Playing Pepper 2023: Texas Rangers

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Texas Rangers
68-94, fourth in the AL West
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Martin Perez (3.8)
Top hitter by fWAR: Corey Seager (4.5)

A disappointing result to an active and expensive offseason didn’t keep the Rangers from going out and doing it again.  Texas landed one of the biggest pitching names in Jacob deGrom as they spent a lot of time and money revamping the rotation.  Will it work?  Let’s see what the Rangers faithful has to say!

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Christopher Fittz Lone Star Ball apoplecticfittz
Joe Siegler JoeSiegler

C70: Texas spent a lot of money last off-season but it didn’t fully pay off in 2022. That didn’t deter them from getting back into the pool this winter. What are your thoughts about the big spending and where the team stands going into 2023?

Christopher: I personally wasn’t fully on board with the spending spree that netted Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Jon Gray just because I wasn’t sure that the Rangers were far enough along in their rebuild to pay upfront for what was essentially expensive services for star players in a designed wasted season and question marks for the seasons after. However, since they did make that commitment, and have now committed to spending again this winter, and with another year of development from a farm system that appears ready to start bearing fruit, the additions have begun to compound and coalesce more and more into something that makes sense as long as the front office and ownership is willing to continue to commit at this level to see it through.

As things stand now, with a foundation of superstars up the middle, and a completely remade rotation, Texas has the opportunity to contend but with a team that has a very thin margin for error. I would have perhaps waited another year or two but it’s a fascinating backward rebuild attempt. The Rangers have essentially spent to skip the line with a fastpass rebuild. They still have to stick the landing, but they’ve paid for a shot at doing so. That’s really all you can ask for from the people in charge. Whether or not they made the right calls personnel-wise will be judged in the coming years, however.

Joe: Well, I never viewed the spending spree offseason before as all we were doing. While I don’t think the team FORMALLY stated that first spend was on offense mostly, it seemed pretty obvious. I mean we did sign Jon Gray that offseason, but I viewed it as the offense spree. This past offseason was mostly pitching, and man, did they splurge. Obviously payoff from that requires things to work well, but then again, when doesn’t it? It feels like if you take both of the two off-seasons put together, they make one really big, really expensive buy in. It doesn’t feel like the kind of thing you saw with the 1997 Florida Marlins, this feels more like a spend for the future, not a spend to sell off right away. That’s where I think we stand – a big expensive spend which should be around for quite some time.

C70: How healthy do you think Jacob deGrom will be this season? How many starts do you foresee?

Christopher: I haven’t been burned by Jacob deGrom yet so I will be optimistic until I have been. Therefore, I hope to see 25-30 starts even if it should be expected to be fewer based on his age and recent history. The weird thing about the deGrom narrative is he’s not a career always-hurt kind of guy. After debuting early in the 2014 campaign, deGrom only missed time in 2016 between his debut season and the 2021 season. He has, of course, missed chunks of starts for various different ailments in the prior two campaigns, which is why there are these major worries, but the fact that he was a late bloomer after transitioning from being a position player in college is perhaps a tick in the plus column. The hope is that he has more bullets in his arm than you’d expect for a 34-year old.

There’s a real chance that he flames out and fades away and takes the trajectory of the franchise with him, but he’s also perhaps the pitcher with the best pure stuff in franchise history the very moment he takes the mound for the first time and this franchise can claim the likes of Nolan Ryan and prime years Yu Darvish. Randy Johnson is the comp for deGrom that you hope for if you’re the Rangers. Johnson signed with Arizona as a 35-year old with an entire decade of mileage on his arm and then proceeded to win the next four NL Cy Young Awards while making at least 34 starts in five of six seasons with the Diamondbacks through his age 40 campaign. Obviously no one should be counted on to be Randy Johnson but there’s likely never been a pitcher more capable of winning the franchise’s first Cy Young Award than Jacob deGrom.

Joe: I’m from Philly originally, and my brother back home the day we signed him said “Man, if he stays on the field, you just bought yourself 20+ wins”. That’s pretty much what I think. But if I had a solid answer for how healthy he’ll be, I’d probably also use the same power to get the lottery numbers. Do I think he’s going to make 35 starts? Definitely not. I don’t think it will be something like 7-10 either. Probably closer to mid 20’s or something. It’s a really hard question to answer, as it’s a crystal ball level thing. 

C70: Is there anything the club still needs to address and how likely are they to do that during the season?

Christopher: If there were a part of me that believed the Rangers kicked things off prematurely last winter, there’s a part of me that believes they might have taken their foot off the gas pedal a little early this winter. Remaking the rotation was priority one through a dozen and they worked tirelessly and spent heavily on improving it. It’s a rotation with a ton of risk and one they are banking on to bring a ton of reward and they deserve plaudits for addressing it as thoroughly as they did in one offseason. However, the Rangers also had a desperate need in the outfield, and a lesser need in the bullpen, and by the time they came to terms with Nathan Eovaldi in December, they seemed to put a halt on major improvements when the time for going the extra mile seemed right in front of them.

The Rangers had the worst contingent of left fielders in baseball by a mile in 2022 and though they were rumored to be in on several free agents such as Mitch Haniger and Michael Conforto, and are perpetually named in Bryan Reynolds rumors, Texas ultimately just skipped making a major addition at the position. Eventually Robbie Grossman was added and offers a sneaky platoon option but the bulk of at-bats will come from either untested players such as Bubba Thompson, Josh Smith, and Ezequiel Duran, or with Brad Miller joining forces with Grossman to be a veteran platoon after both Grossman and Miller had down years in 2022.

