It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching. Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside. Not in this space! Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch. There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper! If you want to keep up with the Rangers during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well. You can follow that here!
60-102, fifth in the AL West
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Kyle Gibson (3.1)
Top hitter by bWAR: Joey Gallo (4.2)
Well, at least Rangers fans finally got to set foot into the new ballpark. What they saw, however, wasn’t always quite as fancy as the new digs. Their last winning season, 2016, is now half a decade in the rear view mirror. However, Texas management opened the checkbook to jump start a run to contention. Will it work out? We’ve got some folks that might have an idea.
|Christopher Fittz||Lone Star Ball||apoplecticfittz|
C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Texas’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?
Christopher: The Texas Rangers came into the offseason fresh off their first 100-loss season (1973) since less than a handful of years after we’d first landed on the moon. As negative as the history of the Rangers has been in terms of achievements, they’ve been more irrelevant-to-middle of the pack than outright terrible throughout their time in Arlington. They hit rock bottom in 2021 with a 60-102 finish, their third last place finish in the last four years. However, despite bottoming out, the front office kept telling anyone who would listen that they planned to spend this winter. That became an “I’ll believe it when I see it” proposition for fans of the club after years of ownership failing to go the extra mile to land top talent despite claims of trying to do so over the last half decade. Well, we should have listened.
They went above and beyond for Marcus Semien by inking the two-time AL MVP bronze medalist to a seven-year, $175 million deal. Once the floodgates opened, at the time, I suspected the Semien signing meant that the Rangers would target local boy Trevor Story to double dip for a new keystone combination. Apparently I wasn’t thinking big enough as the Rangers shocked the baseball landscape by landing Corey Seager on a massive ten-year, $325 million deal. Between those two infield-altering transactions, the Rangers also brought in pitcher Jon Gray and outfielder Kole Calhoun to vastly improve their moribund roster.
To be quite honest, before the Seager signing, I did not think the Rangers were in a position to make their grandiose maneuvers. Unloading for one of the top two talents on the market at a premium position changed the equation dramatically, however. Semien alone wouldn’t have been enough. Adding Seager to the mix signaled a undeniable commitment that meant the days of half measures had ceased.
Of course, it remains to be seen if my initial instincts were correct or not but by bringing in both Semien and Seager to turbo shed their rebuilding label, the Rangers are taking a different approach to a classic way of building a team. They’re trusting that the pieces that are coming from a close-to-producing, improving farm system will fill in with low cost talent to pair with the veterans they’re signing now. It’s a massive risk but an exciting one. For a team that was borderline unwatchable, I’ll gladly accept that this has the risk of being a shaky house of cards if it means getting to watch legitimately good players while they try to stick the landing and build out their pricey foundation.
Joe: I don’t know if it’s possible to answer anything about this off season without talking about the lockout. The time leading up to the lockout was a whirlwind of activity (Seager, Semien, Gray, Calhoun). It’s hard not to get excited about that. It definitely had a bit of the “is this really us” feel? To a lesser extent it reminds me of the Nolan Ryan signing way back in the late 80’s. Here? They’re coming HERE?
What I didn’t like on the field is that not enough of our pitchers stepped up to make a claim on a spot. We had some nice progress from Taylor Hearn, but some of the guys I wanted to step up didn’t. Some of the imports we got (Spencer Howard, Glenn Otto) didn’t do much to endear themselves to the fan base. There’s still time of course, but I was hoping we’d have more of a handle on starting pitching than we do.
One thing I was hoping for? Hard to say. Overall I was pretty happy with the way the last season ended, despite losing 102 games. No labor disruption perhaps?
C70: The Corey Seager deal, to my untrained eye, has a little bit of the Alex Rodriguez contract feel to it. Why will this work out better for Texas?
