a chase of Lucroy falls apart as part of the machinations of the 2016 season.
The prospect pieces moving in this deal are both fairly minor. Ti’Quan Forbes is an extremely athletic 3B/SS prospect with a ton of room to grow, but who will find himself blocked by Gallo by the time he reaches Texas. Here’s what MLB.com says on him:
“As an extremely projectable athlete with raw offensive ability and a high ceiling, Forbes was a natural fit for the Rangers. They drafted him in the second round last June and signed him for $1.2 million. The Mississippi high school product struggled to adjust to the speed of the pro game in his debut, though that was expected.
Once Forbes gains strength and experience, Texas believes he’ll hit for average and power. He has a quick bat, helping him overcome a hitch in his right-handed swing, and manipulates the bat head well. He has the patience to draw walks and the speed to steal a few bases.
Forbes has the quickness and arm strength for shortstop, but his hands and actions may not be suited for the middle infield. He played more at third base during his debut and almost exclusively there in his first full pro season. He could handle center field if he can’t stay on the dirt.”
By contrast, Texas takes on a high-ceiling but raw position-change pitcher in Jefry Rodriguez. He’s 6’5” but only 185 at age 22, with plenty of room to dream on. From MLB.com, here’s the take on him:
“Rodriguez has quickly taken to pitching since the Nationals moved him from the infield to the mound after signing him out of the Dominican Republic in 2012. He stood out in the Gulf Coast League the next year, but his progress was slowed in 2014 by a left wrist fracture that kept him out the final two months of the season.
Rodriguez has a projectable frame and a powerful arm. His fastball already reaches 98 mph and his power curveball has plus potential as well. He also throws a changeup, which is still in its nascent stages of development. He has proven to be adept at generating groundballs.
Thanks to his athleticism and exciting stuff, Rodriguez has a lot of upside. More than anything, he needs to get more innings under his belt so he can learn more of the nuances of his craft.”
With the moves made to free us up from Elvis’ contract and bring in a younger catcher and shutdown closer, the next move I make is to free us from the albatross that is Shin-Soo Choo’s bloated contract. To move Choo, you have to find a team with deep pockets and a shallow outfield. That, to me, screams:
New York Mets.
- OF Shin-Soo Choo and cash considerations to the NY Mets for prospects (#22) Blake Taylor and 1B (#30) Jayce Boyd
Now, to be clear, this is going to cost us as well, just as Elvis did. To be conservative, I’m again estimating ½ of Choo’s salary, and banking that JD can negotiate down, but for payroll purposes, look for a $10 million annual hit. So what do we get back for New York gambling that Choo can find his Ohi-level form after an off year or two in Texas? Mid-level prospects at best.
Blake Taylor is a projectable arm, young enough to have a high ceiling, but is far from polished. From MLB.com:
“When the Pirates drafted Taylor in the second round of the 2013 Draft, the SoCal high school lefty was all about projection. A year, and a trade to the Mets for Ike Davis, later, it’s still more about future potential than current performance.
Taylor has a lot to work with, starting with a strong and projectable 6-foot-3 frame. He committed himself to an offseason conditioning program over the winter and that should help him find consistency with his fastball. Depending on the day you might have seen Taylor during his first year of pro ball, you might have seen a fastball in the upper-80s. On another day, Taylor may have been up to 92-94 mph, a range he should be able to settle in with, thrown with sink to generate groundball outs. He’s shown the ability to spin the ball as well and continues to work on his offspeed stuff.
Taylor has yet to make it to full-season ball, finally making it to short-season Brooklyn in July, so he still has a long way to go.”
I’m a big fan of high-ceiling, low-floor gambles when it comes to young prospects. It worked out for quite a few seasons with Neftali Feliz, and I think it’s a gamble worth taking with Taylor, as well as Jayce Boyd.
Similar to Taylor, Boyd is a flawed prospect, but one who can flat hit. Wherever Boyd has been, either at Florida State or in the Mets’ system, he’s hit:
“Boyd has been able to make consistent contact and hit for a high average at all levels. He led the Mets system in batting average in his first full season in 2013, then hit over .290 in 2014. That continued in 2015, allowing him to earn a promotion from Double- to Triple-A. Boyd draws a lot of walks and doesn’t strike out much. He has more gap power than over-the-fence pop, though there are enough flashes to indicate that he could perhaps hit 10-12 homers per season. A good defensive first baseman, his offense didn’t fit the profile for the spot, and he moved to left field in 2015.
It’s possible Boyd ends up as a fourth outfielder or bat off the bench who can play a corner outfield spot and fill in at first, but as the adage goes, guys that hit tend to find their way into the lineup.”
