Welcome to LL’s annual overview of our division rivals in the AL West. While the Mariners won’t have to face a Russian Doll-like repetition of California and Texas teams day after day with some Colorado spice sprinkled on top again, make no mistake, these are the teams you will become so very sick of seeing. Our goal with this series is to do a deep dive on what exactly the flavor of that malaise will be. As we do every year, we’ll be summarizing each team’s offseason moves, taking stock of the general state of the team, analyzing best and worst-case outcomes for 2021, and trying to peer into the future to try to predict what the team will look like when the Mariners are, as we are constantly reminded, on The Rise.
We’re starting at the bottom and working our way up through the projections, so we’ll begin with the lone team predicted to be worse than the Mariners in 2021: the turbulent Texas Rangers.
Threat level: A gentle cerulean sea, colored in crayon by a preschooler
Key additions: Khris “Khrush” Davis; Mike Foltynewicz; Dane Dunning; Nate Lowe; David Dahl; Kohei Arihara
Key subtractions: Lance Lynn; Elvis Andrus; Shin-Soo Choo; Rafael Montero (hello); Derek Dietrich and his thirty-five pounds of gold chains
PECOTA projection: 67-95, or a .412 win percentage
FanGraphs projection: Last in the AL West, with an 0.8% chance of playoffs
LL Staff projection: Fewer than 67 wins, last in the AL West, 0.0% chance of playoffs
State of the team:
Before Sunday, February 21, I would have felt a great deal more confident calling another franchise a dumpster fire. Given that the M’s are now MLB’s dumpster-fire-of-the-year-thus-far, I’ll be limiting my condemnations of the Rangers to their on-the-field ineptitude, which is impressive in its own right.
The Rangers finished the 2020 season with the worst record in the American League (second worst in the major leagues after Pittsburgh), which tells you they were bad. The Rangers put up the worst team fWAR (-0.2) in the major leagues, which tells you they were really bad. The Rangers posted a team wRC+ of 76, the worst in the American League, with not even one player breaking the league-average mark (min. 90 PA), which tells you they were really, really bad.
This was the second time in three years that the Rangers finished last in the AL West, to which the organization responded by dumping some of their best performers. They dealt RHP Lance Lynn to the White Sox, former face-of-the-franchise shortstop Elvis Andrus to Oakland, and right-handed closer Rafael Montero to Seattle (hello) in exchange for RHP Jose Corniell, who has not yet pitched stateside. Texas also traded away Mike Minor at the deadline in 2020, and 38-year-old free agent Shin-Soo Choo, whose 2020 wRC+ of 97 lingered closest to league-average among their regular lineup, recently signed with KBO’s as-yet unnamed Shinsegae organization (formerly the SK Wyverns).
With the loss of Lynn and Minor, the Rangers expect to “get creative” with their rotation in 2021, but the raw materials their artists have to work with are... Kyle Gibson, Mike Foltynewicz, and Jordan Lyles (the latter of whom led the major leagues in earned runs in 2020). Needless to say, the Rangers are not going to be fielding a competitive team in 2021.
What could go right:
The Rangers are an impressively young team for one that has little in the way of a future. If some of their youngest players can break out and prove themselves to be better than expected (projection systems hate this team, if you couldn’t already tell), it would go a long way for the organization in terms of establishing a road forward. Since the organization has made it clear that they are hoping to rebuild around core pieces like Gallo, the best case for Texas would certainly also entail those centerpiece players playing like the major leaguers they’re known to be, and not their 2020 shadow-selves.
Catching prospect Sam Huff debuted with the team in September and impressed in the last 10 games of the season, but his 204 wRC+ across 33 PAs is definitely due for regression. As expected, he was crushing the ball, and could be an important piece for the future of the Rangers, but he hasn’t played above High-A (cue Jarred Kelenic juicing a baseball into pulp in frustration) so he’ll likely be spending most, if not all, of 2021 proving himself in the upper minors. Aside from their prospects and not-quite veterans like Odor and Gallo, Texas is also gambling on 2018 Khris Davis showing up and hitting 45+ homers. He won’t, but trading for him was worth a shot (if only to get rid of the final reminder that this team used to be good).
On the pitching front, someone is going to need to perform well enough to take over the top of the rotation from Gibson, be that Dane Dunning, who was acquired in the Lance Lynn trade with the White Sox; ex-teammate of Evan White at Kentucky Kyle Cody, who was arguably the Rangers’ second best starter in 2020; or even Kohei Arihara, NPB’s 2015 Pacific League Rookie of the Year.
