By now, the consensus on the 2016 Texas Rangers is out there: they overachieved.
Last year, the Rangers “Orioled” their way to the best record in the American League. The Pythagorean standings said they were an 82-win team while the scoreboard showed they won 95. They did it through the time-honored method of a strong bullpen, a 36-11 record in one run games, and “clutch” hitting.
It’s really a miracle this all happened, because you could easily have told the story of the Rangers 2016 as an unfortunate meltdown. How, you ask?
If you were to retell 2016 in Arlington as a tragedy, you’d start where most disappointing seasons do: with injuries. According to spotrac, the Rangers were in the top five in MLB on the unpleasant 2016 leaderboards for dollars paid to players on the DL and total number of players on the DL.
- The team lost Prince Fielder, halfway through his $214-million contract, as a neck injury rendered him sub-replacement and finally forced him to retire mid-season.
- Shin-Soo Choo, in the third year of a seven-year, $130-million deal, played through a back injury that sapped his effectiveness. After Aug. 1, he managed just 12 hits (2 for extra bases) in 55 at-bats, and 7 walks.
- Even though the Angels were still paying most of the tab on Josh Hamilton‘s contract, the Rangers lost any production they might have hoped for. His season was over before it started.
Once you get past the injuries, you have to look at underperformance in the lineup.
- Perennial just-good-enough first baseman Mitch Moreland dropped from a 116 OPS+ in 2015 to an 87 OPS+ in 2016. Even a Gold Glove couldn’t make up for that loss of production. Despite the fact some other first base Gold-Glover actually also won a platinum glove this year, great defense isn’t generally what makes a player a success at first base.
- Jurickson Profar was BP’s No. 4 prospect in baseball in 2012. In 2013, he was No. 1. Then came more than two years of injuries, which kept him out until 2016. By rights, a Ranger fan might have hoped Profar’s 23-year old season could be a breakout return. Instead, Profar’s bat was as weak as feared (239/321/338) and his glove was shuttled into a utility role.
- The other great Rangers hope, third baseman/outfielder/burly fellow Joey Gallo, always seemed two weeks away from being called up. Gallo’s power is legendary, but so are the flaws in his swing-and-miss approach. His brief 2016 cameo involved 30 plate appearances where Gallo struck out 19 times and got one hit. Naturally that hit was a 450 foot home run. According to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, that one dinger was at about the 97% percentile for 2016 home run distance.
The Rangers’ hitting warts were nothing compared to their pitching problems.
- Yes, Yu Darvish came back. But the Rangers got only 17 starts from their co-ace in 2017.
- The closer, Shawn Tolleson, went from getting Cy Young votes in 2015 to flaming out of the role by Memorial Day. In his place the Rangers pushed Sam Dyson, a reliever whose biggest moment in the national spotlight was a few months earlier at the wrong end of a bat flip.
- In the era of the strikeout, the Rangers’ pitching strikeout rate (7.2K/9) was last in MLB. Compare that, for example, with the Dodgers’ 9.4 K/9. Somewhere, Crash Davis is mumbling a congratulation to Colby Lewis for “being democratic.”
- In related news, the team FIP was 4.58, 28th in the league. In 162 games Jeff Bannister handed the ball 113 times to a starter who ended the season with a FIP north of 4.49 (MLB Average: 4.19)
Yep, complete disaster.
Except, again: scoreboard. The only team that won more in 2016 was the Chicago Cubs. It’s tough to write that as tragedy. And this year’s team is probably better than last year’s.
Texas can hit. Elvis Andrus had a career year at the plate, following up three straight years of low 80s OPS+ with a 110 OPS+. Rougned Odor’s signature highlight was punching Jose Bautista, but the greater feat of pugilism may have been slugging .502 in his age-22 season. Nomar Mazara had a respectable rookie year and might reasonably be expected to improve this year, when he’ll be a year younger than Odor. Ageless wonder Adrian Beltre, a shade under the age of Mazara and Odor put together, showed no signs of slowing down.