It’s that hit tool that makes him a valuable organizational player or, more to my liking, a system-stocking trade chip for the future.
So we move out an outfielder, and still haven’t solved for the Rangers’ need for a right-handed impact bat. For that, we have to give up a young up-and-comer and an arm, but we get back All-Star caliber return.
- LHP Martin Perez and OF Ryan Rua to the Arizona Diamondbacks for CF J. Pollock, prospect RHP (#4) Aaron Blair and LHP (#10) Cody Reed
This is the one deal, of the three, that we don’t need to make but that I think we should. First, what we’re giving up. This deal came down to an arm going to Arizona, because they need that as bad as any team this side of the Mississippi. From the Texas standpoint, it came down to Holland vs. Perez. And let me say, I really like Martin Perez. I think he’s going to be an impact 3rd starter in the big leagues, especially for a team that can hit and play defense. But Derek Holland, if he can return to his form, is truly an All-Star third starter. Since 2012, he’s put up a FIP of below four, with better than 3.5 K-to-walk, and a WHIP below 1.3. That’s high-caliber pitching, and there’s nothing in his mechanics or makeup that makes me think he can’t return to that form after Tommy John, as his work ethic and conditioning have never been a question. Now, don’t doubt that he’s a bit of a flake – he may be nearing Bill “Spaceman” Lee-for-the-21st-Century levels—but just like Lee, nobody can doubt he’s a bulldog and a workhorse. So I give up the likes of Martin Perez, along with a replacement-level but talent-laden outfielder in Ryan Rua.
We’ve seen the good of Rua (solid defense and a gap-to-gap line-drive swing) and the bad (limited big league power for his physique, almost no discipline – 31:2 K:BB ratio). But in watching his inside-the-park homer the other night against San Francisco, and the swing he put on the ball, I can’t help but think Arizona will see what scouting reports see in him: the guy who hit 32 homers for Hickory and got more power than his frame should provide.I harken back to this line from Fangraphs when considering the upside for Rua: ”
“In sum, Rua doesn’t have 80-grade power, but he does possess above-average pop; consistent 15-25 homer totals are well within his reach if his hit tool and approach enable his power to play in games. He also generates the power in a fairly efficient fashion that doesn’t cost him ability in other areas, which is key to maintaining his prospect viability as he ascends and faces higher-quality pitching.”
As a big leaguer so far, he’s stayed within himself, but as he gains confidence, especially in the thin air in Arizona, he could replicate the 15-20 homer potential that breakout 2013 would portent.
The real key for Arizona here is Martin Perez, who showed with his August 1 outing against San Francisco all he can do.
His rookie season is also his only full year, as he’s coming back from Tommy John, but as far better writers than me have covered in far greater depth, the road back from Tommy John has now been trodden to the point of being at least a zero-sum game. Using 2013 as the criteria for what Arizona is getting back in Perez, we see real value going over. He had 6.1 K’s per 9, solid for a lefty who generally pitches to contact, but the bigger key there is strikeout to walk, which was a solid mid-rotation-level number at 2.27. His WHIP of 1.335 is very reliable for a lefty in a hitters park, especially backed up by an offense the likes of which Arizona can bring, and he was putting up almost the same WHIP when injured last year. Perhaps most critically, he’s gradgually turned into a plus-plus groundball pitcher, from .9+ in his rookie year to 1.45 this season. So we’re giving up a lot in Martin Perez. For many staffs, including this one, and Arizona, he’s anywhere from a #2 to a #4 starter, and is a solid #3 in a quality rotation. What I’m getting back is an All-Star in A.J. Pollock.
Pollack has had some injury issues – with a nagging hamstring the most recent—but his slash is legitimately impactful, especially for a centerfielder: .305/.361/.465. He’s not just traditional stats, either, as his WAR and oWAR put him well above-average (4.7, 3.5). And his defensive WAR is 1.4, which means we’re putting an impact bat with an above average glove in center field. Beyond the rounded dWAR number, his defensive runs saved stats (11) and range factor (2.47 vs a league average of 2.08) put him as a great candidate to range the gaps in Arlington.
What’s more, he’s out-performed every scouting report from his last prospect season (2013, when he was #9 in the AZ system and blocked by the likes of Justin Upton, Adam Eaton, and Jason Kubel, all since departed). Here’s what Baseball America said about Pollock two years ago, and think Rusty Greer as you read:
“Pollock’s total package is more than the sum of its parts, with only his bat and makeup grading better than average. He’s a gap-to-gap hitter who makes reliable contact but has yet to develop much over-the-fence power. The ball does come off his bat well, so Arizona believe he’ll eventually produce 10-15 homers per year. Pollock makes the most of his average speed, running the bases well and showing annual 20-steal potential. He’s capable of playing all three outfield positions, getting good reads and displaying an average arm that’s enough to handle right field.