Christopher: A key difference between the Seager signing and the Rodriguez deal is the Rangers of now had virtually no monetary commitments to prevent them from making such a splash and a trajectory that can support such a deal as long as they continue to stay aggressive in free agency and patient with their developing farm. Even with Semien and Seager, the Rangers have money to spend not just now, but in future winters. Seager isn’t expected to be 1 and 24 others like A-Rod was, though the narrative that Texas didn’t pair A-Rod with more talent is a fallacy. The Rangers’ mistake 20 years ago with A-Rod was spending unwisely on old veterans while having a farm system that was nearly barren and expecting the league’s best player would alone be enough to push them over the top. Once those veterans didn’t pan out, and there was no youthful cavalry to save the day, Texas went cheap beyond A-Rod and eventually had to reboot.
This isn’t to say that Seager’s deal won’t eventually become an albatross as well if the kids on the way don’t pan out or if ownership gets gun-shy at continuing what they started, but if nothing else, the Rangers are uniquely positioned to understand what not to do in this situation.
Joe: There’s one really simple reason this will work. When we signed ARod back then it was basically ARod and “Oh crap, who else?”. It was a big sexy sign for sure, but we didn’t back it up with much. Granted, we were coming off a couple of playoff years there, but we didn’t back up the ARod signing with much. We still had Pudge & Michael Young of course, but what were our other big inputs there? Ken Caminiti, Andrés Galarraga at the end of their careers? Our #1 pitcher that year was Rick Helling, whom I like, but he was 12-11, 5.17 that year. There wasn’t a big supporting cast with ARod. Granted, our pitching going into 2022 is a question mark too, but the pieces around Seager look to be stronger than ARod’s supporting cast was.
C70: Is there enough pitching to support this offense?
Christopher: The pitching is, as is usually the case for the Rangers, a problem. The Rangers just don’t have enough quality or quantity to pair with their offensive expenditures. It’s possible that the Rangers could make some headway on that front in the trade market during the weeks remaining in spring training, but, for now, they’re light on arms.
Texas did add major leaguers Gray, Martin Perez, and Garrett Richards to the staff. They’ve also signed veterans Nick Tropeano, Brandon Workman, Matt Moore, Dan Winkler, and Greg Holland to minor league deals to provide depth and options. The new faces join a quietly competent bullpen that is expected to get the sometimes-elite duo of Jose Leclerc and Jonathan Hernandez back from injury over the summer. The main issue is the starting rotation, and the lack of talent there is the main reason to doubt that 2022 is the year that the Rangers climb back into contention.
Gray is a good addition but he’s more of a solid No. 3 for a good team with the Rangers counting on him to head the rotation in 2022. Behind him, there’s RHP Dane Dunning who is looking to build on a solid but unspectacular rookie season. After those two, you have Perez who returns to the Rangers after he spent the first seven seasons of his career with Texas. LHP Taylor Hearn battled his way into the rotation last summer after pitching out of the bullpen in the first half but he’s not a lock to remain in the rotation despite likely being in it to start the season. For the fifth spot, there is a bevy of unproven options which includes Spencer Howard, Kohei Arihara, Brock Burke, Glenn Otto, and A.J. Alexy.
The good news is there is help on the way in the minor leagues where Texas has cultivated a wave of starting pitching prospects on the farm and the Rangers have the resources to add to the rotation via trades and free agency in the coming years. But, for now and forever for the Texas Rangers, pitching is an issue.
Joe: I kind of sorta answered that in question 2. Probably not. I mean, going into this season we have Jon Gray, Taylor Hearn, Dane Dunning, and then ???? – Grab a couple from the pile of AJ Alexy, Spencer Howard, Glenn Otto, Martin Perez? None of that will strike fear in the hearts of men. What will? Only the Shadow knows! (OK, in joke for my dad). But seriously, there probably isn’t. Gray is an unknown how he’ll perform, and Taylor Hearn made some good strides last season, but can he be counted on to be a #1 or #2 for a full season? Probably not. I also feel much the same about Dunning that I do about Hearn. They could get it together and be dominant, stranger things can happen. Beyond those – lemme grab my Magic 8 ball. Rangers teams in the past have been known for slugging their way to wins. If the 2022 team will win, it’ll probably have to happen that way, I would imagine.
C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?
