I’m not sure if you’ve heard, based on the deluge of free agent news over the past week, but the Rangers signed two of the best position players on the free-agent market in Marcus Semien and Corey Seager. The Rangers now have their middle infield set for at least the next half-decade, as Semien will presumably man the keystone for the Rangers for at least the next seven years, and Seager will hold down the shortstop spot until the Rangers move him.
Texas will be forking out $58 million next season for their middle infield duo, which is a pretty hefty investment for any team. Texas can afford it, though, since their biggest commitment outside of Seager/Semien is Jon Gray, who is set to make approximately $14 million per year for the next 3 years. The rest of their payroll, including Gray, adds up to approximately $59 million. So, it’s very manageable underneath the luxury tax, and there shouldn’t be any concerns about the way they’re building up their payroll, as long as they don’t add contracts that will end up hamstringing the team down the road.
But, throw all of the financial concerns aside. The real question is, “Why are they investing so heavily right now?”
The State of the Team
Typically, when smaller market teams start to tack on more payroll and sign marquee free agents, it’s a good indication that the team thinks it’s ready to compete. For example, the Phillies added on significant payroll after their rebuild a few years ago by signing Bryce Harper. The Padres attempted to accelerate their rebuild in 2019 with Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer in 2018. The Tigers are doing it this year by signing Javier Báez.
The Rangers, by many accounts, don’t appear to be close to contention like those other teams were. Their farm system doesn’t rank quite as highly as the White Sox and Padres did a few years ago, and they seem to be a little short on high-impact prospects, outside of Jack Leiter and maybe Josh Jung. Cole Winn, if you’re invested in him, doesn’t look too bad, either. But this is precisely the problem with the Rangers’ timeline. Jack Leiter is at least a year or two away. Winn isn’t ready yet, either. Jung will potentially start the year with the big league club, but it’s not guaranteed, especially considering he had all of 300-ish plate appearances between AA and AAA last year. There are simply no chips ready for the Rangers to push into the proverbial table.
Other Rangers prospects that graduated last year, like Leody Taveras and Kohei Arihara, were underwhelming, to put it generously. Taveras slashed .161/.207/.270 across 185 plate appearances last year, while Arihara accumulated a 6.64 ERA and a 6.67 FIP across 40.2 innings. Plenty of prospects have struggled in their first taste of the pros, so it’s not something to raise the alarm about just yet. But, it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence in the Rangers’ long-term hopes when some of their top prospects are struggling so badly.
Worst of all, Texas isn’t exactly one step away from contention. They haven’t posted a winning season since 2016, and the bottom really fell out last year. Let’s take a look at their record, by year:
- 2017: 78-84 (.481)
- 2018: 67-95 (.414)
- 2019: 78-84 (.481)
- 2020: 22-38 (.367)
- 2021: 60-102 (.370)
In 2021, their first-half performance helped buoy that record, finishing at 35-55 (.389). The Rangers dealt away Joey Gallo, Kyle Gibson, and Ian Kennedy at the trade deadline, getting prospects in return. Their second-half record was an atrocious 25-47 (.347), not really a sign of a team looking to make a run at contention.
So, what gives with these signings?
Well, remember what happened to the Chicago White Sox during the 2018-19 offseason?
Let me refresh your memory. The White Sox finished 2018 with the lowest payroll in baseball, sitting at approximately $82 million. Once they declined $22.4 million in options for James Shields and Nate Jones, the White Sox had $100 million or so to spend, with a nice core of Luis Robert, Yoán Moncada, etc. The White Sox decided they were going to use all that extra money to chase after two big fish in the free-agent market: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
The White Sox were in on both, but they pushed a little harder for Machado. They acquired 1B Yonder Alonso, who didn’t fit on the White Sox roster at all, but is Machado’s brother-in-law. The two of them share a very special relationship, as Alonso is Machado’s mentor and workout partner (in addition to being related). The White Sox also signed Machado’s close friend, OF Jon Jay. The value (and risk) of acquiring these players was minimal, but the White Sox hoped the relationships Machado had built with each would help draw him to Chicago.