Scouts are split on Pollock, with some seeing him as a solid regular in center field and others thinking he profiles best as a fourth outfielder.”
From that, he’s turned into a plus-plus outfielder who rightfully made the All-Star team this season. He’ll be rewarded for it in arbitration, where I see his annual salary jumping from his rookie-level $500,000 to something along the lines of $4,000,000 above that, or $4.5 million annually.
I love the prospect of A.J. Pollock roaming CF while the likes of Nomar Mazara and Lewis Brinson develop. He wouldn’t be a free agent until 2019, and even in arbitration, he’s going to stay well below a comparable free agent-level signing. Moreover, he lets us use Delino Deshields as a utility-level replacement player, adding him to a young, versatile outfield corps with Mazara and (until Adrian Beltre cedes him the spot) Joey Gallo, joined within a couple years by Lewis Brinson. I’d love the problem of going into 2019 with the challenge of moving one of two emerging corner outfield stars in Mazara and Brinson and either trading or re-signing a multi-time All-Star center fielder who we’ve had on a relative discount for 3 years. I think Arizona considers the deal precisely because Ryan Rua is such a projectable talent, who very likely hasn’t hit the top of his ability and would be well-protected in a lineup with Yasmany Tomas and Paul Goldschmidt, rather than being THE right-handed bat of record. This could allow him to reach his ceiling far sooner than he would in Texas. The cornerstone would of course be Perez, who would move directly into a second or third slot in the Arizona rotation. He becomes what is essentially a veteran arm in a very young Arizona rotation full of emerging but polish-ready arms.
So these moves give us a right-handed bat and a younger catcher, but still leave us needing a productive corner outfielder and utility man, along with a gaping hole at shortstop. I fill the latter of those with our first free agent signing:
- SS Ian Desmond, 4 years, $50M guaranteed
In terms of Desmond, we’re possibly overpaying for a downward-moving stock, but I’m gambling that a change of scenery and move from a place where he was all but anointed a franchise-level shortstop will arrest the slide and turn him back into the player we saw a couple of seasons ago. I’m basing these financial figures on a bull market for shortstops, as well as on what a player clearly a level above Desmond – Troy Tulowitzki – most recently signed for with the Rockies after the 2013 season. Even at $12.5 million a year for four years, we’re cheaper and more manageable than Andrus. Is it possible we broke the market (and our ability to either move or replace Elvis) with our excessive extension for Andrus a couple years back? Absolutely. This is a fairly optimistic space, despite some of the gloom and doom you’ve read here before. So again, please take this as my realistic hopes. If Ian Desmond heats up during August and September, the Yankees could choose to break the bank. In that case, we likely have to stand pat with Elvis, and most of what you read here breaks. So it goes with offseason and trade-related columns. It’s all chess, and one move changing shifts every other move.
Before 2015, Ian Desmond was reasonably considered a perennial All-Star. Here are his combined numbers and awards from 2012 to 2014, which included three Silver Slugger awards and an All-Star spot, plus a positive dWAR (although all below 1.0, which means he’s basically Elvis 2.0 on that front):
What’s more, the key trend that’s seen Desmond fall off this season has been his patience, which is the one area that tends to be a performance indicator. With three solid years of patience, I think we’re seeing a banged-up player who’s pressing to keep up with the likes of his more talented teammates, such as Bryce Harper, while also feeling the pressure of being a power source to cover for the diminishing production from Ryan Zimmerman. There’s also something to the idea that, having rejected an extension from Washington to test the free agent market, he’s pressing to produce. Moreover, he’s always been a high-production/high-strikeout venture, so it doesn’t take much for that combination to find a slump.
The challenging thing is, other than a select fraternity of Troy Tulowitzki, Brandon Crawford, and the effervescent Carlos Correa, the days of the impact bat at shortstop have waned. You now look for a plus defender who can get on base and not make mistakes, at a reasonable price. On occasion, you’ll get rare power from the position, and you buy high on those stocks. Ian Desmond, even after an off year, is one of those.
In looking at Ian’s approach, one thing his hot zones show is a clear trend between 2012 and today. In 2012, Ian hammered pitches low and in as well as up and away. As he did so, he wasn’t able to be entirely dominated by pitchers owning a half of the plate:
He truly made pitchers divide the plate into quadrants, which works fine if you’re Clayton Kershaw but can be a bit tough for mere mortals, especially on sweaty days of summer. With that, he lit up the league with the numbers we showcased above. His finest season, in fact, was when he put up that Pudge-like spray hitting approach above, with a .500+ slugging average and a career-best (albeit still high) strikeout to walk ratio of better than 4:1.
