Understanding The Status Quo

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It goes without saying that the 2014 season was not kind to the Texas Rangers.  The team, the front office, and the fans all had high hopes going into Spring Training. The team had, what looked like, a very talented, established, and deep starting rotation. Headlined by ace Yu Darvish, the rotation would be filled out with Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Martin Perez, and Colby Lewis. At their best, that would have been a fantastic rotation.
Derek Holland, the 28 year old lefty has the potential to be a dominant pitcher. When Holland is on, he flashes #1 type stuff, and his World Series heroics are well-documented. In 2012, Matt Harrison may have been the most underrated, and under-the-radar starting pitcher in baseball, logging over 200 innings with a 3.29 ERA at age 26. Martin Perez, the prized jewel of the Rangers farm system for years, had begun to deliver on all of his promise in 2013. Perez won 10 games and had an ERA of 3.62 in his rookie season at age 22. Colby Lewis, the former 1st round pick of the Rangers in 1999, has been a warrior for the organization since coming home prior to the 2010 season. Lewis gave the Rangers over 200 innings in 2010 and 2011, the club’s two World Series seasons. When the Rangers’ bullpen was heavily taxed and needed a breather, you could almost always pencil Colby in for a deep quality start the next day.

One of the biggest curiosities going into last off-season was what to do with the middle infield logjam. All-Star 2nd baseman Ian Kinsler had just completed the first year of his 5-year, $75 million contract extension. All-Star shortstop Elvis Andrus had just agreed to an 8-year, $120 million extension. And Jurickson Profar, the #1 prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2012 season, had little left to prove in the minors.

The Rangers needed some more pop in the lineup. 1st baseman Mitch Moreland hit a meager .232 with 60 RBIs from a spot on the diamond which profiles as a power position. Lance Berkman was a colossal bust at DH, collecting $10 million only to play in 37 games, hitting 6 home runs and driving in 34 runs. The offensive output desperately needed to be improved upon.

In a totally unexpected move, the Rangers and Tigers agreed on a rare star-for-star swap. The Rangers sent Kinsler, who had shown a reluctance to move positions, and at age 31, had begun showing signs of offensive decline, to the Tigers in exchange for slugging 1st baseman, Prince Fielder and $30 million in cash. The left-handed slugger had fallen out of favor in Detroit after showing what Tigers fans felt was a lack of emotion and a sense of indifference in an unsuccessful postseason showing.

However, Fielder had a reputation for being an iron man. He had only missed a handful of games in his entire career and is nearly two years younger than Kinsler. Fielder had averaged 34 home runs and 105 RBI for his career. The Rangers also needed an additional threat to protect Adrian Beltre in the lineup. Despite posting a career low in homers in 2013 in Detroit, the Rangers thought that a change of scenery would serve Fielder well. Rangers Ballpark is tailor-made for Fielder, a left-handed, power-hitting slugger.

Detractors of the deal would argue that the Rangers were picking up a long-term risk, as Fielder had 7 years remaining on his deal, with an average annual value of $24 million. However, the only years the Rangers would pay the full annual amount would be the first two. (Likely to be the most productive) The Tigers would kick in $6 million per year for the final five seasons, meaning the Rangers would be paying him $18 million annually. Despite what many pundits will say, that is not an outrageous number for someone with Fielder’s track record, especially when compared to the Pujols, A-Rod, Cano contracts of the world.

One of the knocks on the Rangers in 2013 was the inability to work the count. (While that was a horribly annoying strength of the division champion A’s) The Rangers, determined to address this area of need, made another big splash by signing free agent outfielder, Shin-Soo Choo to a 7-year, $130 million deal. This was probably an admitted overpay, but the veteran outfielder made a lot of sense in the Rangers’ lineup. He had a reputation for being a machine at getting on base and working the count. In 2013, Choo walked 112 times with an on base percentage of .423. He ranked 8th in the Majors in pitches per plate appearance with 4.23. Combining Fielder and Choo with Beltre in the middle of the Rangers lineup seemed to make perfect sense.  With Choo setting the table and working the opposing pitcher, Fielder and Beltre would seemingly get a plethora of early RBI opportunities.

