Isiah Kiner-Falefa normally makes this play. But when you lose 102 games, pretty much everything goes badly at one point or another. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball

Funeral for a Friend: Eulogizing the 2021 Texas Rangers

They were bad. Really bad. But they may have laid the foundation for the next great Rangers team along the way.

The Rangers’ season ended badly, the way it inevitably would. The pitching staff, which allowed more runs than all but five other teams, let in six more in Sunday’s finale against Cleveland. The offense, which drove in more than just two, was shut out. It was Texas’ third loss in the final five games, 13th of the last 20, and 102nd of the season. All of it mostly sucked.

You will not remember the 2021 Texas Rangers fondly, at least not their component parts at this moment of their baseball lives. Everything was a struggle, a slog, so damn hard. Which was by design, of course; this team was built with the long game in mind, a reality that was underscored after the latest trade deadline sell-off. For the first time in a while, the picture of a brighter future is starting to take shape, one in which the jewels of a revitalized farm system someday glisten in the Arlington sun — or, more often, under stadium lights beneath a closed roof. Jack Leiter and Cole Winn on the bump. Josh Jung at the hot corner. One, perhaps more top-shelf free agent acquisitions playing key roles. A handful of this year’s young players dotting the roster elsewhere.

You no longer must strain to see a better tomorrow, and this year’s team worked in service to that by suppressing long-term costs in order to audition some prospects and importing more as the year went on. Twelve Rangers made their major-league debuts in 2021, following the five who came up in last year’s pandemic-shortened season. Plenty more are on deck, ready to jostle for positions on a roster without any long-term ballast and whose intermediate certainties amount only to Adolis Garcia somewhere in the outfield, Nathaniel Lowe at first base (probably), Isiah Kiner-Falefa and at least one of Jose Trevino or Jonah Heim as role players (I think?) and, ostensibly, at least a name or two among the menagerie of young starting pitchers (your guess is as good as mine). If this all works, then those 102 losses, each marked by its own distinct misery, will have been worth it.

But the day-to-day grind — six months of ritualistic losing and rampant unwatchability — had a way of knocking the luster off that vision. It was hard to put much thought into the 2024 pitching staff in the moment while the 2021 edition was getting slammed for 14 runs on Opening Day and 11 more two days later, an appropriate harbinger for what was to come. Dreaming about a Jung-Carlos Correa-Sam Huff middle of the order did little to assuage the frustration those 39 times the lineup scored one or no runs. Bad baseball is many things, but above all it’s enervating, sucking the life out of a game that can and should be lively when it’s done right. The 2021 Rangers didn’t do much right.

Perhaps their story is best told through their trio of All-Stars. The first, Joey Gallo, amounted to their last great farm system success, the first and only homegrown star since Elvis Andrus (or, if you’re feeling generous, the early days of Rougned Odor). The team reportedly lowballed him with an offer for a contract extension, then flipped him to the Yankees when he turned it down for a collection of minor leaguers who will be hard-pressed to approach his ceiling. Gallo nevertheless led the team in Wins Above Replacement despite playing his final game in Texas on July 27.

The second, Kyle Gibson, epitomized their most successful recent talent acquisition strategy. Like Lance Lynn and Mike Minor before him, the Rangers landed Gibson on a multi-year deal by trawling through the lower-middle of the free-agent pitching market, aim to buff the scratches off a depreciated asset. After a rough debut season in 2020, Gibson surged — so much so that, like Lynn and Minor before him, Texas dealt him elsewhere. The move itself was the right call; Gibson pitched above his head and scuffled his way to a 5.09 ERA with his new team, the Phillies. The immediate ramification, however, was a rotation suddenly devoid of its only above-average starter asked to win and, ideally, entertain with players too green to accomplish either.

The third, Garcia, was everything you need to know about their on-field product. He is the most fun Dallas sports story of 2021, a 28-year-old Cuban defector who ping-ponged from Japan to the Cardinals’ farm system before Texas brought him in as a baseball scratch-off ticket: a tooled-up outfielder who could pay off huge and who very probably would not on account of a near total inability to make contact with the baseball. Except, after he was designated for assignment as a spring training non-roster invitee — only to then get called up once Ronald Guzman went down for the year — he did for a single, glorious month. Garcia hit .312/.348/.633 with 11 home runs in May, a stretch that partially overlapped with the Rangers creeping all the way up to 18-18, which seemed almost as unlikely as Garcia’s emergence.

Then they plummeted together. From June 1 onward, Garcia hit .224/.271/.397, and Texas amassed 69 losses in 107 games. The mystique of El Bombi survived the season; he plays baseball like it’s a Slayer track, and so he kept chipping in the loud stuff — a stray upper-deck bomb or a laser-guided throw or a titanic bat flip. But once his strikeout rate crept from 26 percent in May back to his customary number in the 30s, there wasn’t anything solid to underpin it, just as his team never boasted the talent to sustain .500 baseball.

One embodied the club at its most bumbling, another at its shrewdest, a third at its most idealistic. Collectively, the trio just wasn’t good enough to be the core of a winning baseball team. After two got traded and the third regressed, they were no longer the core of a losing one, either.

And so the Rangers kept shuffling along, bleeding away ballgames until, at least, there were no longer any more to play. Again, it was a rough watch. We still might be a ways from watching winning baseball in Arlington, but with any luck, the losing won’t be quite this onerous again in the meantime.

Here’s the good news: whenever that next great Rangers team does arrive, chances are you’ll still see the shadow of the 2021 edition. There probably isn’t an ace among Glenn Otto, Dane Dunning, Taylor Hearn, A.J. Alexy, or Spencer Howard, but there’s reason to suspect that at least one or two become rotation pieces. Lowe filled first base better than a Ranger has in years, and he probably doesn’t get displaced unless a genuine star arrives. Trevino, Heim, and Kiner-Falefa are, at worst, high-floor pieces; perhaps Nick Solak joins them with a full year under his belt. And you shouldn’t write off Leody Taveras yet, either, given his age (23), ability, and track record of being asked to compete against older players at every rung of his pro career to date. There are other names, too — D.J. Peters and Andy Ibanez and Nick Snyder and perhaps even Willie Calhoun, still. Unlike last year’s squad, which was marginally better in the standings at the expense of any real focus on the future, some of this year’s players will stick around for better days. There are too many not to.

Accordingly, their Rangers epitaphs figure to come from what they do on those teams, the roles they play on the next division winner, playoff series winner, maybe even pennant or World Series winner. That’s the glamorous stuff. But the muck they crawled through in 2021 will help get them there, excruciating as it was.

The 2021 Texas Rangers deserve to be forgotten. If things go to plan, that’s because they laid a foundation for a team worth remembering.

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