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2018 AL West Preview: The Texas Rangers

These Rangers are launching one more popup into the last night in Texas.

Texas Rangers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
This was the moment Tanner Scheppers decided he would declare free agency this offseason.
Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images

With the Californian leg completed, our preview of the Mariners’ AL West rivals hits the Texas leg at last, starting with the wayward Rangers. If you missed our overview of the Angels, start here, then catch up on the enigmatic Athletics here.

Texas is in a tough spot entering 2018. Despite two World Series appearances, five playoff runs, and a .538 winning percentage from 2010-2017 (second-best in the American League), the Rangers’ promise seems unfulfilled. With a so-so MLB roster and a once-bottomless farm system looking dried up, Mariners fans might see something familiar in their southern rivals. In fact, they might see a team in a more uncertain state than their own.

2017: the Rangers’ season in review:

Remember 2016, when the Rangers rode a historic stretch of one-run game victories to a 95-67 finish that was the best in the American League? That trick didn’t play in the year of the Astros’ takeover. Texas fell from 36-11 to 13-24 in one-run games, en route to a 78-84 finish overall. It seemed like a precipitous fall from grace, but by Pythagorean W-L they might’ve been just where they belonged the past few years.

Rangers Luck Runs Out

Year Actual W-L Pythag W-L
Year Actual W-L Pythag W-L
2015 88-74 83-79
2016 95-67 82-80
2017 78-84 79-83
Baseball Reference

High point of the season:

On Tuesday, May 9th, the Rangers were licking their wounds, coming off a series loss to the Mariners and an L at the hands of the lowly Padres the night before. They wouldn’t lose again until Saturday, May 20th, torching the Padres, Athletics, Phillies, and Tigers for 10 straight wins, putting them at what would be a season-high three games over .500. The Rangers are predisposed to gaudy offensive numbers by their ballpark, but it was still impressive to see them rank third in all of baseball in HRs with 237, just four behind the child’s diorama-housed Yankees.

Low point of the season:

Surely a team with such prodigious power would rank highly by most accepted offensive metrics? Before I answer let me take a huge sip of English Breakfast tea and click on this article from Fangraphs titled “How Do You Hit 30 HR While Being the Worst Hitter in Baseball? Ask Rougned Odor.”

Single Season wRC+ by hitters with 30+ HRs
John Edwards / Fangraphs

Oh dear, now we’ve both made a mess. Odor’s 61 wRC+ despite hitting 30 HRs was a capsule of the Rangers’ offense as a whole, and they mustered just a 94 wRC+ as a team. Last week in this section Kate articled how the Athletics packed their lineup with home run hitters and put together an inconsistent but terrifying offense. Those two teams earned near-identical results in a vacuum last year: Oakland posted a .246/.320/.437 line with 234 HRs while Texas ran a .245/.321/.431 and 237 HRs. But Oakland frequents the cavernous Coliseum, while Globe Life Ballpark is far more offense-friendly. In other words, despite a similar min-max, all-or-nothing approach, the Rangers were less precise in their uppercuts.

Strength of the 2017 team:

Adrian Beltre remained strong when healthy in his age-38 season, but missed nearly half the season. Joey Gallo put together a full season of strong play after a couple halting starts, blasting 41 HRs and walking at a 14.1% clip to counter-balance his astronomical 36.8% K% that was the second-highest in MLB history. Most notably, Elvis Andrus returned to the 4-win form he’d shown over half a decade ago when the Rangers were World Series contenders. As mentioned before, the offense had the power to terrorize anyone, and for brief stretches it would.

Texas Rangers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Somehow this swing form resulted in the second-highest K% in MLB history. Mysterious.
Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Weakness of the 2017 team:

Unfortunately, few leads that were developed were maintained. Depending on if you prefer DIPs-based fWAR or results-based bWAR, the Rangers’ bullpen was either 24th or 25th in the league. Most notoriously, Opening Day closer Sam Dyson blew his first four straight save opportunities, losing his job, his confidence, and ultimately, his spot on the roster. Between injuries to Jake Diekman, Keone Kela, and breakout fireballer Jose Leclerc, Texas struggled to maintain consistency behind a mediocre rotation. None of their pitchers were aided by Jonathan Lucroy’s total decomposition both offensively and as a framer, although Robinson Chirinos did an admirable job in his stead.

Selected off-season additions and subtractions:

Subtractions: SP Andrew Cashner (FA), OF Carlos Gomez (FA) SP Nick Martinez (FA), Tyson Ross (FA), 1B/DH Mike Napoli (FA)

Additions: SP Doug Fister (FA), SP Mike Minor (FA), SP Bartolo Colon (FA), SP Matt Moore (trade), RP Seung-hwan Oh (FA), OF Carlos Tocci (Rule-5 draft)

If that doesn’t strike you as much going out or coming in, that’s pretty fair. While losing Gomez is a blow, the Rangers have to find somewhere to play animate fire hydrant Willie Calhoun, who was the major piece in their return for SP Yu Darvish. Minor is the best player added, but he’s been most successful of late as a reliever and will have to translate that success back to starting in a less forgiving environment than fairly neutral Kansas City. Beyond that, Moore has been mercurial but is at least still in his late-20s, although his neither his peripherals nor his results were encouraging last year. Fister and Colon are in their mid-30s and 40s respectively, although only the former received an MLB deal.

Every acquisition is reasonable and defensible, but after failing to woo a return from Darvish and seeming set on their position players, Texas has a rotation of okay starters that lacks much realistic upside. Their best player projects to be the 39 year-old Beltré, which is a testament to his greatness, but casts a skeptical shadow over the rest of the roster. With a bottom-third farm system and Beltré, Andrus, and Hamels able to hit free agency after 2018, Texas is in limbo, hoping young players like Odor, Calhoun, and Nomar Mazara can learn from their absymal 2017s, and that the bullpen rediscovers its 2016 magic. Without that, Texas could find themselves in the cellar of the AL West in 2018, and staring down even tougher choices next winter.