Texas’ Skinny Rebuild Isn’t Working Outon September 11, 2020 at 5:45 pm

Texas’ Skinny Rebuild Isn’t Working Out

Not all rebuilds are the same. One approach, taken by teams such as the Houston Astros or Chicago Cubs, is a complete dynamiting of the creaky foundation, accumulating talent over a period of usually several years. Another approach is to take the less invasive route, keeping the best part of the team’s core mostly intact while also adding talent and hopefully returning to relevance more quickly than a team in a full teardown might. There are other approaches (trade for a bunch of veterans, stand around and do nothing, etc), but these are arguably the most popular and successful methods. For the past few years, Texas has mostly taken the second approach, entering a clear rebuilding phase but keeping the players they see as main contributors in the future. Unfortunately for the Rangers, 2020 represents a serious setback to these goals, and I’m increasingly unsure this strategy is viable for the team.

I’ve been referring to the Rangers as undergoing a “skinny rebuild” for some time. I don’t think I coined the term, but the idea is simple: retain your key contributors, seek some value in free agent signings, and look for a major addition if the opportunity arises. Teams rarely bluntly present the master plan with the vigor and certainty of a Bond villain, but I think it’s clear the Rangers, knowing that they were moving into a new park, were hopeful about returning to competitiveness in 2019 or 2020 in this manner (or at least close enough that they could patch the remaining gaps with their healthy revenue stream). You could see a bit of this when they signed three-year deals with Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson before the 2019 and 2020 seasons, respectively.

I don’t think this plan was ill-conceived, and in fact last year it looked like it just might work out. The pitchers the Rangers added more than met the expectations of the franchise, Joey Gallo was in his prime, and the team hadn’t publicly backed off the idea of splashing some major cash when the time was right.

In 2020, the veteran starters have continued to hold up their part of the bargain (except for Gibson), but the offense has been a nearly unmitigated disaster. I spent much of the Rangers’ 2020 ZiPS projection piece talking about how seriously flawed the offense was, but it’s been even worse than I imagined. Only a single player on the roster who has cleared the 50 plate appearance threshold has an wRC+ above 100 and it’s not even Gallo, but instead the team’s versatile catcher-infield supersub, Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Rougned Odor has a 9 wRC+ — there are no missing digits — and that’s still better than Willie Calhoun‘s mark of 2. The team’s wRC+ of 64 sits at the bottom of baseball and the offense stands at -2.4 WAR, an impressive figure given that even the woeful 2019 Tigers needed four times the plate appearances to get down to -2.6 WAR:

The Rangers would rank as the worst team in baseball history by wRC+ in this short season, and even by WAR, a cumulative statistic, Texas is an unfortunate 11th. There’s a strong argument to be made that via regression toward the mean, the Rangers would recover somewhat if there was three-quarters of a season remaining like in a typical year. I asked ZiPS to project the Rangers with the assumption that 162 games are played, and Texas still ended up with a 76 wRC+ and -2.9 WAR (the latter is the seventh-worst since 1901).

As for the key contributors, they’ve generally been so far below expectations that it has had a real impact on their long-term projections. Yes, Gallo’s likely a far better hitter than his .182/.321/.394 line in 2020, but it is more likely that he’s actually worse than his 128 wRC+ preseason ZiPS projection than better:

ZiPS projects something of a return for Gallo in 2021, but the ceiling keeps dropping; in the projected number of at-bats, his 90th-percentile WAR projection dips to 3.4, down from 4.0 this preseason. In any case, it’s not the projection you want from the guy you hope is your team’s franchise player. Meanwhile, the outlook for both Odor and Calhoun has gotten significantly worse, to a much more alarming degree than Gallo’s:

Odor’s performance in 2020 hasn’t gone unnoticed, and it’s been enough that the Rangers have shown signs that they’re more interested in seeing what seeing what Andy Ibanez can do; Nick Solak, who frequently manned second while Odor was out with an eye infection, is also a better option at this point. Similarly, Anderson Tejeda has taken most of the shortstop job from long-time incumbent Elvis Andrus.

But for those hoping that a full rebuild will yield quick results, think again. While it’s more than possible that ZiPS is wrong, it can’t be overlooked that entering the season, the system projected the Rangers to end up with the least value from rounds one-to-five of the 2015-19 drafts of any team in baseball, with their picks combining for a total of 16.6 WAR. The player in the system ZiPS liked the most entering the year, Sherten Apostel, still projects as not-quite league-average at his best. Leody Taveras is playing in the majors right now, but the projections only peg him as having a 70-80 wRC+ in his prime. He may play enough defense to be a contributor, but it’s unlikely he — or Tejeda, Josh Jung, or Cole Winn — represent the savior this lineup needs.

Trading players like Gallo and Lynn is unlikely to be popular with the fanbase, but given the team’s setbacks, it’s increasingly difficult to see another way out. Texas didn’t move Lynn or Gallo at the deadline, but that was less the result of an unwillingness to make trades and more because of dissatisfaction with the offers they received:

“We were open to moving the guys we did and we were open to move the guys we didn’t. But we weren’t going to force it. It had to be for an equitable deal. I think some of it is the current climate with teams … it’s really hard to acquire young talent. The market’s really challenging there. There’s not as much of a push to win now. Teams are more willing to hold their prospects and take their chances without going and getting that winning piece.

In the same interview linked above, general manager Jon Daniels expressed that the team will operate at a lower payroll in 2021, an indication that Texas does not see fixing the team’s problems through large sums of money as the solution.

Based on the players under contract, which include all of the prospects named above, ZiPS sees the Rangers as the third-worst team in the American League in 2021 and 2022. Cutting payroll indicates that free agency won’t remedy this situation. And if Gallo and Lynn are traded in the offseason, any players acquired are more likely to be contributors further down the road.

The downside of the teardown mode of rebuilding is a well-known one: you risk alienating your fans long-term, and if the players don’t develop, you may have detonated your core for nothing. The Texas Rangers are demonstrating the downside of the more cautious mode of rebuilding, failing to construct a team that’s not good now or later, and ending up having to start over from scratch. Batten down the hatches Rangers fans, because plotting the course to contention is going to be much harder than initially thought.

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