Yesterday, my colleague over at Crawfish Boxes, David Coleman, posted his “Three Astros Things.”
One of the Astros things was actually a Rangers thing:
They lost out on Zach [sic] Greinke. They lost out on James Shields. What’s left for the Rangers?
Well, it appears our enemies to the north will try to load up on every other player they can. There’s talk that they may re-sign Josh Hamilton. There’s talk they may push through the Justin Upton trade. They may go after Michael Bourn, Anibal Sanchez, or any number of other players.
But, what if they don’t get anything? How much will the Rangers be hurt if they stand pat? It almost seems like they may be better off not making these moves. They need to replace Josh Hamilton’s offense, but adding Mike Olt may replace some of that offense, right?
Plus, they’d lose draft picks if they have to sign too many big-ticket free agents, which hurts the team down the road. In an Upton trade, they also would have to give up either Andrus or Profar.
I guess the question is are the Rangers good enough to contend without making a splashy move or can they still win the AL West with the team they have now?
My response will be longer than I’d feel comfortable posting in their comments section, so allow me to devote my own article to answering his article.
The usual caveats apply here – since I’ll be spending a lot of energy talking about WAR. WAR is a nice tool, but it’s not the only tool, and it’s certainly not the best predictive tool. But it does put us in the ballpark of a player’s value, so I’ll be using it as a catch-all throughout this article.
I think that, to answer this question, you first have to answer three other questions. Namely:
1. Were the 2012 Oakland Athletics a fluke?
It’s impossible to talk about the Rangers winning or losing the AL West without considering the team that did win the AL West in 2012, the Oakland Athletics. The Athletics seemed to overcome all odds in winning their division, despite having the second-lowest Opening Day payroll in all of baseball. They were built on youth without long major league track records: Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, Chris Carter, Derek Norris, and Collin Cowgill were all rookie position players who were worth more than replacement value. Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, A.J. Griffin, Travis Blackley, Evan Scribner, and Jordan Norberto were all rookie pitchers who did the same.
Pythagoras only put the 2012 Athletics two wins behind their actual performance. Then again, the Rangers only finished one game behind the Athletics in 2012, so I think it’s safe to call that a toss-up. For all intents and purposes, the Rangers and Athletics were equally good in 2012. You could point at any of a number of reasons why the A’s may have a sophomore slump in 2013, or why an additional year of playing together – with postseason experience – could make them play even better. Obviously, it could go either way. But there’s no compelling reason, at this time, to assume that Oakland won’t be in the mix in September and October 2013.
One problem with a young team is trying to define regression to the mean, since they are currently in the process of establishing the mean. As a result, I have no reason to think that the 2013 Athletics will be significantly worse than the 2012 Athletics.
Additionally, the Angels and Mariners could easily improve next season, putting added pressure on Texas to make a move. Or so it would seem.
2. What have the Rangers lost since 2012, and can they replace it?
Since the end of the 2012 season, Texas has lost 11 players with relevant (read: within the last three seasons) Major League experience, and they’ve gained 11 players with relevant Major League experience.
Using a 5/3/2 regression on incoming players, and 2012 rates for outgoing players:
Between Feldman, Napoli, Hamilton, Dempster, and Adams, the Rangers have lost a significant amount to Free Agency this winter. The Geovany Soto “gain” is actually a wash, as Soto was also on the roster in 2012. All told, the Rangers have lost approximately 12 wins from 2012. Prospects, such as Mike Olt, Jurickson Profar, and Leonys Martin, might make up some of the difference, but it’s unlikely they’ll make up all of it. Sure, Mike Trout had 10.0 WAR in his second rookie season of 2012, but counting on 13 wins from a trio of rookies isn’t the best idea in the world.
I would pencil the trio in for somewhere between 4-8 WAR in 2013. We’ll split the difference and call it 6.0. That leaves the Rangers with a 7-win differential from 2012, and an 8-win differential from the 2012 Athletics.
