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Baseball

What Should We Make of the Rangers’ Accidental Youth Movement?

It's been 26 years since a defending World Series champion leaned on this many young players out of the gate. In Texas' case, that wasn't the plan. But that doesn't make an influx of former first-round picks a bad thing, either.
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Cole Winn is one of several Rangers first-round picks whom Texas didn't expect to call upon so early in a title defense. Jerome Miron-USA Today Sports.

The 2024 Rangers, happily, have one very important thing in common with the 1998 Marlins: they are the reigning World Series champions. The main feature the two teams don’t come close to sharing, however, is that while Florida made little effort to repeat its title, and in fact decisively minimized any chance of that happening, there’s nothing fatalistic about how Rangers have approached their title defense.

And yet, while one franchise engineered a wholesale youth movement within weeks after giving its fan base its first parade, the other has introduced its own infusion of youth—though in the Rangers’ case, it has been less by design than out of necessity.  

It’s far from ideal that, less than three weeks into the 2024 season, five Rangers had made their major-league debuts, four of them coming up as reinforcements after the season had begun. The flip side of that is that all five were first-round picks, and in a sport in which that sort of draft status doesn’t guarantee a big-league pension, it’s a scouting and development win for Texas that each of the five had put himself in a position to get the call.

It’s a much different scenario from the one the Marlins brought on themselves in 1998. After trading punches with the Cleveland Indians for seven games and winning the 1997 World Series in their fifth year of existence, the Marlins aggressively dismantled their roster. They had boosted their payroll from $30.1 million to $47.8 million (seventh highest in the league) in 1997, only to immediately slash it back down by 30 percent, to $33.4 million (20th in MLB).  

And it wasn’t merely a matter of letting free agents walk. Just 16 days after his team had taken Game 7 in 11 innings, Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski traded Moises Alou, one year into his five-year contract, to Houston for Oscar Henriquez and Manuel Barrios, who had a combined seven big-league innings (and would add another 51 2/3 before retiring), plus Class A pitcher Mark Johnson, who never got to the majors. Alou was coming off a 23-homer, 115-RBI season that earned the 10th-most votes in the NL MVP race. He had starred in the World Series, hitting .321/.387/.714 (1.101 OPS)—and it was his single and game-tying run in the ninth inning of Game 7 that gave Florida life.

“I don’t think (our fans are) going to like it,”’ Dombrowski said after the November 11 trade. ”We understand that. But we’ve explained what we have to do. With the year Moises had, I would think people will react negatively to it.”  

But Dombrowski didn’t work to appease the fans. In the nine days that followed, he traded closer Robb Nen, core bats Devon White and Jeff Conine, and reliever Ed Vosberg in four trades, getting back zero players whom you’ve heard of. A month later, he sent All-Star starting pitcher Kevin Brown to the Padres and steady reliever Dennis Cook to the Mets. Before spring training rolled around, Al Leiter was shipped off to join Cook in New York.

One month into the 1998 season, the Marlins extended the rip on the baseball’s most pronounced teardown even further. They pulled off a blockbuster with the Dodgers, moving stars Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, and Charles Johnson, along with Barrios and Jim Eisenreich. They got Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile in return—and then flipped Piazza and Zeile during the season for prospects. (Zeile went to the Rangers for career minor leaguers Dan DeYoung and Jose Santos.)

Mission accomplished. The upshot of mollifying owner Wayne Huizenga and his bottom line was, predictably, the first defending champion to lose 100 games the following season—108, in fact, a clean one-third winning percentage.

That’s not where the Rangers are headed, in plan or in practice. Though they’ve gotten off to a rocky start, hovering at or near .500 for most of the young season, they’d maintained a lead in the mediocre AL West until yesterday and should start getting meaningfully healthier soon. But in the meantime, they’ve reached down to Triple-A several times to plug holes—and in most cases, not with journeymen in the eighth inning of their careers.

On April 2, when Josh Jung landed on the injured list with a broken wrist, Justin Foscue—who was drafted in the first round in 2020, one year after Jung was a first-rounder—was summoned to make his big-league debut. Six days later, when an oblique injury sidelined Foscue, 2019 supplemental first-rounder Davis Wendzel got the call.