By last season, his hot zones outside the strike zone had fallen, which was particularly a problem because his discipline had dropped:
The last two seasons, he’s largely hammered low pitches, but his free-swinging meant a lot more of those blue zones outside the strike zone still constituted pitches Ian tried to reach. With some work with Dave Madigan, similar to the modified approach and discipline he and Mitch Moreland have employed, we should be able to see a bit more discipline and improved production.
And likely, as critically as any other factor, Desmond will have passed the ever-slump-ready contract year, which has solved more than one slump throughout baseball history. Watching video of his swing between 2012 and this season, I don’t see a huge change, other than a bit quieter start now, which has stiffened his lead arm a bit, slowing his bat and probably causing a bit of his problem chasing. Magadan worked with Mitch to help him start quiet but move into momentum before shifting into the hitting position, so it wouldn’t be a stretch at all for him to work with Desmond on a similar pre-swing timing mechanism. He has tremendously strong hands and wrists, and great rotational power reminiscent of the approach taken by a young Paul Molitor.
All he really needs is to rediscover the same all-balls-to-all-fields approach he had before, along with re-establishing a bit of additional discipline, and we should see a return to perennial all-star contention.
Ian Desmond and A.J. Pollock become right-handed impact bats. Moreover, one provides us with an above-average center fielder for the expanses at Globe Life; the other combines with Adrian Beltre, Rougned Odor, and Mitch Moreland to give the Rangers one of the more defensively consistent and offensively intimidating infields in baseball.
I’d originally considered signing the likes of Yoenis Cespedes as a right-handed bat, and I’d still be open to that, but I think we’re very soon going to see the emergence of both Nomar Mazara and Lewis Brinson between 2016 and 2017, and we also need to maintain the momentum shown by Delino Deshields. Finally, until Adrian cedes the spot, third base isn’t a viable place to rest Joey Gallo in between at bats, and he needs big league at-bats to develop, so I’d look to use him in the outfield.
Here’s my crack at lineup splits, for both righty and lefty arms, for 2016:
Batting Order vs. LHP
- Delino Deshields – RF
- A.J. Pollock – CF
- Prince Fielder – DH
- Adrian Beltre – 3B
- Josh Hamilton – LF
- Mitch Moreland – 1B
- Ian Desmond – SS
- Roughned Odor – 2B
- Wilson Ramos – C
Batting Order vs. RHP
- Roughned Odor – 2B
- A.J. Pollock – CF
- Prince Fielder – DH
- Josh Hamilton – LF
- Adrian Beltre – 3B
- Mitch Moreland – 1B
- Ian Desmond – SS
- Joey Gallo – RF
- Wilson Ramos – C
To avoid any rustiness, I’d definitely routinely rotate Deshields and Gallo vs. different arms, but in general I’d stick to a righty-lefty favorable matchup for those two. There’s also likely to be pressure from Mazara, and I think it’s entirely feasible that Lewis Brinson makes the team early in the season and pressures for at-bats. Good young bats battling for a place to play is a good problem to have, so I’ll fight that fight when we come to it.
One note further about the lineup: I would approach both Torii Hunter and Mike Napoli with roster offers. For Hunter, I’d ask that he accept a non-roster invite to spring training. At worst, he finally gets to play close to home, shows flashes of the power he once used to punish the Rangers, and uses his superior defense to polish the route running and positioning of Deshields, Mazara, and Brinson, as well as giving Gallo a bit more of a leg up for his time in the outfield. To that end, regardless of making the team, I offer Hunter a five-year personal services contract to serve as a team ambassador and coach. I don’t know that Brinson makes the team out of spring training, and if Hunter can earn a roster spot, he certainly has the game intelligence and pedigree we’re not going to find anywhere this side of Beltre on the roster.
Concerning Napoli, he’s had a horrible season in Boston, and isn’t going to get anything close to the $16,000,000 Boston paid him for 2014 and 2015. With that said, if he’s willing to come back to Texas as a right-handed spell for Mitch at first and Prince Fielder at DH, I’m willing to take a flyer on his regaining his Arlington magic from familiar surroundings. He can’t catch any longer, but if he’d be willing to take a considerable pay cut – a one-year deal for around $6-8 million a year, or roughly what he made last time around in Texas—I’d take a chance on him.
Next time around, I’ll take a run at the pitching staff and see where we stand as a full roster – and from a payroll perspective.