Where it went wrong:

 The headline of the 2014 Rangers’ season wasn’t another playoff race, a Yu Darvish Cy Young campaign, or a Prince Fielder MVP discussion, but simply, injuries. The Rangers’ plans all went horribly wrong. The club used a major league record 64 players. The team also lost 2,116 games to the disabled list, shattering the previous major league record of 2,007. Before the season even started, Derek Holland suffered a knee injury and lost for several months. Yu Darvish, Colby Lewis, and Matt Harrison were all deemed not ready for Opening Day. To fill the voids, the Rangers gave Tanner Scheppers, Robbie Ross, Nick Martinez, and veteran Joe Saunders their spots in the rotation. Scheppers, Ross, and Martinez had a combined zero major league starts between them.

Prince Fielder got off to an awful start with the Rangers, hitting only .247 with 3 home runs and 16 RBI. After finding out he had a herniated disc in his neck that would require surgery in May, Fielder was shut down for the rest of the season. Soon after the loss of Fielder, Mitch Moreland was also lost for the season due to an ankle injury. Losing Fielder and Moreland led to the Rangers having to use Carlos Pena, Mike Carp, and Brad Snyder, among others, at 1st.

Shin-Soo Choo had a very good April, hitting .319 with a .446 OBP, but struggled the rest of the way battling elbow and ankle injuries. Choo would miss all of September.

Martin Perez, the Rangers’ young lefty, was the lone bright spot in the rotation early on. Perez tossed back-to-back complete game shutouts in April and looked like he was on track to finally cement his spot as a staple in the Rangers’ rotation. But like almost everything for the Rangers in 2014, it didn’t work out that way. Perez struggled in his first two starts in May, only to find out he needed to have season ending Tommy John surgery.

Perez and Saunders each made only eight starts. Harrison managed four. Holland returned late in the season and was fantastic, but made only six starts. Yu Darvish made 22 starts before being shut down late in the season. Colby Lewis lead the team in starts with 29. After a rocky first half, he was more than serviceable in the second half. At that point, the damage was already done.

The rotation and the bullpen was a constant revolving door of whoever the next warm body was. Joakim Soria was very good in the closer role for the Rangers and when the team fell out of the race, he was dealt to the Tigers for pitching prospects, Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel. Talented, but enigmatic reliever, Neftali Feliz was reinserted into the closer’s role. Steady set-up man, Jason Frasor was dealt to Kansas City in exchange for reliever Spencer Patton. Aside from those swaps, a lot of names that emerged on the Rangers’ pitching staff seemed to come out of nowhere. Seeing names like Phil Klein, Jon Edwards, Ben Rowen, Jerome Williams, Ryan Feierabend, and Hector Noesi, among others, was an obvious indicator that 2014 did not managw to go as planned. One of the biggest problems in 2014 was that the Rangers didn’t have nearly enough depth to cover the overwhelming amount of injuries to the pitching staff.

2015 Off-season thus far:

After such a successful run from 2010-2013, and such a disappointing 2014 campaign, fans wanted to see the Rangers be very active this off-season. Thus far, it has been an uneventful and relatively quiet offseason. The most important transaction so far is the re-signing of Colby Lewis to a one-year deal to fortify the starting rotation. After regaining his strength and form in the second half of 2014, Lewis proved that he is capable of being an innings-eater workhorse for this staff again. The team then traded minor leaguers Abel de los Santos and Christopher Bostick to the Nationals for lefty starter, Ross Detwiler. The moves outside of those have been of little substance. Some of the transactions include:

*Re-signed INF Adam Rosales.

*Signed 1B/OF Kyle Blanks.

