Whither the Rangers in 2017? Insights on Hope and Despair Part One

Is it Darth Vader?  Or is it all in your mind?  Yes.

I had three articles in the planning stages, and I decided to generally combine them into one.  This one.  But then I didn't.  This is the one where I talk about Derek Holland, and the implications of his departure on the starting rotation.

Derek Holland wasn't very good in 2016.  Actually, there wasn't a lot about Derek Holland's 2015 to offer any reason to expect better in 2016.  And Derek Holland's 2014 wasn't anything to write home about, either.  And come to think of it, 2013...no wait.  He was good in 2013.  In fact, 2013 was the best Major League season Holland ever turned in.  After a solid 2011 in which Derek Holland showed not only a pretty good year for a Middle-of-the-Rotation lefty, he showed the promise of being *even better*, followed by a full season in 2012 that looked a lot more like a decent season for a back-end, innings-eating guy.  Then the really good 2013 that was an improvement of 2011 all the way around.

And then began the injuries.  In 2014, Dutch pitched 37 innings for the Rangers.  His results were *fabulous*, although his xFIP (eXpected Fielding-Independent Pitching, a statistic that produces an ERA-like number based on normalizing a pitcher's fly ball and home run results, as well as applying a leavening factor to strikeouts and walks.  This will, with effective pitchers, usually show an ERA-like number better than their actual ERA.  Less-effective pitchers will frequently sport a higher xFIP than ERA.  These are generalizations, not absolutes) indicated a performance similar to 2013 and 2011 rather than the giant improvement his 1.46 ERA would suggest.

In 2015, Holland was injured again...this time his return to the Bigs was disastrous.  Over 58.2 innings, he produced numbers very similar to 2009; his first appearance with Texas.  The good news was that his xFIP *this* time indicated that he should return to at least being that serviceable, back-of-the-rotation pitcher that he had looked like at his *worst*.  Because of that, it was widely assumed that the first of his two contract options would be picked up by the Rangers at the end of 2016.  The prices for back-end pitchers had started to skyrocket, and Holland's $11 million price tag was a bargain.

And THEN 2016 happened.  In some regards, Dutch *technically* improved his performance in some areas.  Very, very slightly.  But the important number was:  his strikeout percentage was WAY down.  Derek wasn't throwing nearly as hard as he used to.  Despite similar Batting Average on Balls in Play to his career numbers; despite a similar walk rate; a similar Ground Balls Induced percentage; and a similar Home Runs allowed percentage, his ERA and FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching, like xFIP except it doesn't normalize home runs allowed) were still around 5.00.  Worse, his xFIP was 5.14, almost a full point higher than 2015.

The stinker is, there is very little evidence of a "smoking gun" statistic.  His numbers were all in line with recent years (keeping in mind those were mostly bad years).  Where you see it all fall together is in comparing 2016 with 2011 - 2013.  Everything was just a little bit worse, and almost everything WAS worse.  Just a little bit, mostly.

When you combine pitching just a little bit worse with a fastball that just wasn't quite good enough to get people out anymore, you wind up with a guy who was actually LUCKY he didn't do worse in 2016.

And *that* is what I was referencing when I kept mentioning during the year that Holland wasn't actually pitching very well, even though he got good results in several games.  However, even then I still expected Texas to pick up his contract option, considering how expensive Middle Rotation and Back End pitchers have become.  It genuinely surprised me that they didn't.

There are possible reasons, of course.  Texas may know, or at least suspect, that Holland has serious or long-term damage in his shoulder or some other important body part.  It could simply be that the right people see the negative performance trend and believe (probably rightly) that pitching at that presumed level could be filled by cheap, internal options.

In conjunction with that is the possibility that Texas really is committed to improving the rotation.  As much as you can blame the Toronto series that ended 2016 on very, very, bad officiating; you also can not escape the fact that the starting rotation wasn't as good as it was expected to be.  In particular, Cole Hamels wasn't very good in the second half of 2016.

