ARLINGTON — Who knew a short season could be so long?
The strangest, saddest and shortest season in MLB history was supposed to be a sprint to an expanded playoff tournament. Against the backdrop of a pandemic, civil unrest and natural disasters, perhaps the best summation of the Rangers’ 2020 season is that it comes to an end Sunday. It will end, as it started, in a brand-new empty stadium.
When the Rangers are moved out of the way, the stadium will play host to three rounds of the MLB postseason, including the World Series. Fans may be allowed for some of that. The Rangers will watch from home.
Fans probably wouldn’t have recognized the Rangers in 2020, anyway. Offense, long the organization’s strength, was nonexistent. The pitching, which was supposed to be a strength, looked all too familiar.
Here’s a look back at the season and what’s ahead:
What went right
Lance Lynn: Forget the four-month shutdown, it didn’t look like Lynn even took an offseason. He picked up exactly where he left off in 2019. He will almost certainly finish in the top three in the AL Cy Young voting and, if not for runaway favorite Shane Bieber, he might be favored to be the first Ranger to ever win the award.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa: After finally deciding the catching experiment was a mistake, the Rangers returned Kiner-Falefa to the infield and he seized the opportunity to play. He showed an improved bat in spring training, which pushed the Rangers to move Todd Frazier to first base and create a full-time role for Kiner-Falefa. Then he simply dazzled defensively and established himself as a potential core clubhouse guy for the team going forward. He may win a Gold Glove at third base this season and has flirted with .300 all year.
Joey Gallo, the defender: Gallo moved to right field full-time with the trade of Nomar Mazara, giving him a chance to really show off his arm. Mookie Betts moved from the Red Sox to the National League. The confluence of events has left Gallo as the gold standard for AL right fielders. He went into the final weekend of the season with the most runs saved of any outfielder in the majors. And he’s taken extreme pride in his defensive work. He should be rewarded with a Gold Glove for his work.
What went wrong
The starting rotation: Going into a new, fairer stadium, the veteran staff was supposed to be the team’s biggest asset. That dream didn’t even last through the first weekend. Corey Kluber walked off the mound after one inning with a shoulder injury. Mike Minor lost velocity and effectiveness. Free agent additions Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles could finish with two of the three worst ERAs in the majors. And none of the planned minor league depth options provided any help at all. Despite having the AL’s second-best pitcher in their rotation, the Rangers will finish with one of the five worst rotation ERAs in baseball. The rotation was supposed to help the Rangers get off to quick starts; they went into the final weekend of the season having allowed more first-inning runs than any team in the majors.
The middle infield: Because of the long-term financial commitments to Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus, a lot of the Rangers’ potential for success hinged on their success. The combined performance this season was nothing short of disastrous. The Rangers ranked last in the majors at WAR at both second base and shortstop this year. It got to the point that management suggested there were no guarantees about playing time for the duo going forward, though Odor seems to remain the regular at second base. It’s not been a single-season issue. Over the last three years, Andrus and Odor both rank in the bottom 20 in WAR in the majors. The positions were an issue in 2019. They were again in 2020.
Joey Gallo, hitter: From the first time Gallo took swings in Globe Life Field, he seemed worried about how big the park played. That it seems to have stuck with him all season may be the best explanation for the big step backwards he has taken at the plate. He entered the last series of the year with the possibility of a batting average below .200, an OBP below .300, a slugging percentage below .400 and an OPS below .700. Maybe the biggest difference is that he didn’t hit as many line drives in 2020. His line-drive rate fell from 25.6 percent to 17.2 percent and his fly ball rate went from 47 percent to 55 percent. All of that would jive with a guy who is trying to lift the ball more to create extra carry. What has happened is his batting average for balls in play has dropped from .368 to .239. He’s apparently had homer brain all season.
What must be answered
Five questions the Rangers must answer this offseason:
Reconsider trading Lance Lynn: They found no attractive offers at the trade deadline, so the Rangers need to either consider a short-term (two- or three-year) extension to make him the leader of the rotation or re-evaluate their demands. There doesn’t seem much point to taking him into 2021 on an expiring contract.
Revisit the future of Rougned Odor/Elvis Andrus: Are they really willing to make one or both of them bench players? If so, there is a whole lot of learning to do since Odor has played second and Andrus short, exclusively. And if the Rangers aren’t willing to sit them and can’t trade them, then are they going right back into the same situation they’ve had the last two years. Either way, it seems the Rangers would be betting against the odds on either converting them or expecting significant changes in performance.