3. What, exactly, constitutes a “flashy signing”?
8 wins is a lot. 8 wins is Buster Posey. Heck, James Shields and Zack Greinke combined would be just over 9 wins. Re-signing Josh Hamilton would eliminate the loss of just 4 wins, and it seems to me that re-signing Hamilton might be a losing proposition. Not only did the Rangers make it clear that Greinke was Option 1 over Hamilton, but they also seem to have downplayed his contributions to an extreme. If I was Josh Hamilton (and let’s make it very clear here that I am not Josh Hamilton), I would look for a payday elsewhere.
But what’s interesting is that re-signing Ryan Dempster would bring the Rangers almost as close as re-signing Hamilton would. Of course, if Dempster’s agent is to be believed, Dempster would rather go to an NL team with Spring Training in Arizona (that’s the Diamondbacks, Cubs, Reds, Rockies, Dodgers, Brewers, Padres, and Giants, incidentally).
Dempster might not be as flashy as Hamilton, but he brings you almost as close to making up the win-differential from 2012 to 2013. After that, it’s a matter of “finding” around 5 wins. Now we’re in Michael Bourn/Justin Upton territory. But, heck, now we’re in Jimmy Rollins territory, too. Or Miguel Montero territory. It’s a lot easier to find 5 wins than it is to try and land one big free agent who can bridge the gap by themselves.
In short, I think a couple of non-flashy signings might benefit the Rangers at least as much as a big signing would. Anibal Sanchez has never been worth as many as 4.5 wins. Michael Bourn is coming off a personal-best 6.4, but he has a skillset that deteriorates with age.
I think a flashy signing might look nice to the fans in Arlington, but I have no reason to think that it’s the best thing the Rangers could do to stay competitive. They’d almost be better off letting the prospects play and trying to catch lightning in a bottle the way Oakland did in 2012.
Of course, there’s a reason why Oakland is Oakland, and why Texas is Texas. And I’d certainly never say that a team who has appeared in back-to-back World Series recently has any sort of a flawed method. But I do have to think that rushing out and signing a free agent just to sign a free agent isn’t the best thing the Rangers could do for themselves right now.
By November 30th of this year, teams will have to determine whether or not to tender a contract offer to their arbitration-eligible players. If they do not offer a contract, the players become free agents.
Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors.com has compiled an excellent list of possible non-tender candidates. Of course, these are just his guesses, so there’s nothing official about this list, but it’s an interesting place to look for possible Astros pickups.
I’ve identified six guys from this list who might be reasonable targets for the Astros to fill immediate needs, should they be non-tendered, plus three others who address less-significant needs.
1. Daric Barton – In parts of six seasons, Barton has put together a slash line of 240/364/370. He’s not a prototypical slugging first baseman – he’s hit just 27 home runs in 1,901 plate appearances – but he doesn’t strike out a lot (16.6% career, though he spiked at 23.5% in 2012), and he makes contact. Barton looked great in 2010 – he had 10 home runs, had a walk rate of 16.0%, a .131 ISO, .360 wOBA, 126 wRC+, and 5.0 fWAR – all career highs. Since then, his power numbers have plummeted as his strikeout rate has spiked (from 1.08 BB/K in 2010 to 0.69 in 2012. ) His slash line in 2010: 273/393/405. In 2012: 204/338/292. If he can regain any of his pre-2011 form at the plate, he’d make a nice addition to the lineup.
2. George Kottaras – Kottaras is sort of a mystery to me. This is a guy who’s never really been able to receive a lot of playing time – edged out by Derek Norris in Oakland during their march to the postseason in 2012, for example. But he’s also a guy with a .205 ISO last year, .207 in 2011. He also topped .330 wOBA in each of those years. The Astros, in their search for a backup to Jason Castro, might be well-served to kick the tires on Kottaras. He’s never had negative fWAR, despite not exactly being a defensive stalwart. He’s got a career slugging percentage of .412, and he gets on base at a .320 clip. Bill James’ projections for 2013 – optimistic even by BIS standards – are 240/345/435 with 357 plate appearances (considering he’s never topped 250 in a season, that’s a bit puzzling, obviously.) But Kottaras is certainly a guy who could back up Castro, maybe even play some DH, and provide a left-handed bat with some pop off the bench. Well worth a look.