The bottom line is:  while everyone keeps saying "you don't worry about Cole Hamels", I think we all need to consider how often we heard that line repeated in a reassuring tone by many, many bloggers and analysts last year.  Hamels' 2016 was his worst year since 2006, his first season.  The big culprit was a huge increase in walks; all year batters sat back and made him make his pitch, and he didn't with the same consistency as previous years.  Considering Martin Perez *also* threw up career worsts in strikeouts and walks; this isn't a questionable rotation after Cole, Yu and maybe Martin...it's a questionable rotation after Yu.  And Yu has not been extended past this next year.  And may not be, considering he can expect a minimum contract AAV north of $20 million and will almost certainly at least be talking about $25 million for five or more years.

THAT is why people are making "absurd" calls to trade Yu now.  Looking *only* at the rotation, it's not an absurd notion.

But the Rangers, like every other baseball team, is comprised of not only pitching but also fielding and hitting.  And the other parts look pretty good.

The Rangers Should Consider Trading Rougned Odor

Assuming you've read the title of this article -- and if you're here, there's a better than decent chance that you have -- you already know the direction I'm heading with this. So, don't call for the lynch mob. At least not yet. Hear me out.

The Texas Rangers should absolutely consider trading Rougned Odor. Right now.

Of course, they should be sure to get the right trade partner to maximize the value, but it's something the front office should consider.

In 2016, Odor saw both his popularity and his power surge. After a 2015 season that saw him surge after a stint back in the minors, he entered 2016 with a bang. Quite literally, his right hook to Jose Bautista was something resembling monumental, and immediately made him a fan-favorite. Combine that with the 33 home runs he hit, and we're talking about a player that it's not exactly popular to say should be traded. At least not since he's under club control through 2020.

But really, that's precisely what might make him a valuable commodity on the trade market. By this point, we realize that Rougie will hit home runs. That's also valuable on the trade market. And in reality, the Rangers already have a replacement on the roster. His name is Jurickson Profar.

Profar, for his part, has had something of a tumultuous career. Once the top prospect in baseball only a year after the previous top prospect became the top player in baseball, Profar came up with lofty expectations, and immediately suffered setback after setback. In 2013, he was a man without a position in Ron Washington's scheme. When the Rangers made room for him by trading Ian Kinsler, he got hurt. By the time he got back onto the field in 2016, Rougned Odor had already entrenched himself as "the guy" at second base.

Even after a torrid start that saw him put up a wRC+ of 121 in the first half of the season, he ran into a wall in the second half, posting a wRC+ of 44. Even still, all indications from baseball people who are way smarter than myself seem to be that Profar's "tools" are all intact. That is, bat speed, contact ability, and plate discipline.

Those last two are a major point of emphasis for me. Even as Odor swatted 33 home runs, he was dead last among all qualifying hitters in baseball in walk rate (3.0%) in 2016. His sub-.300 on-base percentage also left something to be desired. Combine that with porous defense at a premium infield position, and we're talking about a player who is, at the very least, mildly overrated.

Going back to Profar, I'd be inclined to believe that his 2016 production is probably his absolute floor as far as future value goes. Having missed two full seasons of baseball, being called into Major League action earlier than the Rangers had originally intended, I think many of us expected him to eventually run into a wall. Maybe not to such the extreme that he did, but that expectation was still there. And now, with a season under his belt, you're looking at player that still presumably has the assets that had scouts raving about him three or four years ago.

Even after running into that wall, Profar's OBP and walk rates were both significantly higher while also keeping his strikeouts lower. No, Profar may never quite approach 30 home runs, but he can more than make up for it with superior on-base skills and defense. Much like pitchers and strikeouts, those two are perhaps the hardest for a player to improve. By the time you've reached the highest level of the game, you've either got it or you don't. Any improvement in that area isn't likely to be significant, especially with the plate discipline.

Another important factor to consider is that, should the Rangers choose to do so, Profar could actually be cheaper to extend long-term. Odor's agent reportedly turned down a six-year, $35 million offer back in July, and it's not unreasonable to think that Texas could get Profar extended through, say 2021 or 2022 at around $6 million or so a season.

Doing an incremental analysis of the situation, even in the worst-case scenario, you're not looking at much of a production dip by playing Jurickson Profar over Rougned Odor. At best, Profar's contact rate goes up and he ends up providing additional value.

Home runs are amazing. They're fun to watch and when they come at the end of the game, they're even more spectacular. And yet, OBP is the driving force behind the best offensive players. It's Mike Trout's .441 OBP that made him such a threat rather than his 29 home runs. In that same line of thinking, an eye-popping career .444 OBP was what made Barry Bonds so versatile and dangerous beyond just home runs. It's why in his age-42 season, he was still dangerous with a .480 OBP in 2007.