Any of these players could break out in a way that the projection systems can’t predict, but the chance that every member of the pitching staff outperforms expectations is non-existent. Depending on the number of innings covered by Jonathan Hernandez and Joely Rodriguez, the bullpen could end up a strong point for the Rangers (not as strong as it could be if they still had one Rafael Montero, however).
As long as we’re being optimistic, a good draft pick should be light at the end of the tunnel for these Rangers. But if there’s one thing the Rangers aren’t known for, it’s good draft picks. Between Justin Smoak (hello), Jake Skole (yes this is his LinkedIn page), Kellin Deglan, Tanner Scheppers, Luis Ortiz, Travis Demeritte, and Chi Chi Gonzalez, their first round luck is about as low as it gets. With more pitching injuries plaguing their current top prospects, it’s hard not to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, there are some developmental issues in play in Arlington.
But hey, at least 2012 39th overall pick and career .208/.327/.499 slugger Joey Gallo is here to save the franchise!
What could go wrong:
With such low expectations, the worst case scenarios for the Rangers in 2021 don’t look a whole lot worse than the best case. Maybe Joey Gallo really is a sub-90 wRC+ hitter and is neither a centerpiece for the rebuild nor a potential trade piece. Maybe Rougned Odor and Khris Davis combine for 12 home runs on the year. Maybe the pitching coaches in charge of “getting creative” with the rotation decide that a piece of macaroni art is a good substitute for Jordan Lyles (they may be right on that one).
Any one of these possibilities would at least keep the Rangers on the road to a top draft pick. I’m not a believer in tanking, and the Rangers should and will attempt to win as many games as possible. But, honest to God, the absolute worst case scenario for the 2021 Rangers would be to accidentally win too many games and miss out on a top three pick. This is the outcome I’m rooting for, and I think you should root for it too.
The Rangers don’t have much in the way of big-name talent coming to their rescue. Baseball America’s 49th ranked prospect, 3B Josh Jung, is the face to look out for this season. Many of their best prospects, like Huff, have already made their MLB debuts, but they may see AAA ball this year before they establish themselves in Arlington for real.
The future, Conan?
It’s grim. Despite their youth, the Rangers don’t seem to have clear vision or a solution for their struggles in the past four (or ten) years. They’ve entered a kind of skinny rebuild, but the returns from their trades haven’t been enough to fundamentally alter their farm system, and they don’t have much talent left to ship off. Texas will need to draft well this year and the next in order to course-correct. In a weak AL West, the Rangers are set up to be the weakest for years to come.
Let’s say, God forbid, that you’re a Texas Rangers fan, living in a ranch-style rambler out in some soulless suburb of the DFW metroplex. You lit fireworks in the street the night they won their first pennant, and you told your daughter “we’ll get ‘em next year” a week later. “It’s a good thing we still have some of those sizzlers in the garage,” you thought to yourself, one strike away. Then one strike away, again. “We will see you… tomorrow night.” The words never left your head, not really.
You watched another quiet few years of Texas baseball, then you learned to hate the Blue Jays. You watched your in-state rivals win a championship. The prospect of a new ballpark helped ease the pain when your team started bottoming out. But before you even got to step foot inside, MLB announced that two other teams were going to play a World Series there. It stung. Had it really been ten years already? And sure, you understood when your ace got sent to a contender for prospects, but it hurt when they dealt Elvis to Oakland without so much as a goodbye.
And now they have the gall to ask you to watch Kyle Gibson pitch on Opening Day? It doesn’t sit right. You rack your brain to figure out why. It’s not looking back on his 5.35 ERA in 2020 that upsets you. It’s not that you barely know him, that you’ve never even seen him pitch in person. It’s that he’s boring, that he’s not even a Guy. He’s boring in a way that makes you look around at your tan wallpaper, your brown armchair, and the fading pennant on your wall and ask yourself, “am I that boring?” You realize that’s not a question you want to know the answer to.
Maybe I’m projecting, or maybe I’m underestimating the vibrancy of suburban Texas. But that’s always been the Rangers’ real crime to me: being an insufferably boring team, from the most humdrum locale in the country. I don’t use the word boring lightly, especially since it was incorrectly applied to the Mariners’ own Opening Day pitcher. There’s no way around it, though: strip malls, fluorescent light, junk mail, public access television, exurban sprawl, waiting rooms, being stuck in traffic, and Texas Rangers baseball. It’s no wonder they now play in a pre-fab tract home-style wannabe Cabela’s that perfectly encapsulates their milquetoast franchise.
The Rangers, irrespective of talent, will always be among the most soulless and sterile teams in MLB. For now, and for years to come, they’ll have the dual indignity of being both dull and bad at baseball.