First, let’s reflect on the 2021 version of the Rangers.
Tough To Watch
Texas endured a 102-loss campaign marking the franchise’s fifth consecutive losing season. Within the AL West division, manager Chris Woodward and crew finished in last place, 35 games behind cross-state rival and eventual AL-champion Houston Astros.
From an offensive standpoint, getting on base was particularly challenging. Only three Rangers with 200-plus plate appearances had an OBP above the .317 MLB-average. That said, the team was a bottom-feeder in many more offensive categories.
Texas pitchers performed better than the offense, but not by much. The staff ranked in the bottom 20% in runs allowed/game, home runs allowed, and opponent AVG and xwOBA. The bullpen wasn’t exceptional. But it was better than a starting rotation that was arguably the least effective in baseball.
Most of what we’ve discussed about the Rangers thus far is a reflection of a roster that’s received a significant overhaul with changes beginning last summer.
A Work In Progress
GM Chris Young continued his team’s makeover in the offseason by signing coveted infielders Corey Seager and Marcus Semien and starter Jon Gray to multi-year deals. The second-year GM and former Mariner also added utility-man Brad Miller, outfielder Kole Calhoun and catcher Mitch Garver to bolster the offense. Young also inked former Rangers starter Martín Pérez, relievers Garrett Richards and Greg Holland, outfielder Jake Marisnick and infielder Matt Carpenter.
Since the Rangers are a rebuilding club with a bevy of young players on the brink making the majors, the roster will likely remain in a state of flux throughout the season. Here’s the current cast of characters Woodward will likely be directing.
Key Position Players
1B – Nathaniel Lowe
2B – Marcus Semien
SS – Corey Seager
3B – Andy Ibáñez
LF – Nick Solak
CF – Adolis García
RF – Kole Calhoun
DH – Willie Calhoun
C – Mitch Garver
IF/OF – Brad Miller
INF/OF – Charlie Culberson
IF/OF – Eli White
OF – Jake Marisnick
The most dramatic changes to the lineup come in the form of Semien, Seager, and Garver. Semien played in every game last season hitting a career-high 45 home runs and 39 doubles, while slashing .265/.334/.538 with a superb 133 OPS+.
On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average.
Clearly, Semien represents a major upgrade to the lineup. But I’ve wondered whether his new home park could affect his season stats. Last season, 75.7% of fly balls hit at Globe Life Field were converted into outs. That was the fifth highest rate in MLB. Meanwhile, Semien’s 36.7% fly ball rate was eighth highest among hitters with 300-plus batted balls. Will the new yard in Arlington affect the 31-year-old’s production moving forward?
Last year, Seager had an impressive .306/.394/.521 slash-line with 16 home runs and a 145 OPS+ in 95 games. But that 95-game tally could be a foreboding sign. In the last four seasons, the 27-year-old has appeared in 56.2% of his team’s games due to a variety of maladies – Tommy John surgery, lower leg and back injuries, and a fractured wrist. Considering the 10-year/$325 million commitment the Rangers made to the North Carolina native, his availability is crucial to the team’s short- and long-term viability.
When healthy, Garver is one of the better hitting catchers in baseball. In 2021, his 139 OPS+ was third best among backstops with 200-plus plate appearances trailing only Yasmani Grandal (157) and Buster Posey (140). But the 31-year-old has played in 100 games just once in five big-league seasons. Last year, he made 56 starts for Minnesota. This fact heightens the importance of Garver’s backups.
Jonah Heim will be Garver’s understudy with prospect Sam Huff waiting in the wings. With 6 defensive runs saved (DRS), Heim proved to be an excellent defender last year. That said, he’s yet to be productive with the bat in limited opportunities. Time will tell what Heim and Huff become for Texas.
The left-handed hitting Lowe produced a .264/.357/.415 slash with 24 doubles, 18 home runs, and a 113 OPS+. Lowe proved to be the lineup’s most consistent bat. The longest period the 26-year-old went without reaching base was three games, which only occurred twice all season.