Reconsider the rookies: Due to the extreme circumstances of the season, five players made their debuts after having never played above Class A. Jumping from Class A to the majors is pretty much unheard of for even the best prospects. What gives the Rangers belief that Kyle Cody, John King and Anderson Tejeda could stick in a full season in the majors with fans in the stands, more demanding travel and a 162-game schedule. And what’s more beneficial: A steady climb in the minors or a possible demotion after major league failure.
Find a role for Nick Solak: The Rangers have tried him in center, left and at second base. They believe his offense plays at the big league level, but he’s not been a very good defender at any of the three positions. He began the final weekend of the season with worst Defensive Runs Saved number in the majors. Though they value versatility, should they leave him in one spot to see if he can become an average defender there.
Identify a No. 3 hitter: The Rangers are going to set an MLB record for the lowest OPS from the No. 3 spot in 2020 at less than .450. They used nine different No. 3 hitters this season. This is the one position in the lineup that should be easiest to fill: It’s where you put your best hitter.
Don’t expect any major answers from free agency this winter for several reasons. First, the Rangers more often seem committed to looking inward toward their own players for answers. Second, GM Jon Daniels has already indicated he expects 2021 payroll to be lower than the pre-pandemic projection of between $150-160 million. The Rangers have about $69 million in contracts that will expire after this season. Finally, expect the free agent market to be depressed all around baseball due to a lack of 2020 revenues.
Unless the Rangers are simply content to fill out the roster with players who last played at Class A, they will still have to make some kind of additions. They need an impact bat who can play an outfield spot or first base. They need starting pitching.
Here are five names to keep in mind:
• Joc Pederson, LA Dodgers: His performance is down this year, but, he’s a career .848 OPS guy against right-handed pitching. And coming from the Dodgers, he’d bring both championship credibility and familiarity with Chris Woodward’s philosophy.
• Kike Hernandez, LA Dodgers: Like Pederson, he is 29 and comes from the Dodgers. The differences: He’s more versatile and hits right-handed. He doesn’t offer as much power potential as Pederson, though.
• George Springer, Houston: Looking to make a big splash this winter? This is your guy. He’d give the Rangers the best outfield defense in the majors and an attractive leadoff or No. 3 hitter. He’s right-handed, which would give Rangers some necessary balance in middle of lineup. He’s also likely to command more than $20 million per year, so probably a non-starter for the Rangers.
• Corey Kluber, Rangers: The Rangers won’t exercise his $18.5 million option, but they could negotiate a deal for a significantly lesser base that offers lots of incentives. The question is: Why would Kluber, at 35, be motivated to stay with the Rangers? They don’t have a chance to win in 2021 and he no longer has familial ties to the area.
• Marcus Stroman, NY Mets: Really day-dreaming here, but probably the pitcher with the most upside on the market. If the Rangers are looking to invest in a pitcher who might help the rotation when championships are at stake, Stroman would probably be the most likely. Alas, it seems unlikely the Rangers will bid at the top of the market and it’s likely Stroman will have an array of contenders from which to pick.
Sure it’s a long way until next July but providing MLB doesn’t throw any late changes into the process, the Rangers appear to be set to have one of the top three picks for the first time in more than 30 years. The work starts now.
The Rangers can’t afford any mistakes like the last time they had a top five pick in 2015. They selected pitcher Dillon Tate and almost immediately regretted it, then traded him barely a year later. You can expect the Rangers will spend a lot of time getting to know this group:
• RHP Kumar Rocker, Vanderbilt: The 6-5, 255-pound 2019 College World Series Most Outstanding Player is considered the overwhelming favorite to be the No. 1 pick.
• RHP Jack Leiter, Vanderbilt: Rocker’s rotation mate, the son of former major league starter Al Leiter, was 2-0 with a 1.72 ERA before the 2020 season was canceled.
• SS Jordan Lawlar, Jesuit Prep: Lawlar was the star of the abbreviated summer showcase/tournament circuit and goes into the high school year ranked the No. 2 high school prospect in the country, according to Baseball America. He’s drawn some comparisons to 2019 No. 2 overall pick Bobby Witt, Jr. Lawler is a Vanderbilt commit.
• SS/OF Matt McLain, UCLA: He bypassed Arizona’s $2.6 million bonus offer after the Diamondbacks made him the 25th overall pick in 2018. He struggled as a freshman but excelled in the Cape Cod League and was off to a great start in 2020.
• SS Brady House, Winder-Barrow (Ga.) HS: Considered the best high school prospect in the country, he’s got the ability to be an above-average hitter with huge power. At 6-3, he might be a tic tall for shortstop, so it isn’t clear if he will stay there as a pro. He’s a Tennessee commit.
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