Can The Texas Rangers Maintain The Windowless Model?
The fifth step came in 2010 – earlier than expected – when the Rangers traded for Cliff Lee. That also meant the fifth year of the plan came early too, as the Rangers went to the World Series three-and-a-half years into their rebuilding program, and returned again the following year.
Now, the Rangers have just wrapped their fourth straight 90-win season, tied with Tampa Bay for the best such streak in the league. Those four seasons have yielded two World Series births, one Wild Card spot, and one play-in opportunity for a Wild Card.
Although the Rangers have produced a contending team and arguably championship-caliber team each of the last four seasons, which was the goal of the five-step and five-year plan, they have failed to achieve the ultimate goal of winning a championship.
In each of the past four seasons, Texas has made significant investments into adding big-league talent at the expense of minor league costs. The return on that investment has been a mixed bag. In 2010 and 2011, trading Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Chris Davis, Tommy Hunter, Pedro Strop, Joe Wieland, and Robbie Erlin (among others) was ultimately worth it because the end justified the means. Those moves played a direct impact in the Rangers reaching the World Series. Not including the postseason, the players the Rangers received from those trades accumulated 5.2 rWAR.
However, in 2012 and 2013 the Rangers have traded Christian Villanueva, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Brigham (and then Barret Loux), C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm, Mike Olt, and Neil Ramirez for a return that didn’t contribute to furthering the Rangers shot at a title in those seasons, and only contributed 1.0 rWAR total.
With the changes in the CBA regarding spending internationally and in the MLB draft, and the unlikelihood that the Rangers will be in a “Teixeira trade” situation again anytime soon, the kind of talent accumulation Texas made in 2007 may never be seen again. That makes the unproductive loss of these prospects over the last two years that much harder to bear. They may have never seen the field with Texas, but neither can Texas ever trade them again.
At some point, you have to wonder if the model that Texas has followed the last four seasons is going to continue to be sustainable for a franchise that intends to operate without a “window”. At what point does spending prospect currency for short-term gains result in a deficit? Or have the Rangers created the kind of developmental system that prevents such a deficit from ever appearing?
Below are two charts that show the split of the percentage of total rWAR created by age in 2013, for hitters and pitchers. The comparison is of Texas to Major League Baseball as a whole.
Those last two groups are of some concern. While the Rangers core of Yu Darvish, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, and Leonys Martin fall in that age 24-31 range, key pieces like Adrian Beltre, Joe Nathan, Alex Rios, and Nelson Cruz are beyond it. Kinsler turns 32 next season. Trusting too much in aging players is likely only going to go in one direction. Physical skills decline, contracts end and are too expensive to renew, and overall the value for the dollar spent decreases at a rapid pace.
Meanwhile, several of the prospects who conceivably could have joined and contributed to the Rangers in the age 20-23 range now reside in other organizations. This puts a higher stress on the success rate of the Rangers prospects that join the big league club, like Jurickson Profar and Martin Perez.
There hasn’t been one move from the last four years that has had a detrimental impact on the farm system, but each one has marginally eroded the pool of young, cost-controlled talent options the Rangers have at their disposal.
What we have seen over the past two seasons is that there are fewer high impact free agents available on the market (due to a greater rate of contract extensions), more competition for international targets (due to the CBA), and the trade demands for players has endured a premium as a result. This also puts a greater importance on clubs getting production from homegrown talent. That has always been the recipe for Tampa Bay’s success, and St. Louis and Oakland have modeled it as well.
Every move the Rangers make is with the goal of hanging a flag that will fly forever. Each season that they fall short of that goal is one less season of productive play by Beltre and Kinsler and Nathan, and moves Darvish and Holland one step closer to free agency. Even if the organization is operating under a “no windows” policy, the team as currently constructed does have a limited window of opportunity.
There is a cyclical element to the continual change in a franchise. If and when the Rangers ever win a World Series, that team may look nothing like the present version. As the front office preaches balancing the one-year and five-year plan, this club should continue to weather the storm of a disappointing trade or two. If they can do that, then they ought to be able to make the dream of a windowless world a reality.