Then, they offered Machado the largest deal in team history: 8 years, $250 million. It held an AAV of $31.25 million, with Machado entering free agency at 34 years old, enough time for Machado to get another payday if his body still held up when 2027 arrived. It was undeniably a good deal for Machado, that would set him and his family (and 20 future generations of Machados) up for life. But the Padres offered more.
The Padres didn’t match the AAV level of the White Sox, but it did surpass the years offered, as the Padres gave Machado 10 years and $300 million. Machado, looking for those extra years of job security and $50 million more, took San Diego’s offer, leaving the White Sox with a couple of Machado’s friends and virtually no value for them. It was bold of the White Sox to put so many eggs in the Machado basket, and while you can’t fault them for wanting to supplement their core with an incredible SS/3B talent, their hot pursuit of Machado and lukewarm attempts at signing Harper left them hanging out to dry.
So, the White Sox entered the 2019 season with only a handful of free-agent commitments (many of them short-term), the 6th-lowest payroll in baseball, and no superstars.
Why did I tell you about the White Sox’s failure to sign Manny Machado? I think cautionary tales like the 2018-19 White Sox are what Texas feared would happen to them (if the Rangers turn the corner), and it’s why they pursued free agents so aggressively this season, even without a guarantee of short-term success. Contrary to what Twitter may tell you, it’s not so easy to sign high-quality free agents. Just ask the Angels, who have failed to reel in frontline starting pitching in the free-agent market for a half-decade. When you have the opportunity to sign a marquee free agent, you do it, because there’s no guarantee it’ll happen again.
The Rangers now have their middle infield of the future, even if the team is going to suffer a whole lot of losses over the next year or two. They don’t have a lot else going for them, although if you squint hard enough, you can see some of the pieces of the next good Rangers team, with Seager, Semien, Jung, Nathaniel Lowe, Adolis García, and so on. The rotation is still a mess, and the Rangers are going to need all of their young players to take huge steps forward in the next year or two, but the bones of a good team are maybe (?) there. And, the Rangers are going to have the opportunity to watch Seager and Semien gel with the prospects as they ascend to the big league club.
The problem is that there’s a ton of risk inherent in this approach. Firstly, Semien’s deal is for 7 years, and he’s 31 years old. What happens if Semien shows his age sooner, rather than later, and the development of young Rangers doesn’t overlap with Semien’s peak? At that point, the Rangers are holding onto a $26 million anchor. Secondly, what if the Rangers never develop their prospects? The Rangers haven’t developed a good pitcher since…
Ah, crap. pic.twitter.com/lbMFOzZp1o
— Scott White (@CBSScottWhite) December 1, 2021
This is a team that has really struggled to develop pitching in the past. What if those struggles continue, and Cole Winn/Jack Leiter bust? What if some of their other prospects bust? At that point, the Rangers are going to have an aging Seager and Semien, and not much else around them. One of the benefits of waiting to sign free agents until your young team is ready to take the next step is that you still have a young core to compete with. Right now, the Rangers don’t have those guys anywhere close to ready (hence why they had to get Seager/Semien now, but it also works against them in terms of failing to compete soon). There’s no guarantee that Seager and Semien are going to want to keep turning in losing seasons.
The Rangers’ actions don’t fit the traditional plan of team-building, as teams typically wait to sign free agents until they are certain their prospects are legitimate. But it certainly makes sense if the Rangers feel their team is 2-3 years away. At that point, Seager and Semien will hopefully still be in their primes, with young players set to carry a greater share of the workload when the two of them start to decline. These moves are heavy with risk, but the payoff is certainly worth it. The Rangers get building blocks for their next great team, and in the immediate future, the ticketing office gets something to help them bring fans to Globe Life Field.
Graphic by Michael Packard (@designsbypack)