*Selected IF/OF Delino DeShields in the Rule 5 Draft.

*Signed P’s Ross Wolf, Anthony Bass, Mitch Atkins, and David Martinez to minor league deals.

These moves seem to be more about covering the issue of depth, rather than bringing in “difference-makers.” The team is trying to ensure it has some pitchers with Major League experience so that should a starter go down, they have a reserve unit in Triple-A. Also of note is that the majority of the Rangers’ top corps of pitching prospects have now reached the upper levels. Chi Chi Gonzalez, Luke Jackson, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher, and Andrew Faulkner all pitched in Double-A or above last season. That next wave of pitching is now knocking on the door of the major leagues, whereas last season, none of those kids were quite ready for major league action.

The reason for standing pat:

 It is not unreasonable to think that Jon Daniels and company still have a big move or two up their sleeves. The club has a loaded farm system with plenty of prospects that are coveted by other teams. If the Rangers decided they really wanted to make a run at any of the big names that have been made available in trade, they could have had them. The prospects are there to make a trade and JD has openly said that the team would include some of their top prospects in the right deal.

That being said, it is understandable that the front office would be a bit gun-shy to pull the trigger this offseason. Ownership has given JD a limited amount to spend this winter, and the Rangers have been burned by recent trades and free agent signings. When the team was in “go-for-it” mode, they sent pitchers, Kyle Hendricks, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, and CJ Edwards to the Cubs in separate deals for Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza. Hendricks, Grimm, and Ramirez all would have been helpful to the Rangers’ pitching staff in the nightmarish 2014 season. Edwards stands to be the biggest loss in those deals, as he is one of the top prospects in the Cubs’ system. Young, controllable, inexpensive arms are becoming increasingly more valuable in baseball every year. The Rangers have nothing to show for the trades of Dempster and Garza.

Arguably the best pitcher to have been traded this off-season that would have made sense for the Rangers, is Arizona lefty, Wade Miley. Miley is still under contract for three more years, is left-handed, and has a solid track record. But Miley is probably a #3 starter, at best. Would the Rangers really be interested in trading some of their most valuable chips for someone who isn’t a game-changer? For example, would you want to deal Joey Gallo straight up for Miley? What about Jerad Eickhoff, Luke Jackson, and Lewis Brinson for Miley?

The Rangers aren’t interested in closing their competitive window early for a player who is only a marginal upgrade. While the club isn’t making headlines, they are likely making a wise decision. After such a miserable, injury-riddled 2014 season, it seems reasonable for the team to see what it has at full health before they go making a big splash. Why go overpay for James Shields or Max Scherzer when you have a healthy Yu Darvish, Prince Fielder, or Shin-Soo Choo? If the Rangers have another disastrous season, health wise, in 2015, that would just be another big contract taking up space on the payroll. The biggest acquisition for this team is health.

If Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo, and Mitch Moreland all have healthy seasons, this team will compete. And at that point, the Rangers will still have all of their young trade chips available to make an impact trade when the time comes. However, if there are significant injuries again, hanging onto the young pieces are what will keep this team’s competitive window open for years to come.

As a fan, it is easy to be frustrated at the Rangers for their lack of “sexy” moves thus far. But if you step back and look at the big picture, it really makes a lot of sense. Every offseason, teams make deals that they look back on and regret. It is rare that a team looks back and feels remorse hanging onto its young, controllable players, in lieu of taking on large contracts. Just ask the A’s how they feel about giving up Addison Russell for a first round exit in the playoffs. Ask the Braves how they feel about giving up Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, and Elvis Andrus for one year of Mark Teixeira and missing the playoffs. Sometimes, being patient and standing pat is the move that pays the biggest dividends.

Matt Middleton
Matt has been an avid Texas Rangers fan for as long as he can remember. Baseball has always been his biggest passion. He played baseball in high school and college, and continues to play in various men's leagues. Matt is a part-time contributor to ShutDownInning.

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