DALLAS — The Texas Rangers have the players in place that they hope can be molded together to form a roster that will lead the franchise back to the postseason for the first time since winning the American League West in 2016.
To reach that lofty goal, the Rangers will need to make the puzzle pieces fit with several places on the team up for grabs this spring in Surprise, Arizona.
Texas spent heavily over the winter to rebuild the starting pitching rotation but there were other areas to address that the team is still figuring out. Is there a closer that can be trusted in camp? Was enough done to help the outfield? Who takes over in a pinch off the bench? If a brittle starting pitcher goes down, who is next in line?
With Opening Day set for March 31, the Rangers have a little over three weeks to pin down these questions and more. Here’s a look at the spring camp battles:
Left field/fourth outfielder
Aside from the rotation, left field was the most obvious, glaring need for Texas this winter but unlike the quartet of Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney, Jake Odorizzi that was paired with returning Martin Perez and Jon Gray, the outfield wasn’t as thoroughly addressed.
Ten different players suited up in left field for the Rangers in 2022 with Brad Miller’s 81 games leading the way. Josh Smith and Bubba Thompson also saw plenty of action at left field. Overall, that group produced an aggregate 68 wRC+ at the plate, the worst in the league.
Though Texas flirted with signing various outfielders throughout the offseason, they never landed a player that can be comfortably inked in the lineup every day. To make matters a little more tricky, presumed starting center fielder Leody Taveras suffered a mild oblique strain that puts the season opener in jeopardy for the young outfielder, which could mean even more shuffling at an already shaky spot.
The Rangers eventually added Robbie Grossman late before camp opened and he is expected to at least get at-bats against left-handed pitching. Miller could be his platoon mate who gets the bulk of the at-bats against righties with Smith and Thompson once again vying for playing time.
Outfielders Clint Frazier, Elier Hernandez, and Travis Jankowski are in camp as non-roster invitees with prospects Ezequiel Duran, Dustin Harris, and Evan Carter still getting looks. With left field unresolved, and with Taveras’ injury looming, the Rangers will have their work cut out for them to patch things together in the outfield.
The bullpen – and especially a veteran, established closer – was another area that many expected to see the Rangers enhance this winter but that addition didn’t come before camp. Instead, Texas actually lost one of their better bullpen arms when lefty Matt Moore signed with the division rival Los Angeles Angels.
After seeing Moore depart, and with no veteran closer on the roster, the Rangers did eventually bring in former closer Will Smith on a major league deal. The left-handed Smith could be the answer at closer for Texas but he might instead be asked to step into Moore’s shoes as a late-innings lefty.
The pitcher most likely to get the first crack at the closer job is RHP Jose Leclerc, who ended the 2022 season as the closer. However, Leclerc has been dealing with a stiff neck during camp, so there are other pitchers who could leapfrog Leclerc for final frame duties.
RHP Brock Burke was a standout in his first season in the bullpen for Texas last season and his role could be enhanced. In addition, RHP Jonathan Hernandez returned from injury last season and showed that he is capable of getting important outs late in games.
Others who could win the role include Ian Kennedy and Joe Barlow, each of whom has been the closer for the Rangers before. A dark horse candidate might be veteran lefty Danny Duffy, who was brought in on a non-roster deal.
Bench utility player
The swiss army knife off the bench role had seemingly been locked down by infielder Mark Mathias after he had enjoyed a positive audition late last season after coming over from the Milwaukee Brewers in the trade deadline deal that shipped out Matt Bush.
However, with spots on the 40-man roster tight, the Rangers elected to drop Mathias when they added reliever Smith last week. With Mathias designated for assignment, Texas must explore trading the 28-year-old or risk losing him to a waiver claim.
If Mathias doesn’t return, the Rangers have options with caveats. Both prospects Josh Smith and Duran have shown position flexibility, with Smith playing in the infield and outfield for Texas last season, while Duran played in the infield while experimenting with time in the outfield in the minors.
As a shortstop by trade who can play almost anywhere on the diamond, Smith likely has a leg up for the job, but the Rangers also risk stunting the development of their young players if they have them on the big league roster as situational performers, which is why Mathias appeared perfect for the job.
Sixth starter/Long relief
The Rangers know that their high risk, high reward rotation won’t get through the entire season intact at all times. Therefore, it was imperative for them to build a solid foundation of depth for when the need arises.
It’s possible that the next man up for the rotation will caddy in the bullpen as a mop up man before needing to step in for spot starts and that job could belong to RHP Jake Odorizzi, whom Texas acquired in a trade with the Atlanta Braves over the winter.
However, Odorizzi has yet to make an appearance in Surprise as he got off to a slow start ramping up his arm this spring. If he’s unable to get ready quick enough, it could open up an opportunity for righties Glenn Otto or Dane Dunning to make the team.
In addition, former first-round pick Cole Ragans has had an eye-opening spring with increased velocity on his pitches. The lefty made his debut for Texas last season but might have gained an extra gear as a potential bullpen arm.
Who do you think should win the jobs for the Rangers? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter @BaseballTX.