García, who finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting, slugged a team-leading 31 home runs. He also was a superb defender with 16 DRS as a right fielder and center fielder. It’s worth the 29-year-old’s offensive production faded later in the year. During the first half of the season, he had a 130 OPS+ compared to a 68 OPS+ after the All-Star break.
As a rookie in 2021, Andy Ibáñez played multiple positions providing solid defense (8 DRS) and respectable offense (107 OPS+) in 76 games. This year, the 29-year-old will likely spend a lot of time at third base. Other potential hot corner options available to Woodward include Miller, plus fellow veterans Charlie Culberson and Carpenter.
Two Calhouns – Willie and Kole – could potentially help the lineup. But each ballplayer has dealt with injuries lately. Known for his bat skills, Willie has struggled to stay healthy suffering a variety of fractures and lower body strains during his five MLB seasons. It’s worth noting the 27-year-old’s career OPS+ is 87.
Last year, Kole landed on the IL three times due to a knee injury and hamstring strains. All told, the 34-year-old hit a career-low 5 home runs in 51 games. That’s three fewer contests than he appeared in during a truncated 2020 season.
Nick Solak was the team’s second baseman last year after making starts in left field, center field, and at third base in 2019-20. This year, he appears to be the team’s initial choice for left field. It’s worth noting the 27-year-old has a below-average 93 OPS+ in 879 plate appearances.
Outfielder Eli White, rehabbing from a torn UCL, probably won’t be ready until late April. That said, he’s been playing the outfield in Spring Training, which suggests his recovery is going well. White, along with 23-year-old Leody Taveras, could factor into the outfield mix as the season progresses.
Something to monitor with Gray and Pérez. A new home ballpark may potentially affect each hurler in different ways.
With the Rockies last year, Gray defied logic by having better stats at hitter’s paradise Coors Field than on the road. His 4.02 ERA in Denver’s mile-high elevation was much better than what he produced at sea level (5.22). His advanced metrics also reflected this abnormality. The right-hander’s .294 xwOBA in Colorado was much better than his average-ish .319 xwOBA on the road.
Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .316
Pitching in Fenway Park certainly didn’t help Pérez in 2021. The southpaw was much closer to league-average (3.72 ERA) when on the road compared to his home ERA (5.64). I’m not suggesting pitching away from Boston instantly fixes Pérez, although he should prove to be a dependable arm for Woodward.
The Rangers head into the season with a group of relievers consisting of a few recognizable names, solid performers from 2021, and a gaggle of untested relievers.
Veteran reliever Greg Holland could factor into the late-inning mix, although his .359 xwOBA suggests he didn’t have a particular effective 2021 with the Kansas City Royals.
Opponents teed off (.300 AVG, .374 xwOBA) on Garrett Richards as a starter with Boston last year. That said, the 33-year-old found success as a reliever for the Sawx over the final six weeks of the season (.240 AVG, .280 xwOBA).
Effective short-relief arms returning from last season include John King (.282 xwOBA), Joe Barlow (.286), Brett Martin (.290), and Josh Sborz (.303). All should play key roles during the early parts of the season. Barlow appears in line to close games since he saved 11 games for the Rangers last year.
Having said all that, it’s possible there aren’t many wins for the bullpen to secure this season.
They Can Hit, But…
The lineup should be better after last season’s underwhelming run production effort. Still, the Rangers may struggle to prevent more runs than they score. Even with the additions of Seager, Semien, and Garver to the lineup.
Last season, the Rangers needed 14 starters to navigate through difficult times. This year will be no easier with fewer established arms available to help. Beyond Gray and Pérez, this isn’t much certainty. That doesn’t mean youngsters like Hearn, Dunning, and Howard can’t contribute or won’t develop as the season progresses. But they remain unproven commodities, for now.
Realistically, the Rangers probably struggle but demonstrate reasons to be optimistic about 2023 and beyond. That’s a not a bad thing. With this in mind, I suspect Young moves pending free agents, effective relievers, and perhaps role players (like Miller) prior to the MLB trade deadline in July.
Perhaps the Rangers overperform my expectations and surprise in the AL West. But that appears to be a bridge too far considering the current state of the starting staff.
Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home.
In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park.
You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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