3. Casey McGehee – McGehee has worked his way through half of the NL Central – since 2008, he’s played for the Cubs, Brewers, and Pirates, as well as 59 plate appearances for the Yankees in 2012. In his first full season in Milwaukee (2010), he had 23 home runs and 104 RBI in 670 plate appearances. He’s a guy who’s never walked much (7.7% over his career), but has a reasonable strikeout rate of 17.2% in that time. He plays both corner infield positions, and even has 180.2 innings at 2B in his major league career, though his defense isn’t exactly his strength. He puts up good power numbers (career .414 SLG), and could be a candidate for a DH who can spell the starters at first or third.
4. Mark Reynolds – Everyone knows the score with Reynolds. He’s a guy who puts up prodigious power numbers (.240 career ISO), and prodigious strikeout numbers – only 5 times in Major League history has a player struck out 200 or more times in a season. Reynolds has done it three of those 5 times (2008-10). Still, even in a year where he’s considered a non-tender candidate, Reynolds put up an a decent .335 wOBA. In fact, he cut his strikeout rate to a career-low 29.6%. And though he clubbed “just” 23 home runs, do bear in mind that that’s still more than any Astro was able to hit. You have to expect Reynolds to hit in the 230 range next year, with 30+ home runs. Certainly a solid choice for DH.
5. Gaby Sanchez – Sanchez had 19 home runs in both 2010 and 2011, with a career slash line of 269/346/440, but struggled to a 202/250/306 line in 196 plate appearances with Miami in 2012. The Marlins optioned him to the minors in early July and traded him to the Pirates on July 31. He fared much better in Pittsburgh, going 241/323/397 in 130 plate appearances. If Dierkes is correct and Sanchez is in fact non-tendered, I’d be both surprised and delighted, as I happen to think he’s a no-brainer for the Astros. Prior to 2012, Sanchez hadn’t posted a wOBA lower than .342 (though it’s interesting to note that it has become progressively lower in every single season of his career). He plays a decent first base, but could just as easily slot in as a DH.
6. Andres Torres – Torres is a guy who’s seen great heights and great depths. He bounced back and forth between the majors and minors in the Detroit and Texas systems before landing in San Francisco in 2009. In that season, he put together a .374 wOBA season, going 270/343/533 in 170 plate appearances. The following season, he flashed a great glove and swung an equally-great bat, compiling 6.9 fWAR. From there, it’s been largely downhill. 2011 and 2012 were struggles for Torres, even as his strikeout rate has fallen and his walk rate has increased. His ISO fell to .107, his wOBA to .297. He still managed to put up 1.7 fWAR for the Mets in 2012, partially due to his plus defense and baserunning (13 SB), but he still failed to light the world on fire. If the Mets do end up non-tendering him (which I’m not so sure they will,) he’d be an interesting guy to take a look at – he plays all three outfield positions, shows power, steals bases, and hits from both sides of the plate.
And now, for something completely different…
7. Jesus Flores – Somewhere near the bottom of Jeff Luhnow’s offseason shopping list is finding a backup for Jason Castro. There are a few ideas on how this could be done – signing a top-line free agent like Mike Napoli is one way in which it could be done. Signing someone like George Kotteras (above) is another. A third would be to take a look at a guy like Jesus Flores. Flores presents an interesting case because there’s nothing spectacular about him. His career 241/289/375 line describes him pretty well – a guy who’s competent at baseball, but who doesn’t do anything beyond the ordinary. His fielding is reasonable, but not stellar. He’s just 28 years old and he’s served as more-or-less a backup in Washington for the last 6 seasons. In short, he won’t put any pressure on Castro, but would serve as a competent backup. He might not aid much in the growing-up process, like a Rod Barajas type might, but he’s also not completely lost at the plate, on the chance that Castro ends up missing part of the season due to injury.