Saying all that, if Texas can headline a package with Odor in exchange for a starting pitcher that could be considered even a number two, they can potentially set themselves up for success not only now, but beyond 2017, when Yu Darvish is expected to be pitching elsewhere.

And while it might not be all that popular among fans, it's an idea the Rangers should absolutely explore if the right move is on the table.

Projecting the Offseason

Whether we like it or not, the 2016 is over for the Texas Rangers. And as such, rather than wait around on the rest of the postseason to play out, it seemed to be a good time to take a look at the projected payroll situation heading into the winter.

In 2016, the Rangers opened with a payroll of $158 million, and with service-time adjustments as well as in-season trades, the actual payroll ended up being somewhere in the neighborhood of $169 million. Not quite, Yankees-Sox-Dodgers money, but still within top-tier of spenders in Major League Baseball.

Moving forward into 2017, there's been no indication of any sort of willingness to spend more or even stay around that $169 million. In fact, rumblings that Ray Davis would actually like to slice payroll by anywhere from 10-15 percent have perpetuated for the better part of a year. So, more likely than not, you're looking at a soft payroll cap of something closer to $160 million than $170 million.

As far as contractual commitments go, the Rangers have the following in 2017:

Note: I've gone ahead and assumed that Texas will exercise the buyout on Derek Holland's option. Performance combined with health concerns lead me to believe that it's more likely that Texas uses the buyout and attempts to re-negotiate, but more on that later.

That puts Texas at about $112 million, and then you have arbitration salaries. Texas will have the following players arbitration-eligible, followed by their projected earnings according to MLB Trade Rumors:

Chirinos, Scheppers, Griffin, Profar, Jeffress, and Dyson all seem to be locks. That puts us right around $125 million. Then you have the young guys that are making league minimum, which has been $507,500 over the past two seasons. I would expect that to increase a little for 2017, but for the purposes of this exercise, we'll assume it's the same.

Some of these players will end up remaining on the 40-man roster rather than the 25-man, but it puts us at $130.5 million. So now, we're looking at, most likely, $25-30 million in free cash for Texas to play with for the 2017 season.

The first thought that comes to mind is, boy, I don't see any way that Texas manages to re-sign Yu Darvish after the 2017 season. If Darvish pitches anything close to his capability, he's probably going to get paid like many of the upper-tier pitchers have in recent years, which would put him around $25-30 million annually. Maybe more in a year, when the market will be a year removed from one of the weaker classes of free agent pitching in which teams figure to throw money at pitchers that might not otherwise earn that kind of money.

Secondly, with so little available cash to spend, there's not much room to go make a splash. As I've already mentioned, the pitching market this offseason is a bit thin as is, so that's likely a non-issue. However, Texas have several members of their 2016 team hitting free agency in Colby Lewis, Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond, and Carlos Gomez.

I'd imagine the Rangers would like Colby Lewis back somewhere close to his 2016 salary of $6 million. Before hitting the disabled list, he was the team's most consistent pitcher, and he's a guy that the Rangers enjoy having around. If you had asked me in July if Ian Desmond would be back, I'd have told you that the Rangers would make a serious push, but I'm not so sure that ship hasn't sailed after he posted a wRC+ of 55 from July 22 to the end of the season. More likely, they'll try to get Carlos Gomez back at somewhere around $10 million for the 2017 season.

That puts Texas at about $146.5 million. Carlos Beltran suddenly becomes a luxury that I'm not sure Texas will be willing to spend for. He made $15 million in 2016, and I'd be surprised if he would take a pay cut to remain in Texas. More likely, someone will offer him about that much on a one-year deal.

I've seen and heard talk about Edwin Encarnacion's impending free agency. I don't see it. He made $10 million in 2016, and with five straight seasons around 4 fWAR, the 33-year old slugger can -- and should -- command more than that on the free agent market. Again, it's more likely that Texas rolls with an internal option at first base and designated hitter. Joey Gallo and Shin-Soo Choo would seem to be perfect candidates. Of course, much of that hinges on Gallo adjusting his approach significantly. It also assumes that some other team forks over too much money for Mitch Moreland rather than the Rangers.

