Jon Daniels is rolling the dice. At some point this offseason, he must have looked at his starting rotation and thought, huh. I have two starters. We should… I should do something about that. At that point, he had some options. Yu Darvish, one of the team’s best starters before Daniels traded him to the Dodgers, was available as a free agent. The two even (reportedly) had a dinner date! Jake Arrieta, another frontline starter, was also out there. Too pricy? Well, there’s options! Lance Lynn could be had for a song probably. Alex Cobb. Four guys right there you could sign. Jon?

Nope. Mike Minor. I’m going to make Mike Minor a starter again! Ok. He was a surprisingly effective reliever. He used to be a pretty effective starter. Ok. It could work. It’s a gamble, but it could work. And, hell, while you’re at the craps table, why not keep rolling? Enter reclamation project Matt Moore via trade from the Giants, coming off a miserable year, but still throwing 92 from the left side. Oh, and hey, Doug Fister. He had a little bounce back last year. Who else? Lemme see… Bartolo Colon? Bartolo Colon! Hell, open the floodgates. Jesse Chavez, Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Niese, Edinson Volquez, come on down!

So suffice it to say there are some questions about the Rangers rotation. Ten days before the start of the season, and it’s still pretty fluid. And we haven’t even talked about the bullpen yet! Or who’s going to play left field. With all that in mind, let’s take a closer look at your 2018 Texas Rangers.

The Offense:
The Rangers return all but one of their offensive starters from last year, with the exception of Carlos Gomez. That leaves the team looking stable, but not exactly impressive. Last year’s squad finished 10th in the AL in offensive WAR (14.9 fWAR) and 10th in wRC+ (94). Based on a box score from September 15th, the lineup might look something like this, with projected AVG/OBP/SLG, wRC+, and HR totals using Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections in parentheses:

CF – Delino DeShields, Jr. (.244/.326/.415, 79 wRC+, 8 HR)
DH – Shin-Soo Choo (.256/.353/.415, 104 wRC+, 17 HR)
SS – Elvis Andrus (.281/.327/.418, 93 wRC+, 13 HR)
3B – Adrian Beltre (.277/.342/.464, 108 wRC+, 17 HR)
RF – Nomar Mazara (.272/.335/.463, 106 wRC+, 25 HR)
1B – Joey Gallo (.212/.325/.503, 113 wRC+, 34 HR)
2B – Rougned Odor (.256/.299/.471, 95 wRC+, 29 HR)
C – Robinson Chirinos (.226/.313/.438, 95 wRC+, 12 HR)
LF – Drew Robinson (.215/.301/.407, 83 wRC+, 18 HR)

ZiPS isn’t buying Elvis Andrus’ breakout 2017 campaign, which he finished with a 110 wRC+ and 20 home runs, and anticipates a fair amount of regression. That may be overly pessimistic, but Andrus’ HR/FB % last year was nearly double his career high, so there might be something to be said for tempering expectations. The rest of the lineup projects to produce roughly at the same rates as last year, with a slight step forward projected for Nomar Mazara.

After power prospect Willie Calhoun’s recent demotion to Round Rock, Drew Robinson is expected to start the year in left field, and his projected line looks ugly. Robinson did show some pop at both AA and AAA, and the home run projection reflects that, but the rest… yeesh. Overall, the team projects to produce about the same offensively as last season, with a significant upward regression for Rougned Odor, and a significant step back for Elvis Andrus. Calhoun, who was likely sent down to work on his outfield defense, is likely to return to the team before too long, ostensibly taking over for Robinson in left, and he should add some offense. ZiPS is bullish on the 5’8” fireplug who mashed 31 homers in AAA last year, projecting him to slash .277/.330/.497 with a 112 wRC+ and 28 dingers.