8. Ben Francisco – If it doesn’t seem that long ago since Ben Francisco was a Houston Astro, that’s because it’s not. After receiving Francisco as part of the ten-player A.J. Happ trade with the Blue Jays, he played just 31 games with Houston before they flipped him to the Tampa Bay Rays for a player to be named later (any minute now). Well, what if Francisco ended up back at Houston at the same time as the PTBNL in his own trade? How incredible and amazing and awful and insane would that be!? The answer, of course, is “very.” Still, I like Francisco’s profile. He plays both corner outfield spots, and every year until 2011, he posted a wOBA over .330. It’s been falling ever since, but I still can’t help wondering if he might make a valuable bench piece.
9. Brendan Ryan – I can hear you all right now. “But… Brendan Ryan is a shortstop! If the Astros don’t need anything, it’s a shortstop!” Hear me out on this. Jed Lowrie, easily the centerpiece of the Houston Astros offense, plays shortstop. He’s actually better at third base, but for now he plays shortstop. With me so far? Okay, good. Now. Jed Lowrie has never put together more than 387 plate appearances in a single season. Why not, you ask? Well, because Jed Lowrie has a tendency to get injured, often in freakish and unfortunate ways. Now imagine, if you will, a scenario in which the very best offensive player on the team (Lowrie) was put in a position (designated hitter) where he would be less-susceptible to freakish and unfortunate injuries. The truth is, Lowrie is not a particularly good defender. He’s got a 1.7 UZR/150 at shortstop; 6.4 at second base; 5.5 at third base. Brendan Ryan, on the other hand, has a 12.2 UZR/150 as a shortstop. He’s not going to blow anyone away offensively. He has a career 244/306/327 line, and went just 194/277/278 in Seattle in 2012. In addition to that, he just had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow, which is particularly unfortunate because that is the elbow with which he happens to throw a baseball. But seeing his name on the non-tender list got my head a-spinning… imagine putting our best offensive player at DH, eliminating his propensity toward freakish injuries, and taking his defensive liabilities off the field at the same time? You have to admit, it’s not the worst idea I’ve ever had.
By claiming Jake Elmore off waivers from the Diamondbacks, the Astros front office added an intriguing piece to the mix for the 2013 version of the infield. Essentially a middle infielder, he’s also spent time at the corners. He’s shown some pop in the minors, though it didn’t translate in his brief stint in the majors in 2012.
If the season were to begin today, the Astros’ infield would probably project as Brett Wallace at first and Jose Altuve at second, with Jed Lowrie probably manning shortstop while Matt Dominguez handles third. Tyler Greene could also handle shortstop, moving Lowrie to third.
Marwin Gonzalez, Elmore, Scott Moore, and Brandon Laird would duke it out for the utility jobs.
Gonzalez has the ability to play almost any position on the field, but a .093 ISO and just a 66 wRC+ isn’t going to help him make much of a case to play in the big leagues.
Wallace remains the only actual option at first base to begin the season, but Mike Hessman did have a good year in Oklahoma City (.813 OPS despite .244 BABIP), aided by a nice hefty slugging percentage (35 HR, .281 ISO, .512 SLG). I can’t imagine he’d be anything but a stopgap in case Wallace gets hurt, however.
Wallace needs to produce now, because Jonathan Singleton is coming. The 21-year-old lefty was blocked by Ryan Howard in Philadelphia before coming to Houston in the Hunter Pence trade, but Wallace is no Ryan Howard. Singleton hit 284/396/497 in Corpus Christi this year, and figures to be knocking on the door by the end of 2013. If Wallace doesn’t produce, expect Singleton to make his case.
With the need for a Designated Hitter, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a free agent first baseman come into camp to challenge Wallace, with the booby prize being the DH spot. A lot of guys fit the profile, not least of them being Lance Berkman and Adam LaRoche. Mike Napoli, mentioned in the Catcher segment, can also play first base.