It's also important to remember that Texas has made a concerted effort to sign Rougned Odor to an extension, with his agent reportedly turning down a 6-year, $35 million deal back in July. So Texas clearly wants to get something done on that front as well.

The underlying point I'm making is that rather than being big spenders, it's more likely that Texas will try to plug small holes and give it another run in 2017, the final year of the Yu Darvish window. They may elect to bring Jake Diekman back. Shawn Tolleson? Not out of the realm of possibilities. The bullpen will be an area of significant turnover, and one that cash not already spoken for above will likely go toward. If Texas does manage to land another starting pitcher, it's likely via trade, and it's probably not a big name like those we saw thrown around at this season's trade deadline.

We've heard before that Texas wouldn't be spending, only for them to go out and sign Shin-Soo Choo to a 7-year, $130 million deal. So, yes, it's theoretically possible. Just not probable. And really, I'm fine with that. 2017's Opening Day roster figures to be more talented than the 2016 version, and sometimes, that's all you can realistically ask for.

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

Coming into this series, I said Toronto was probably the better team. I thought their rotation, overall, was better. Their hitters were patient, but hit the ball hard. The Rangers issued the 2nd-most walks in the American League, and Toronto was a team that forced pitchers to come into the zone.

So if you had told me that in Game 3, the Rangers would have 6 runs and Matt Bush on the mound to preserve a tie, I'd have taken it.

And if you had told me that he wouldn't get strike calls, I'd have believed you, but been disappointed.

Of playoff teams, the Rangers pitching staff had strikes looking above average (SLAA) of -10.29. Easily the worst of all playoff teams, and one of only three teams in the negative -- the other two being the Mets and Orioles, which should surprise no one who actually watched those games.

Meanwhile, the Toronto offense had an SLAA of -12.48, easily the best mark of all playoff teams, and the only team on the "negative" side. If you're following along, -10.29 of that came in three games against Texas.

All the while, the Texas offense had 3.30 SLAA in the series. All told, that's a 15.78 strike advantage for the Blue Jays in a series they needed no help in. 

So no, it wasn't a fairly called series. And really, for a Texas pitching staff that amassed a -108.41 SLAA on the season, I shouldn't have been surprised.

But I'm still dumbfounded. Watching Russel Martin recover from what should have been strike 5, only to ground into a potential double play that ended up getting botched by Rougned Odor... there are no words. Maybe the Germans have one.

I just know these Toronto Blue Jays didn't need help, but they got it every step along the way. It's a damn shame.

Jeff Banister Juggles Lineup for Game 2

With Game 2 looming, Jeff Banister has made some changes to his lineup.

  • Shin-Soo Choo will be on the bench today against the left-handed J.A. Happ, with Nomar Mazara getting the start in right field. Additionally, Mitch Moreland sits in favor of Ryan Rua.
     
  • The Moreland-Rua switch, on the surface, seems to make the most sense, until you realize that Mitch Moreland actually have reverse splits in 2016. He put up a 110 wRC+ against lefties and a 81 wRC+ against righties. Of course, that was in significantly fewer plate appearances -- 100 against 403 -- so it's probably not the type of trend you'd expect to become the norm given Mitch's career trend. Being the playoffs, you roll with a platoon advantage anywhere you think you might have it. As it stands, he put up a wRC+ of 53 over the final two months of the season with an OPS of .589.
     
  • That Mazara is getting the start against the left-hander would seem, to me, to indicate that perhaps Shin-Soo Choo isn't completely ready for face lefties himself, as Mazara's splits on the season leave something to be desired in these situations. His wRC+ is 44 against lefties versus 107 against righties, and only one of his 20 home runs came against a left-handed pitcher.
     
  • Of course, with Yu Darvish going, the hope would be that Texas doesn't need more than a few runs from the offense. To have success against this Toronto lineup, Darvish will need to be able to get ahead with his fastball, thereby allowing him to rely on his entire repertoire to put hitters away. It's mostly fruitless to look at how he has fared against Toronto, as he hasn't faced them since 2014. He's typically pitched well against them in his career, but this is a significantly different lineup than those he's previously faced.
     
  • Other than that, it's mostly the same as yesterday. Just go out and be the better team for today. Simple as that.