The 2017 Rangers season brought us a lot of discussion points with the starting pitchers being at the center of those conversations. To understand 2017’s happenings though, you need to understand how we got here.
The 2017 Texas starting staff as a collective didn’t succeed, but it’s not a one year failure. It’s a multiyear breakdown that led them to this place. This didn’t just happen; there were markers that told us this would.
This is what happens when you trade Luis Ortiz for a catcher that got bonked in the head by a coconut, depriving him of his ability to hit and frame until he arrived in the greener pastures of Colorado.
It’s what happens when you trade Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher, and Jake Thompson for admittedly a front line starter and the demigod of smoke and chaos.
It’s what happens when you send Neil Ramirez, Carl Edwards Jr, Justin Grimm, and Kyle Hendricks to Chicago for essentially a Cubby Bear mug and a Curse of the Goat t-shirt.
The best pitching prospects Texas had, the players that would potentially be on the roster in 2017 were sent away to be on other rosters. With their departure went the best chances of baseball’s most valuable commodity: The cost controlled pitching prospect. Texas took that commodity and bought other things.
Which is fine; they had a strategy and did what they felt was necessary in executing as such. It worked out in 2015 and 2016. All those decisions have consequences though, and we saw those in 2017 as the buck finally stopped being passed. Some good, some bad, but overall not what they needed them to be.
What was good
One of those consequences meant giving Andrew Cashner a one year reclamation deal. It was a gamble that many people didn’t think would pay off above a league average starter.
We all missed on that one.
On a staff that featured Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, it was Cashner that came out as the most valuable with 4.6 WAR. He made 28 starts, with a 3.40 ERA and the lowest home run per nine of any starter on the Rangers with a minimum of ten starts. All of that cost Texas $10 million bucks.
In short: Andrew Cashner was the best starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers in 2017.
Needless to say, he’ll earn a large chunk of change this winter because of his outstanding performance.
The next most valuable Rangers starter left midway through the year, which speaks volumes on its own. Yu Darvish came in at 3.3 WAR in only 22 starts for Texas, at only one million more than Cashner made. The strikeout numbers were down for Darvish this year, but they picked back up after he was traded to the Dodgers.
A coincidence I’m sure.
There’s an unknown chance that Darvish, a free agent this winter, could be back in Texas. He’ll embark on his age 31 season next year, and I do wonder if Texas is the best fit for Darvish anymore. They’ve got a pitching coach that seems to have a pitching ideology in mind, regardless of pitcher’s individual talents, and we’ve seen that clash earlier this season. Couple that with the large financial commitment it’ll come with, and I’d be hesitant to say Darvish sees 1000 Ballpark Way as his home stadium again.
When it comes to value, Martin Perez was more valuable than the eye test told you. Texas paid Perez $4.4 million, getting back 32 starts and 2.1 WAR. For reference, Shelby Miller made about $300,000 more for only four starts and 0.4 WAR. Jason Hammel earned $5 million dollars for the same amount of starts as Perez, but only 1.3 WAR.
All that goes to say that no, Perez isn’t a top of the rotation pitcher, or even the next tier down. Perez is a third or fourth starter that you’re going to pay $6 million in 2017 to make around 30 starts as a left hander at the age of 27. Know how many other teams would like to have a 27 year old lefty starter that’s two wins above replacement at bargain basement prices?
All of them.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Austin Bibens-Dirkx in this section. If you’re just seeing the numbers without context, you’re looking at me with three heads right now. For a 32 year old rookie to make his debut, at one point out-dueling Max Scherzer on the road for his second career win, that’s a great story. Sometimes the numbers don’t have to be right for the story to be good. Great stories are what make baseball special. Austin Bibens-Dirkx is a great story in 2017, and there’s nothing moving me off that position.
What wasn’t good
For all the good of Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross was the counterweight of badness. Only ten starts, a -1.0 WAR, and getting released before the season ended shattered the potential for a second comeback story. Ross never got right, which dealt a big blow to a Texas staff looking to recapture the magic that made Ross a Cy Young contender earlier in his career.