A prospect to keep your eye on is Jean Batista. The 20-year-old switch-hitter out of the Dominican Republic hit 321/345/531 in 51 games for Greeneville this year, earning a call-up to Lexington. I expect he’ll start the season in Lancaster, where his power numbers should be off the charts. He’s played all over the field already, too, which is a good sign.
There’s no question Altuve is a lock at second. There’s really no one he needs to worry about for the 2013 season.
The upside at second is that former first-rounder Delino DeShields, Jr. is progressing nicely. He repeated a level, and is still learning to play middle infield, but he went a solid 298/401/436 in Lexington, and spent some time in Lancaster, as well.
Lowrie is the best offensive player on the Astros. There are only two questions: 1) Will he play shortstop or third base? and 2) How long will he stay healthy? Lowrie has shown an exceptionally-frustrating inability to stay on the field, but he did manage to post a 2.1 WAR in 2012, while playing a career-high 97 games.
Personally, I think he projects at shortstop, with Dominguez at third, so I’m keeping him here in my projections.
Greene filled in admirably for Lowrie after being traded from the Cardinals. Though his 246/278/460 line in Houston might make him attractive to another team looking for middle infield help, it makes more sense to me to keep him as a utility man, especially given Lowrie’s propensity for injuries.
Also hanging around is Jonathan Villar, a piece of the Roy Oswalt trade. The 21-year-old went 260/336/394 while repeating AA ball. Nothing to write home about, but time is still on his side.
Other guys I like are former first-rounder Jiovanni Mier and Nolan Fontana. Mier repeated Lancaster last season, going 292/396/409. We’ll see how he does in Corpus Christi this year, but it’s at least encouraging.
Fontana, the 2012 2nd rounder out of the University of Florida, will likely take Mier’s place in Lancaster after going 225/464/338 at Lexington. Yes, you read that line correctly. He had nearly twice as many walks (65) as hits (34). Intriguing, to say the least.
I think Dominguez projects as the starting third baseman in 2013; his 111 OPS+ and 0.5 WAR in 31 games in 2012 is too enticing to pass up.
Outside of Lowrie, no other Major League-ready third basemen pass the “sniff test,” though Scott Moore tore the cover off the ball in AAA, and put up some decent numbers in the big leagues, which may shorten the leash. But Moore is already 28 years old and Dominguez, a former first round pick by the Marlins acquired in the Carlos Lee trade, has a ton of upside. I can’t imagine he won’t be given the chance to fail.
One prospect to keep your eye on is Matt Duffy. At 23, he was too old to be playing in Lexington, but his 280/387/447 line there is impressive nonetheless. A 20th rounder in the 2011 draft out of the University of Tennessee, his 16 home runs tied him for 8th in the Sally League. He may start in Lancaster or maybe even Corpus Christi this season, and cutting down his errors is going to be paramount. But he should be interesting to watch.
Darwin Rivera and Rio Ruiz are others to keep your eyes on.
1B: Brett Wallace
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie
3B: Matt Dominguez
Bench: Tyler Greene, Jake Elmore
The Astros are going to be rumored to be in on a lot of reclamation projects – for instance, a report surfaced this week that they had discussed the possibility of adding Hideki Matsui to be the DH. This probably isn’t the last such rumor we’ll hear – guys like Berkman, Jason Giambi, Lyle Overbay, Andruw Jones, Eric Hinske, and Aubrey Huff figure to have their tires kicked to come in as veteran presences and to help swing the bat and anchor the lineup.
More likely, in my opinion, is seeing a couple of minor league signings or non-roster invites to Spring Training. Don’t be surprised if you see guys like Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett, or Cesar Izturis lurking around the compound in March, trying to catch on. In fact, there’s a possibility one of these guys could catch on, holding down shortstop and letting Lowrie DH, where he’s less likely to get injured.