Baseball fans endured one of the most boring off-seasons in recent memory as we waited until spring training for the exhausting Bryce Harper and Manny Machado free-agent drama to end, but the payoff — Opening Day — is finally here. The Texas Rangers begin Year 2 of the organization’s rebuilding effort this afternoon as they host the Chicago Cubs at Globe Life Park in Arlington. It’s the first of 81 remaining games in the club’s 26th and final season playing in one of the most beautiful ballparks in the country. (“Bring on the A/C!” says everyone else.)
While a handful of teams courted Harper and Machado and others signed superstars like Mike Trout and Jacob deGrom to massive contract extensions, Texas sorted through the free agent bargain bin to find 80 percent of its starting rotation, replace a franchise icon at third base and fill other holes with stopgaps. The Rangers also followed the trend of hiring a young, analytics-minded former player as manager (Chris Woodward), finally traded Jurickson Profar (albeit about six years too late and to a division rival), said goodbye to Martin Perez, and inked closer Jose Leclerc to a four-year contract extension.
None of their actions aside from the Leclerc deal warrant excitement, but the Rangers are doing exactly what rebuilding teams should do. Texas can’t buy its way out of its current status among the bottom tier of talent. They will be a bad team for at least a couple more years, and that is by design. The only way to ensure a bright future for the franchise is to stockpile high draft picks and prospects, and then cross your fingers that some of that young talent develops into quality big leaguers.
The farm system desperately needs a talent infusion, with just one player ranked among Baseball America’s top prospects (Hans Crouse at No. 73) and Texas finishing 25th in the publication’s organizational rankings. The situation worsened this spring when young southpaw Yohander Mendez suffered an elbow injury that will cause him to miss at least the first half of the season, and Willie Calhoun, prize of the Yu Darvish trade, failed to make the roster and then pouted about it.
Despite the team’s bleak outlook, ESPN’s Sam Miller suggests laying down some cash on the 250:1 odds that the 2019 Rangers will not only be a wildcard team, but actually win the wild-card game. ESPN’s Craig Edwards named Texas among four teams he identifies as “surprise contenders.” And Evan Grant at the Dallas Morning News believes second baseman Rougned Odor “will be mentioned as an MVP candidate late into the year.”
I can’t muster that much optimism. Pretty much everything has to go right for the team to finish .500, so Texas won’t contend or win the wild-card game. And while Odor improved last year and played well in spring training, he is far from competing with Trout, Mookie Betts, Alex Bregman, Aaron Judge, and others for the AL’s most valuable player award.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any reasons to head out to the ballpark this year. I’m excited to see…
…whether Nomar Mazara blossoms in his fourth year
Mazara’s approach, plate discipline, smooth swing, and power as a 20-year-old rookie were signs Texas may have a future stud on its hands, but after three seasons, he’s failed to display any signs of significant improvements. Even though he turns just 24 next month, this year feels like the one that he’ll either take a step toward stardom or solidify himself as an average player.
…whether Joey Gallo can hit his weight
We know Gallo has tremendous power, but his inability to regularly put the ball in play keeps him on the same level as Mazara — a solid but not star player. Gallo is listed at 235 pounds and has a .203 career batting average. It would be cause for celebration if he can add 32 points this year and hit his weight. Heck, if he’d just bunt against the shift, which he finally tried this spring, he could probably hit .400.
…if Texas can cash in at the trade deadline
The Rangers filled their four open rotation spots with pitchers who have all had Tommy John surgery, three of whom (Shelby Miller, Edinson Volquez, and Drew Smyly) will be free agents at the end of the season. Adrian Beltre’s replacement, Asdrubal Cabrera, is also signed to a one-year deal, along with backup outfielder Hunter Pence.
All of those players should be made available at the July 31 trade deadline to add prospects. The other two rotation members, Mike Minor and Lance Lynn, should be considered trade chips as well. The success of this year’s starters is more important to the organization’s future than its present.
The biggest potential for a notable haul of prospects is Leclerc. Yes, he’s young, under a team-friendly contract and might prove this year to be the team’s best player, but Texas would have to consider any offers that included multiple high-level prospects.
…Beltre’s number retired
I love it when teams don’t waste time retiring the uniform numbers of legends, so it was exciting to hear the Rangers will retire No. 29 on June 8 to celebrate one of the game’s all-time best third basemen.
I’m a big baseball fan, but I believe when I look back at the 2019 season, my first and best memory, and likely those of other concert attendees, will be seeing the greatness of Paul McCartney rock the ballpark in its final year.
And if none of that gets you excited, you can always sit back and enjoy a 2-pound, 18-inch chicken tender!