Nick Martinez and A.J. Griffin turned in average years, neither reaching 20 starts during the season and both having ERAs over 5. 33 year old late season acquisition Miguel Gonzalez had a five start tryout, doing nothing to impress while posting a 6.45 ERA. Dillon Gee got a start that you forgot about until just now, and even Alex Claudio started a game this year. Needless to say, it was a strange year at the bottom of the rotation. Not a successful one either, unfortunately.
Am I forgetting someone?
Oh, yeah. There is one other person.
The Cole Hamels Conundrum
As I prepared to write this article, the one player I couldn’t find a place for was Hamels. His season was probably the most complicated of all the starters who suited up for Texas in 2017. So he got his own section, because there’s a lot to dissect here.
The big backdrop for Hamels here is his salary and expectations. At $23.5 million, you expect a top level effort. He’s paid like a frontline pitcher, he carries himself as a frontline pitcher, and the organization has presented him as such. Cole Hamels has the image of an ace, so while expectations are a slippery subject overall it seems fair to expect ace like things from him.
What Texas received was not that.
Hamels missed a couple months with his oblique strain, but still notched 24 starts. In those 24, Hamels posted his highest ERA since 2009 along with his lowest strikeout per nine ever at 6.4. 2017 saw Hamels with his highest fielding independent pitching (FIP) ever at 4.62 and his lowest total innings since he debuted in 2006 when he was a 22 year old rookie. It’s also his lowest WAR total (2.9) since 2009, after a 5.0 WAR campaign last year.
There’s no question this was a down year for Hamels. Every single number reflects that, so calling it anything else is dishonest.
The question becomes is this the new normal for Hamels. 2017 is the only year of evidence we have of a potential Hamels decline, which puts us in an awkward position. On one hand, it’s possible that the injury shot Hamels’ wheels off to the point where he never recovered peak form. On the other, it’s just as possible that Father Time has come to collect on the Rangers’ ace.
There’s no way to know until we have a larger sample. It makes Hamels one of the more fascinating players to watch next year. For the year just completed though, it’s fair to say Hamels did not perform to the level his salary and stature require. You can point to that downturn as one of the reasons Texas did not reach their goals this season.
What comes next
So I talked about the consequences of the multiyear process at the start of the article, and this offseason will see the continued effects of Texas’ starting pitching development failures.
With only Hamels and Perez guaranteed back, Texas now has to find three starters somewhere along with the other holes on the roster. The odds of doing that on the cheap successfully are almost non-existent. The farm is devoid of starters ready to achieve at the big league level. The closest is Yohander Mendez, and right now that’s just not looking good.
So once again Texas will have to spend money, and a lot of it, if they want to put themselves in a place of contention in 2018. The only player we know Texas is going to pursue is Japanese phenom Shohei Otani. Otani wouldn’t cost that much due to the new rules regarding players coming over from Japan, but he’s going to be THE coveted player this offseason across the league. Texas has a good chance to sign him, but it’ll be a fight until the end.
Even if they get Otani, that still leaves two spots to fill. To reasonably compete, you’re going to need another front line starter. That means you’re writing a lot of zeroes on a check for Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, or Jake Arrieta. Of course, there are pitfalls with all three of those players at the price they’ll command. Even next down the line, bringing back Cashner, will probably cost you between $60-80 million.
Or Texas could double down on what caused this problem in the first place. They could go see what Pittsburgh wants for Gerrit Cole, or see if the Braves want to part with Julio Teheran, or any number of situations where you trade young players for established big leaguers. After drafting well the last couple of years, Texas has a lot of quality talent in the lower farm again, even if the AA and up level isn’t sexy.
Even if they go get Otani, somehow corral a big ticket free agent starter, and make a run at this thing the biggest question mark for this club isn’t what they did in 2017 and what they’ll do in 2018. It’s whether or not they can figure out how to avoid this situation again in 2020, 2021, and beyond.
Make no mistake about it, whoever is writing the Rangers starting pitching wrap up article in the future will sing the same familiar song if Texas doesn’t change the process with which they develop their young starting prospects.
Have hot takes on the starting rotation for the Texas Rangers in 2017? Share 'em with Samuel on Twitter @thesamuelhale.