On April 14, when Cody Bradford was placed on the injured list with a lower back strain, Texas recalled 2018 first-rounder Cole Winn. On April 18, looking to bring up an additional starter to push everyone else in the rotation back a day in the latter stages of a 17-game run without a day off, the Rangers called on Jack Leiter, who had jumped out to a promising start in Triple-A that included 25 strikeouts and three walks in 14 1/3 innings across three starts.

Before the season began, the Rangers had gotten one of their previous seven first-round picks (Jung) to the big leagues. By time Leiter made his spot start on April 18, that number had jumped to six:

  • 2018: Winn
  • 2019: Jung and Wendzel
  • 2020: Foscue
  • 2021: Leiter
  • 2023: Langford 

The one name missing from the last five drafts is Kumar Rocker, who realistically might have shown up in Arlington by now had he not succumbed to Tommy John surgery last May. All indications are that his rehab is on schedule and that he should be back in action sometime in the second half. Finishing his own 2024 in the big leagues is not out of the question, particularly if he’s used in relief as he returns to the mound in the minor leagues to ramp back up.

Langford, of course, was the first of the 2024 debuts, making the Opening Day roster after a blistering run in spring training (.365/.423/.714, and the MLB lead in total bases and RBI). His accelerated debut after just 44 minor-league games puts him among select company. Only two position players played fewer games in the minors since the draft was created in 1965: the Rangers’ Pete Incaviglia in 1986 and the Blue Jays’ John Olerud in 1990. While Langford’s power hasn’t yet arrived, he leads MLB rookies in base hits and times on base.

It must be noted that even though Winn, Wendzel, Foscue, and Leiter have all come up this month, none has blown the door down. Leiter’s debut was a mixed bag, though there was plenty to be encouraged about. Winn has acquitted himself well in three (hitless and scoreless) relief appearances but has only been used those three times in his first 10 days up. Foscue got his first big-league hit off Astros All-Star closer Josh Hader in just his second plate appearance as a Ranger—but was injured earlier in that at-bat. Wendzel remains hitless in 11 times up.

Still, they are all now big leaguers, which extends a solid trend in that respect for the organization. In the last dozen drafts, Texas has made 17 draft picks in the first round. Aside from Rocker, only one—Chris Seise, who was the organization’s second first-rounder in 2017, behind Bubba Thompson—has failed to reach the major leagues.

But big-league experience isn’t the key measure, and there hasn’t been a lot of firepower in the first round for the Rangers. Jung (2019) has been very good, making the All-Star team as a rookie in 2023. Cole Ragans (2016) was brought back from two Tommy John surgeries and developed to the point he could fetch Aroldis Chapman, a key component of a revitalized bullpen that helped Texas get to—and roll through—the postseason. Chapman got his second ring and helped most of his teammates get their first; Ragans is now the Royals’ top starter. Joey Gallo (2012) looked like he was on the verge of becoming a star, ever so briefly.

Aside from those three, no Rangers first-rounder has amassed so much as 3.0 career Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference. In fact, only Dillon Tate (2015: 2.3 WAR) and Winn (0.1 WAR) have a positive mark. Others including Lewis Brinson (2012: minus-3.6 WAR) and Travis Demeritte (2013: minus-1.8 WAR) have pronounced numbers in the red.

It’s looking promising—and perhaps even likely—that both Langford and Jung will fly past Gallo’s 15.5 career WAR. Leiter and Rocker are still significant developmental assets whose careers could go in any number of directions. Winn’s very early looks as a reliever have been promising. Wendzel needs more seasoning, but he’s a versatile defender who hit 30 home runs in just 124 Triple-A games a year ago. Foscue is expected to grow into a productive major-league hitter, though like Ragans it could happen elsewhere. But also like Ragans, even that scenario can yield dividends you’d never undo. 

It wasn’t in the plans coming out of camp for the Rangers to need all these recent first-round picks one month into the season. At least not the type of plans the Marlins conceived and executed after the 1997 season, knowing they would result in a demoralized fan base and 100 losses. Florida got younger (and cheaper) by choice. The Rangers have injected all this youth for lack of a better option. 

But the fact that they’ve had premium draft picks, in each of whom a big investment was once made, ready to provide reinforcement for a team that has every intention of getting right back to the postseason, is a win. Even if it’s a win, like the season itself so far, with a lowercase “w.” 

Author

Jamey Newberg

Jamey Newberg

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Jamey Newberg covers the Rangers for StrongSide. He has lived in Dallas his entire life, with the exception of a…
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