Written by: Matt Carlin
The Texas Rangers ended the 2018 season with a 67-95 record while saying goodbye to future first ballot Hall of Famer and face of the franchise Adrian Beltre. Beltre left a positional player crop of inexpensive yet flawed talent in Rougned Odor, Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Delino Deshields and steady veterans in Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus. On the mound, a resurgent Mike Minor (2.5 WAR in 157 IP) led a staff with huge question marks heading into 2019, and controllable relief asset Alex Claudio would ultimately be traded to Milwaulkee for a competitive balance draft pick (further signs of a rebuilding team). Additionally, after the departure of Cole Hamels at the deadline, trade of Jurickson Profar for prospects and an opening for a new manager, all signs pointed to the Rangers entering the dark stages of a full blown teardown.
However, throughout the 2018-2019 offseason GM Jon Daniels and his staff pieced together an intriguing roster by dominating the middle class of veteran free agents. Behind the plate, elite receiver Jeff Mathis was signed presumably to help squeeze as much value as possible out of the patchwork pitching staff. To replace Beltre in the short term, switching hitting Adsdrubal Cabrera was inked to a one year deal. Late in the offseason, Logan Forsythe and Hunter Pence were brought to camp on minor league contracts mainly because nine players have to be on the field at a time. On the mound, the Rangers big splash was the signing of Lance Lynn to a 3 year $30 million deal who just a year prior was the victim of a slow free agent market and was traded mid season. Rounding out the rotation, Drew Smyly (healthy after being acquired via trade) and Shelby Miller (1 year deal) were brought in, but both names carried a lot more value in the early 2010s. In the bullpen, Shawn Kelley (DFA’ed in 2018, 1 yr $2.75 mil), Zach McAllister (since released), Jesse Chavez (2 yrs $8 mil) and David Carpenter (minor league deal) provided veteran stability but not much excitement for a team set to open a new ball park in 2020.
Entering 2019, the Rangers were projected to lose 90 games by Fangraphs, and the hottest trend to follow was ”how few non home run hits could Joey Gallo get this year.” On the farm, the Rangers system drew mixed reviews (ranked as high as 9th by Baseball Prospectus), but general consensus was their highest ceiling prospects were in the very low minors leading to an overall ranking in the 20th-25th range by Baseball America and ESPN’s Keith Law. While the group heading into 2019 certainly was not a contender, if all broke well with the pitching staff, Texas could become attractive sellers at the deadline acquiring high level minor league talent they desperately needed to accelerate their window closer to 2020.
Fast forward to June, the Rangers sit at 38 – 32 and a game ahead of the Boston Red Sox for the second wild card spot in the American League. While the Twins (deservedly so) have received the bulk of the attention for their surprising 2019 campaign, the Rangers have exceeded expectations in a big way so far this season. I analyzed the change in Fangraphs’ projected winning percentage and overall win total from the start of the season to now. While the Rays, Dodgers and Astros were viewed as “good” teams headed into 2019, the Rangers hot start has firmly entrenched them in the AL Wild Card conversation.
Offensively, Elvis Andrus (1.8 fWAR) and Shin Soo Choo (133 wRC+) have provided consistency to the top of the order and while likely AL Comeback player of the year Hunter Pence (143 wRC+) and the versatile Logan Forsythe (.348 wOBA) have surpassed expectations.
In a recent interview with Fangraphs, Joey Gallo went in depth about his hitting philosophy and adjustments he made over the past off season. Interestingly, Gallo talked a lot about learning to simplify his swing as a right hand dominant person but left handed hitter. Speaking on the work he did with new hitting coach Luis Ortiz, “I had too much movement for a big guy. Now I’m just thinking about getting my foot down and putting the barrel to the ball.” Granted the injury provides us with a smaller sample size than many of the other players on the leaderboard, but Gallo currently leads the Majors in average exit velocity (96.3 mph) and is fifth in barrels per plate appearance percentage (12.6%). Furthermore, he has seen his BB% jump from 12.8% to 19.6% in 2019. When speaking to his increased walk rate, Gallo mentioned “making sure it’s my pitch to drive, and if not, I’m just going to take a walk.’ That’s kind of my philosophy. I’m three-true-outcome. For me, a walk is a single. I’m not even swinging the bat, but I’m getting on base.” While adjusting to center field, Gallo is taking his free passes and doing absolute damage when he is putting the ball in play.
On the mound, Mike Minor and Lance Lynn have been one of the most effective one two punches in baseball. After sitting out all of 2015 and 2016 with injuries and pitching 7.2 innings out of the bullpen for the Royals in 2017, the Rangers transitioned him back to the starting rotation. At age 31, Minor has the highest bWAR in the American League (4.5) and has stranded 87.6% of baserunners, third highest in the league. Behind Minor, Lance Lynn has been enjoying a career year. By pounding the zone more often, Lynn posted his career best strikeout and walk rates. Beyond the Box Score took an in depth look at Lynn’s resurgence, and I found the below graph extremely interesting. Essentially, Lynn’s fastball velocity has been rising for the past two seasons (as he progresses further away from arm trouble) and he has increased usage of these pitches in 2019.
While the above players have been pleasant surprises, their projected win total still sits at 80.9 wins. Considering the lack of a middle class in the American League is this year, the Rangers could become unlikely buyers at the deadline to make a push for the second wild card spot. Behind Minor and Lynn, the pitching staff has been extremely league average. While the Rangers probably do not have the prospects to make a run at a Madison Bumgarner, or a Marcus Stroman, an established veteran with a decent sized contract (Mike Leake, or Jeff Samardzija) or the next tier of controllable starters should be in their wheelhouse. I would love to see the Rangers go the route of the 2016 Twins by buying early (now) and reevaluating at the end of July.If things go south, they can sell their assets for major league ready talent to a desperate club, but I am a strong advocate for adding early due to the head start on other “buying” clubs.