DALLAS — The Texas Rangers spent over $500 million dollars on free agents one offseason ago with the promise of making the 2023 season their target to return to October relevance.
The 2022 season ended up being a rocky road for the Rangers, even though big expenditures Corey Seager and Marcus Semien mostly upheld their end of the bargain in the first year of their mega deals.
Now, with winning in their sights, and with new World Series-vetted manager Bruce Bochy in tow, the Rangers must continue their purchases to buy their way out of rebuilding purgatory.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the areas of need and some players that could be of interest in Texas:
It’s no secret that what the Rangers need most – as has been the case for much of their 50 years in Texas – is a major influx of talent to their starting rotation. Despite the fact that the Rangers were able to put together a decent lineup in 2022 (707 runs scored, 5th in the American League), Texas lost 94 games due in large part to abysmal pitching, especially from the starting rotation.
Starters for the Rangers ranked third worst in the American League with an ERA of 4.63. The 3.60 walks per nine innings rating for Texas was dead last in the AL. This all came despite free agent acquisition Jon Gray performing up to expectations when he was healthy (3.96 ERA, three I.L. stints) as well as a career year out of Martin Perez, who earned his first career All-Star appearance in a return with Texas.
The problem came from everyone beyond Gray and Perez. Texas didn’t see the growth in the rotation from Dane Dunning and Taylor Hearn that they were hoping for. Dunning in particular seemed to tread water when a step forward was expected. Hearn, meanwhile, lost his spot in the rotation but caught on nicely in his return to the bullpen.
Meanwhile, the reinforcements at the top of the minor leagues that were expected to arrive middle-to-late in the season never developed with top prospect Cole Winn having a down season and 2021 No. 2 overall selection Jack Leiter experiencing growing pains in his professional debut season at Frisco.
This all sets the Rangers up for an offseason where they must reshape the rotation into one that can withstand the rigors of the regular season while propelling Texas up the standings.
They have two options. They can use their abundance of talent in a rising farm system to trade for pitching or they can use owner Ray Davis’ wallet once again. Perhaps new general manager Chris Young will opt for a combination of both but for 2023 to be the year that was promised, the rotation must be addressed.
Luckily for the Rangers, the free agent market is pretty stacked with starting pitchers to choose from.
The list starts with Perez. The 32-year-old lefty would like to remain in Texas and the Rangers didn’t make an effort to ship him out at the trade deadline because they want to keep him. The numbers just have to work for both parties. It’s possible that Perez is extended a qualifying offer by Texas and, if so, he could accept the offer and remain in Texas for another season if a long term deal isn’t reached.
Even if the Rangers are able to bring Perez back, they will still be searching for additional help. The biggest fish is perhaps two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom who opted out of his deal with the New York Mets and could be had for an exorbitant sum. The Rangers would love to have him topping their rotation but his age (34) and health concerns (hasn’t pitched above 100 innings since 2019) would give pause when considering the type of contract that he’ll be asking for.
If deGrom is a big fish, Clayton Kershaw represents the white whale for Texas. The Dallas native, but career Los Angeles Dodger, is always a special exception to the payroll for Texas and would be welcomed to play for the hometown team if he were interested in doing so.
Meanwhile, Justin Verlander is another likely future Hall of Famer who is available if the Rangers are looking for a pricey former Cy Young veteran to lead their rotation.
Carlos Rodon (30) is perhaps the top free agent starter from the perspective of age, talent and long term aspirations. Rodon, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, had some rocky seasons with the Chicago White Sox before putting it together in 2021. After signing with San Francisco last winter, Rodon opted out of his deal and is a free agent again this offseason. Fresh off a season where he had a 2.88 ERA and led the league in strikeouts per nine innings, Rodon will be a hot commodity.
Rodon is expected to net a long-term deal that will well exceed $100 million and the Rangers have been linked to him as he enters free agency. If he can stay healthy – something he had trouble doing in his early days in Chicago – Rodon could be the kind of rotation-altering talent that Texas is aiming for.
Chris Bassitt, Nathan Eovaldi, Taijuan Walker, Tyler Anderson, Jameson Taillon, Noah Syndergaard and Sean Manaea are, among others, hurlers who are free agents that could fill in the middle of the rotation for Texas. In addition, 30-year-old pitcher Kodai Senga is an intriguing free agent out of Japan this winter and the Rangers have never shied away from Nippon Professional Baseball talent.
Whereas the starting pitching was an albatross for the Rangers in 2022, the bullpen was more of a hindrance. You can expect to see Texas attempt to bolster their ‘pen ahead of the 2023 season but it would be a surprise if they spent top dollar to do so.
Despite a woeful 15-35 one-run record for the Rangers last season, the bullpen wasn’t as tragic as you might think. With a 3.72 ERA, they ranked middle of the pack in the American League. Overall, Texas got some good performances from Brock Burke in his rookie season, pending free agent Matt Moore, and Hearn after his demotion to the bullpen.
Meanwhile, righties Jose Leclerc and Jonathan Hernandez represented the mid-year cavalry as the two returned from injuries that had kept them both out since the 2020 season.
Joe Barlow, John King and Brett Martin were notable arms in relief for Texas in 2022 and they should provide solid depth to the bullpen next season, but the Rangers do lack a surefire closer and some shutdown arms in the late innings, especially with Moore, a free agent.
If the Rangers cannot bring Moore back to the fold, pitchers such as Taylor Rogers, Chad Green, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel and Zach Eflin are available depending on how much Texas wants to spend on relief.
After many trials and tribulations throughout the year, by the end of the season, the Rangers had a solid outfield trio in place with rookie Bubba Thompson in left field, long-time top prospect Leody Taveras manning center field, and sophomore slump adverse Adolis Garcia in right field.
Heading into the offseason, however, only Garcia appears to be an absolute sure thing to remain at his spot in 2023. The 2022 All-Star proved that he can be a regular for the Rangers with a stellar second season.
While the former first-round pick Thompson held his head above water after his big league debut in his second half, he profiles as more of a fourth outfielder type who can provide late-innings defense while stealing a bag or two on the basepaths. Left field has been a black hole in recent years for the Rangers, so it’s possibly an area they will look to upgrade.
As for center field, Garcia can play there at a high level if the Rangers choose to add a couple of corner outfield bats. Taveras showed enough before fading in the second half that perhaps the Rangers aren’t as likely to put resources into acquiring a center fielder. Nevertheless, the young center fielder Taveras will have to show more with his bat if he wants to retain his grasp on the position.
Should the Rangers opt to upgrade in the outfield, Brandon Nimmo, Andrew Benintendi, Michael Conforto, Michael Brantley and Mitch Haniger are some names to keep an eye on. Perhaps the Rangers could consider a reunion with Joey Gallo or Jurickson Profar, as well.
Of course, the AL home run king-sized elephant in the room is Aaron Judge.
After spending heavily on bats last offseason, it shouldn’t be expected that the Rangers would make a play for Judge but, hey, it didn’t seem possible for them to land two of the top middle infielders last winter either, so you never know.
Which free agents do you think the Rangers should target? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter @BaseballTX.