Meanwhile, the lack of upgrades in the bullpen is a little more forgivable as a passable bullpen can usually be cobbled together but the lack of a tried and true closer and/or high leverage arms could become an issue if the Rangers begin to have another run of poor one-run luck like last season. If either of these two areas appear to be sinking the team after the current options are tried, I would expect to see the Rangers attempt to use some of their rising prospect depth to address the problem via trade during the season. After expanding the payroll beyond the previous franchise high while coming closer to the luxury tax threshold than ever before, the stated reason that Texas held off on finishing touches was to keep their options open during the season.

Joe: We still need a solid LF – that’s really the only unsettled position. It appears that Robbie Grossman will get placed there. I personally would have rather us use one of our kids out there, but Grossman has done well this spring. Whether he holds it for the whole season is another issue of course. Much has been made about not having a big sexy closer, but I never thought that was going to be a thing. I do confess to not being sure what we’re doing with closer, but it will come from someone on staff already. I know there’s always last minute players that pop up from end of spring waiver issues, but I can’t see us bringing in anyone like that. Problem there is we are so tight on the 40 man roster that someone would have to lose their gig to bring in someone like that. It’ll be someone internal in the pen – Jose LeClerc maybe?

C70: What young player (rookie or limited MLB experience) will make the most impact on the 2023 season for the Rangers?

Christopher: Without a doubt the Rangers hope and need the answer to this to be Josh Jung. This was supposed to be true for the 2022 season but a shoulder injury robbed him of much of the 2022 season with the former Texas Tech Red Raider only eventually playing in 26 games in the big leagues last season. That near-month didn’t go as well as hoped at the plate for the top prospect as he slashed just .204/.235/.418 and struck out an exorbitant amount. However, it was important for the 2019 8th overall pick to get his feet wet in the majors because the Rangers need him to grab the everyday job at third base and become a core part of the lineup.

With rebuilding in this manner an expensive endeavor, the next portion of sustaining the costs will be graduating players such as Jung. If he can’t stick, that’s another position that the Rangers will either have to throw money at or invest time and effort into the development of other players. The only way that this rebuild works the way the Rangers have attempted to do it is if their young players arrive, earn jobs, and thrive. Entering his year 25 season, that begins with Jung in 2023.

Joe: Rookie most impact? I think it will be Josh Jung. He’s technically a rookie still (14 games and 40 plate appearances in 2022). If he hadn’t gotten hurt, that impact year would have happened already. He was involved in a minor car accident this past week, but it doesn’t look like it will affect him. I’m expecting big things from Jung this year. Not sure if it would be rookie of the year levels, but I’ve always liked him, and the path is clear for him to grasp the spot and dominate, I think.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Christopher: The best case for the Texas Rangers in 2023 would be hope rewarded as the Bruce Bochy-led team gels around its superstars and the franchise takes the anticipated step forward to a playoff spot in October. From there, with the concept proven, and more talent from the farm arriving, they kick off a half-decade long rivalry with Seattle for supremacy in the American League West with the Houston Astros finally buried. They can see the 2023 portion of this come to fruition by having more reward with minimal risk from their volatile rotation. If the Rangers get 20-25 starts from each of deGrom, Eovaldi, Gray, Martin Perez and Andrew Heaney, they will go a long way to accomplishing this scenario.

A worst case is maybe as likely to happen and would be disastrous. If deGrom proves injury prone, the rest of the rotation additions also continue their trends with trips to the i.l., if the young players don’t take steps forward, and with Seager and Semien yet another year older without a light at the end of the tunnel, the Rangers will be sitting on a near-billion dollar makeover that perhaps would already need to be paved over. If things go this direction, it could set the franchise back a decade as they try to figure out how to get out from under contracts they can’t win with.

A likely scenario is somewhere in the middle, with hope continuing. In this world we’d see a mild step forward, .500 season that can be built upon. Some of the pitchers put together great years while others spend more time in the training room than on the mound. In this scenario, Seager and Semien are perhaps more comfortable in year two which at least lets everyone believe that the duo isn’t already stagnating. Perhaps Nathaniel Lowe replicates his breakout 2022 season and someone like Leody Taveras grabs control of a permanent spot in the lineup. Nevertheless, it’s at this point that eyes turn to 2024 as the real year to expect the big things.

It’s honestly hard to say which of the above is the most likely scenario for these Rangers. Texas in its current state has about as much variance built in as a team possibly can. It’s a team loaded to the gills with risk and one that if that risk is mitigated can be the iteration that pulls the franchise out of the doldrums that it has been mired in for years. At least they’re trying!

Joe: Best case scenario? I think 92-95 wins. Worst case? We don’t do any better than last year (68 wins), but I cannot see us breaking that badly again (see what I did there?). Realistically I think we’ll end up around 85-87 wins, which I think most people around here would be happy with. Would I like to be wrong and have them wreck that 92-95 and go higher? Of course. But my gut says a bit over .500 is where we’ll end up. Playoffs? Where’s my Jim Mora jpg? But seriously, I think it’s a realistic shot, but that could just be fan homerism. There’s a lot to work against even within our own division, but the recent injury to Jose Altuve could help bring the Astros down to earth a bit.

We shall see, time will tell. It always does.

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