The Rotation:
As I mentioned in my rambling preamble, this is amounts to the modern version of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” with the notable exception that Cole Hamels and Martin Perez pitched at the level roughly equivalent to Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain’s worst seasons. But, hey, they threw some innings. After them, the rest of the rotation is really a gamble. Here’s what we’re looking at, with projected ERA, FIP, and innings pitched in parentheses:

Cole Hamels (3.86/4.18, 154 IP)
Martin Perez (4.34/4.20, 168 IP)
Matt Moore (4.92/4.90, 153 IP)
Mike Minor (3.68/3.82, 66 IP)
Doug Fister (4.67/4.76, 134 IP)
Jesse Chavez (4.49/4.47, 124 IP) OR Bartolo Colon (5.12/4.86, 135 IP)

You’ll note there are seven pitchers here. That’s due to Brian Bannister’s plan to deploy a six-man rotation to start the season. That sixth spot is still up for grabs, with Ronald Herrera, Niese, and Yohander Mendez also in the mix. At the top, Hamels is projected for an upward regression, improving both his ERA and FIP, and throwing more innings. It’s still not vintage Hamels, and those numbers don’t exactly scream “Ace of the Rotation.”

Perez looked like a solid innings eater last season, but his injury history might give ZiPS some pause, since he’s projected to lose some innings. Moore’s projection looks putrid, but there’s some room for optimism, since Daniels has indicated the team expects him to throw fewer cutters and more curveballs, relying primarily on a four-seam fastball and the curve. Daniels is also relying on an adjustment Fister made in Boston last season to stick, and is banking on him to match or improve on what already looks like a pretty generous projection.

At the back end, Chavez and Colon have both enjoyed some measure of recent success, although not in 2017. Arguably the most interesting member of the rotation is Mike Minor. The 6’4” lefty averaged 94.4 mph on his fastball last season, more than three miles per hour higher than his career average, but it came in relief, where he was able to air it out. Minor has had success as a starter, putting up 3.5 fWAR in more than 200 innings in 2013 with the Braves, before a shoulder injury put him on the shelf. Last year’s velocity gain is promising in that it suggests Minor has fully recovered from his injury, but it’s a leap to think he could maintain that velocity deep into games. All told, there’s a lot of moving parts here, and while there is some reason for optimism there seems to be even more uncertainty and risk of this whole gamble blowing up in Daniels’ face.

The Bullpen:
FanGraphs Depth Charts has Alex Claudio sitting atop the list of pitchers to be deployed out of the bullpen, and he had an effective year in relief in 2017, putting up a 1.6 fWAR despite striking hardly anybody out. Jeff Bannister has maintained that Claudio may not be used to close out games, preferring to use him in a more leverage-dependent capacity. Jose Leclerc is someone I was not aware existed, but he quietly struck out better than 11 batters per nine, pumping 96 mph heat. Behind Claudio and Leclerc, Matt Bush, who will not be tried out as a starter after all, Jake Diekman, and Keone Kela comprise a non-negligible relief corps, with the wild card that is Tim Lincecum potentially making some appearances as well. All that taken into account, the Rangers bullpen put up the second lowest fWAR in the AL last year, better only than the Tigers, and the collection of arms doesn’t boast anyone who might be considered “elite.”

The Farm:
Including the aforementioned Willie Calhoun, the Rangers have a total of four prospects who grade out to be league average regulars. FanGraphs’ lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen projects #2 prospect Leody Taveras as a “plus hitter with plus defense in center field and a plus arm,” but there are questions about his power ever developing. He’s only 18, so he’s a good distance on the horizon still. #3 Prospect Cole Ragans is a 6’4” lefty with an uninspiring arsenal, but a plus changeup. Longenhagen does describe the 19-year-old’s fastball as “sneaky productive,” though. It will be a little while before he makes a major league impact, as he has just had to undergo Tommy John surgery. Yohander Mendez is another big lefty with an above-average fastball, good changeup, and decent command. Longenhagen projects Mendez as a future #4 starter, and the 22-year-old was or is in the mix for the #6 starter job this spring. Beyond those prospects, Bubba Thompson, who was a star quarterback in high school, has an intriguing array of tools and makeup, and could grow into something exceeding his 45 Future Value projection.

The Outlook:
Based on Jon Daniels’ offseason maneuvering, and the lack of appreciable upgrades to the roster, it doesn’t look like he’s trying to contend for a wild card berth, much less compete for the AL West crown. But it also doesn’t look like he’s intent on tanking. He has recently mentioned the word “rebuilding,” but, at least this year, that rebuild includes the possibility of the team upsiding its way into a winning record, and maybe even a decent season. Or not. But Daniels is rolling the dice.

My prediction: It just doesn’t work. The team wins 79 games and finishes last in the AL West. Not awful, but not impressive, either.

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