After consecutive years without winning the American League West despite being expected to rule the roost, the Rangers need to come to terms with their real problem going forward.
It isn’t health in their rotation, although that did trip them up in 2013. It isn’t front-office squabbles, although those should be done now that Nolan Ryan’s noisy insouciance is a memory. And it isn’t Ron Washington, not unless you want to get into the relatively modest gains you can make with in-game tactics.
No, the real reason the Rangers aren’t a power in the land is just that: the absence of power. Despite playing in the best hitter’s park and one of the best power parks in the league, they finished just 13th in the majors and 10th in the American League in Isolated Power (slugging minus batting average).
That’s inexcusable, and a big part of the problem was the Rangers’ lack of production at key bopper’s slots in the lineup. At first base, thanks to Mitch Moreland’s flop, the Rangers got a 90 OPS+; the AL average was 114. At DH, hampered by Lance Berkman’s injuries, the Rangers were again at 90; the AL average was 101. And in left field, despite David Murphy’s catastrophic .656 OPS, the Rangers managed a 96 OPS+; the AL average was 100 in what was an especially weak year for left-field production.
With something like $50 million coming off the books from their 2013 payroll, the question for GM Jon Daniels is what to do. Does he want to maximize his big multiyear investments in Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland or just tell himself things will get better?
Let’s bank on action and that Daniels decides to change things up. Let’s also suggest that the better course is to keep top prospect Jurickson Profar, plugging him into the lineup while also honoring the commitment to Andrus.
Start by saying goodbye to their free agents. Take Cruz, for example. He’s gone as a free agent with a 2013 performance-enhancing drug suspension under his belt. He might have made a mistake discarding the Rangers’ qualifying offer, because with a career .555 slugging line in Texas and .449 everywhere else, he needs Texas to earn more than Texas needs him earning for them. Heading into his age-33 season, he can either sign at the Rangers’ price or have a nice, shorter and ultimately more disappointing career someplace else.
As for Murphy, whatever his price tag, no aspiring contender should have to settle for him. Trusting that Murphy would deliver at least something like his then-career rate .801 OPS was optimistic after his career year in 2012. So just stop with the wishful thinking where your Rusty Greer wannabes are concerned; let him go be a Mariner and sign a real offensive contributor at a market price.
So what should the Rangers do after sending fruit baskets and saying farewells? Let’s start off with this: Trade Ian Kinsler. Moving Kinsler, a guy who has slugged just .399 away from Texas, to an outfield corner to make room for Profar at second base doesn’t help all that much; it just makes sure that the Rangers won’t get the most out of a bopper’s slot like left field.
So make Kinsler somebody else’s second baseman. How about the Yankees, since they stand to lose Robinson Cano? Just be ready to eat some cash. Getting money back into the till is going to help going forward, and beyond the money, the Rangers should invest those at-bats at second base in Profar and his future. Blame the $62 million owed to Kinsler over the next four years -- or $69 million over five -- on Nolan Ryan, eat $3 million to $5 million per year, hold an office party if you recover anything approaching $50 million of that commitment and then spend it to get better production from an actual outfield corner-quality bat.
With that additional money in the bank, the Rangers can start addressing their power needs by spending on veterans with actual power track records, not just ones generated by the Rangers’ ballpark. After that, they can romp, because the league’s best offensive environment shouldn’t lead a team to make mistakes like counting on guys like Murphy and Moreland.
With that extra money, start by paying Brian McCann his price to play catcher -- at least at the outset of his deal. McCann may eventually need to play first base or DH a lot at the tail end of the contract, but that’s where you take advantage of being an AL team. Daniels would have to accept that risk because he’ll be paying for the privilege of putting McCann’s lefty power stroke in one of the best ballparks for lefty home run hitters. Atlanta’s Imminent Abandonment Ballpark indexed at 103 for lefty homers over the past three years, while Texas comes in at a cozy 122. McCann has slugged .495 career against right-handers; he should want to hit here. Spend what it takes.
Next, address the need to get a real slugger at first base. Here, the Rangers could cut a corner by paying Corey Hart good coin in an incentive-laden deal for at least one year or one plus a mutual qualifying option (vesting on playing time). There’s your first baseman to keep you happy until top prospect Joey Gallo provides a solid indication above the low Class A Sally League that he isn’t just a new incarnation of Moreland or (worse yet) Dave Hostetler.
Finally, spend something to get an outfielder with an impact bat. Alex Rios is nice in one corner, but go one better and get in on Shin-Soo Choo to lead off for the next four or five years or give Carlos Beltran a great place to spend his sunset years and get a shot at polishing up his Hall of Fame résumé. And only if that fails, then sign Cruz at your price, because he may find the market’s not such a forgiving place for a performer pumped up on park factors.