And then there were the reinforcements. After a .423 winning percentage in July shaved a 10-game division lead to a 2.5-game lead at low tide, Jon Daniels cashed out the top of his minor league system for big-name help. Top prospects including Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and Dillon Tate left in trades that brought back Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Beltran and Jeremy Jeffress. Later in August, the Rangers added their castoff Carlos Gomez from the rival Astros. While the team’s underlying stats didn’t really get any better after these acquisitions, Ranger fans didn’t mind seeing the team run away with the AL West. The Rangers get to keep most of that haul for 2017 (except 40-year-old Beltran, who signed with the Astros.)
The bullpen was an asset in 2016, with Sam Dyson settling nicely into the 9th-inning role. Tony Barnette, last seen pitching his way out of the Diamondbacks’ minor league system in 2009, came back from a six-year run as a closer in Japan and pitched to a team-high 217 ERA+. Matt Bush returned from ignominy and obscurity to make an impact.
In a bitter turn of events, the Rangers’ playoff hopes ended in a sweep at the hands of the (shudder) Blue Jays again. In the offseason, they lost found-money star Ian Desmond. To fill in behind Derek Holland and Colby Lewis, who sadly played themselves out of the Rangers’ future plans; they imported damaged Padres escapees Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner. The hitting retains depth, with decent bench guys Delino DeShields, Jr. and Ryan Rua joining Profar and Gallo on the list of Rangers just waiting for a turn at bat.
The question for the Rangers will be where they are in their competitive window. The Rangers that made the World Series twice in a row in 2011-2012 are long gone. The only current Rangers who were regulars on those teams were Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre (and Mike Napoli, who took the long way around.) Cole Hamels creeps into his mid-30s this year and next, with an option year looming in 2019. Yu Darvish is signed only through 2017, and there is doubt around whether the Rangers will be able to keep him. 2017 is also the only full year they get Jonathan Lucroy before having to give him a big raise to stick around.
There is young talent, but not a lot of impact players on the verge of breaking into the bigs (except for Profar and Gallo, who’ve been “breaking into the bigs” for years now). The Rangers are talking about a long-term extension for Odor and should have him playing in the dirt in front of Mazara for as long as they keep him. Anderson Tejeda and Leody Taveras have some impact potential, but those teenaged hitters are not likely to arrive in time to add to the current offensive core.
On the pitching end, Yohander Mendez and Ariel Jurado seem more likely to fill behind the late career Derek Hollands and Colby Lewises of the world than they seem likely to break out as major league starters. While the Cubs drew to the inside straight of building a great pitching staff on the fly to bolster a core of young sluggers, the Rangers shouldn’t bank on replicating that trick as a backup plan for losing Darvish and Hamels.
Jon Daniels knows all of this. Given the information he has at his disposal about the farm, he is clearly starting 2017 aiming for the playoffs. If they are overperforming at the trade deadline, there will be temptation to go all in for another pitcher to get over the top. There have been rumors about shopping for Jose Quintana, whose four years of team control make him the top-of-the-line LG phone of baseball pitchers (which MLB.tv has taught me is top of the line). The Rangers may find it more sensible to shop in the Rich Hill-type TracFone bin for a short-term, high impact burner of a pitcher. If the Rangers are too far back at the deadline, there are several candidates to be sent away as rentals if a rebuild is inevitable.
In all, regression from 95 wins seems unavoidable, given the things that broke right for the Rangers last year. On the other hand, so does improvement from last year’s true-talent Pythagorean record based on catching some better injury luck and getting more from the replacements brought in and the players who could bounce back. PECOTA has them dropping to a reasonable 84 wins this year. Don’t underestimate this team’s ability to hit the over on that number with their depth and their uncertain competition in the AL West.
But then again, you never know how luck is going to go.
Record Prediction: 87-75Next post: 2017 Wild Four Tournament: Round of 8
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