Christopher: Before he was lost for the season, the aforementioned Jung was the headliner for prospects who were being counted on to arrive for the Rangers. The eighth overall pick in the 2019 draft, Jung was recently ranked as FanGraphs’ No. 9 overall prospect after a campaign in which he slashed .326/.398/.592 between Double-A and Triple-A ball. Losing a year of development in the big leagues takes the wind out of the sails of the Rangers a little but the shoulder injury was on his non-throwing arm so there’s plenty of reason to believe that he will bounce back and there’s even potential of him seeing some action at the tail end of the minor league season if his rehab progresses well.
Beyond Jung, RHP Cole Winn is the next prospect who is knocking on the door of the big leagues and he will be counted on to be a big part in solving the forever puzzle that is the starting rotation in Texas. Fresh off striking out 97 batters in 78 innings with an ERA of 2.31 in Double-A, 2018 top pick Winn should make his debut with the Rangers at some point this summer if he handles business in Triple-A. Of course, the most anticipated prospect for Texas — and perhaps their most anticipated prospect in many years — is 2021 No. 2 overall pick Jack Leiter. How Leiter performs on the mound in his professional debut this summer could go a long way as the proof of concept that allowed the Rangers to jump the gun on spending this winter. If Leiter shows out, his stint in the minor leagues is expected to be brief but his ETA is likely a year away if everything checks out.
Joe: I really want to see Jack Leiter, but this isn’t the NFL, guys don’t get here that fast. Someone more realistic? Let’s go with Josh Jung or Cole Winn. Jung would probably be here to start the season if he wasn’t hurt. And Winn? Hard to say when he’ll be here – he might be in camp now if it wasn’t for the compressed spring training (there’s that lockout you didn’t want me to talk about again). Probably later in the year, I would imagine.
C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?
Christopher: I suspect that the Rangers will be bad again in 2022. It’s just too much of an ask to turn around a 102-loss team in one offseason, and especially an offseason like this one. The team knows this as well and have been attempting to set the expectations to reflect that despite the spending spree. The good news is, with more playoff teams, you can be bad but still in the playoff race for longer which could make the summer more palatable. The better news is, there’s almost no world in which the Rangers are as bad as they were in 2021 and they have a plethora of reasons to be excited to experience them again. Now is the time to get in on the ground floor of their unusual building effort with the bonus of getting to enjoy actual star players. If they can make it out of the cellar, all the better.
Joe: It’s hard to say and the 8 ball didn’t help this one either – “Ask again later”. Will we lose 102 games again? Oh heck no. Will we win 102 games? Definitely not. But we will be much improved. I’d settle for 81-81, but I think 75-86 is probably where we’ll fall out. I’d love to be wrong and get closer to the 102, but I can’t get THAT excited. I mean yeah, Seager/Semien and co are big sexy signings, but there’s still a bunch here which was part of the 102 loss season. Not that they can’t grow or whatnot, but my gut says that while we’re improved, not improved so much we’ll make a run for the division lead/playoffs. I’ve seen some fans in my FB group say we’ll end up second in the division. I’m not feeling that. I think middle of the pack is a more realistic target for one’s expectations.
C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Rangers Twitter accounts to follow.
Christopher: If you’re interested in the Rangers, check out Levi Weaver (@ThreeTwoEephus), baseball’s best new wave beat writer. Also, Lone Star Ball (@lonestarball) is where I write but the handle is a great place to keep up with the team from the fan’s perspective. And follow Tepid Participation (@TepidP) to find out why minor league baseball is rad through the lens of the Rangers’ farm system.
Joe: I’m not really the best follow on Twitter for Rangers, actually. I tend to talk more about Doctor Who there as well as videogame history, as I worked for a videogame company for nearly 20 years. 🙂 Only three, eh? I follow a bunch, I hope some feelings don’t get hurt. I’ll go with:
Evan Grant: @Evan_P_Grant
Levi Weaver: @ThreeTwoEephus
Jeff Wilson: @JeffWilsonTXR
However, there’s plenty more than three, and I have a Twitter list that I follow daily for my Rangers coverage. Has about 20 odd twitter accounts in there that I hand collated. That list is here.