Baseball is still being played, and the Texas Rangers find themselves not being one of the teams playing it for the first time since 2009. For the Rangers, this has meant the speedier advent of their offseason than they desired, or have been accustomed to the past two years.
After 2010, the Rangers entered the offseason as a team that unexpectedly made their first World Series appearance in franchise history, despite being a young team at key positions and battling through bankruptcy for the majority of the year. Their trajectory as an organization was on a noticeably upward ascent, and the offseason was another opportunity to continue that rise. They took that opportunity to trade for Mike Napoli, and sign Adrian Beltre.
After 2011, the offseason for the Rangers began in a state of shock, having lost their second consecutive World Series in the most disappointing way, failing to seal the deal after being one strike away, twice. However, they would return most of the same team in 2012, and only needed to upgrade a couple of positions to maintain their position as World Series favorites. They did so by winning the rights to and signing Yu Darvish, and adding Joe Nathan.
Now, the state of the Rangers franchise is in a whole new dimension. Once again, their season ended in abject disappointment, but unlike 2011, many of the key figures may not be returning. The key free agents that may be (or in many cases, will be) walking this offseason are Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Roy Oswalt, and Scott Feldman (okay, those two were just mood-lighteners, not really “key”). For many of the key players who will remain, 2011 was either a year of injuries, or a year of poor production, and question marks hang over those positions in the field and on the roster.
Here we will look at the five most pressing questions the Rangers will have to answer this offseason, as they navigate the new waters they find themselves in. Answers will be necessary if the Rangers hope to be more than a three-year team, and instead be a team that sustained a long-term run of success.
The first question they face is how will they fill the Josh Hamilton hole?
The Rangers will have a hole to fill whether they bring Hamilton back to Texas or not. The success Hamilton had in 2012 in terms of production and games played will likely not be duplicated. Beyond that, he delivered the majority of that production from the center field position, which he is not likely to be able to continue to play as his age 32 body begins to show even further signs of wear and tear.
Unfortunately for the Rangers, Hamilton is the premier free agent outfielder on the market this offseason. Based on how the season transpired, it appears Hamilton and the Rangers are ready to part ways. That leaves the Rangers with three options for filling the vacuum that Hamilton’s absence creates: promote internally, sign a free agent, or trade for a center fielder.
Internally, the Rangers have the option of increasing the playing time for Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry. If this is the route the Rangers choose to go, it will most likely be a platoon in center field between these two, with David Murphy and Nelson Cruz filling out the corner outfield positions. The upside to Martin and Gentry patrolling center field is that they showcase an excellent arm and range for center field. The downside is that they are significantly limited offensively. However, that doesn’t mean they cannot provide value. In 2012, Gentry posted 2.8 rWAR in 121 games played, which is the same WAR per game ratio as Hamilton’s 3.8 rWAR in 148 games, and Gentry only started 66 games, while Hamilton started 146. The upgrade in the field and on the basepaths from a Gentry/Martin platoon could be sufficient for the Rangers, provided the more regular playing time does not result in an overexposure of their limitations.
On the free agent market, the most obvious candidate to join the Texas roster is B.J. Upton. The Rangers have been rumored to have interest in Upton in the past, and now the toolsy-but-underachieving center fielder is on the market. If nothing else, expect the Rangers to kick the tires on Upton. The 28-year old is coming off a career high 28 home run season, and his fifth consecutive season with at least 30 stolen bases.
One name that has not been linked to the Rangers, but is out there, is Melky Cabrera. Cabrera was suspended 50 games for testosterone in 2012, which makes his value as a free agent clouded, and institutes some doubt in his 2012 production as a .346/.390/.516 hitter in AT&T park. Whether testosterone boosted his performance or not is up for debate, but even if he were to regress back to the player he was in 2011, he could still be very good. Cabrera hit .305/.339/.470 as a member of the Kansas City Royals in 2011. Those numbers have the opportunity to improve significantly if he were to move to the hitter-friendly confines of the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Cabrera also has a very strong outfield arm. He never played center field for the San Francisco Giants in 2012, but has played 537 of 984 games there in his career. If there are doubts about what kind of player he will be among other MLB teams, whatever team signs him could be capitalizing on a buy-low opportunity in a limited market.
When discussing who the Rangers might trade for to make up for losing Hamilton, the waters get even murkier. The list of All-Star center fielders that are on the trading block is a list as long as the hair on Mr. Clean’s head. Instead, the Rangers may look to bring in a big bat at a corner outfield position, giving them a rotation at the poles between Murphy, Cruz, and the new acquisition, with Martin/Gentry in center field. Possible trade targets this offseason for the Rangers could include Justin Upton and Carlos Gonzalez, who are both in their prime years with team-friendly contracts in place.
Stay tuned this week to the answers for further important questions for the Rangers:
What Role Should Michael Young Play?
Who is Going to Play Catcher?
How Will The Rangers Rebuild the Bullpen?
Who Will Be the Shortstop, and Who Will Be the Second Baseman?
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