It’s been a tough few years for Texas Rangers fans. Unfortunately, we’re not all like my two year-old who discovered Rangers baseball and Globe Life Park in 2018 and just enjoyed it for the brand-new aspect of it. For all of us who have been on a journey with this franchise over the years, the fall from immense optimism entering the 2016 postseason to the apathy and cynicism that has fallen over most fans has not been fun to experience.
The team’s last two seasons have been puzzling and only since last July’s trade deadline has the team’s direction been even somewhat clear. Now fully committed to a rebuild based around developing pitching, at least we know where we’re trying to go. How long will this take? When the 2019 regular season kicks off in March, this team will have very low expectations but will have a chance to have a major sway in the future of this franchise. There are many, many things to figure out this year. Here are four of the most pressing questions in my Rangers mind:
Is the catcher of the future currently in their system?
After the failed Jonathan Lucroy experiment of July 2017 through July 2018, the team was left without a long-term solution at catcher. Robinson Chirinos’ bat was definitely valuable, but his glove wasn’t quite what the team was looking for and now we’ll have to deal with seeing him in a Houston Astros jersey. Great.
In the meantime, the Rangers are trying to develop utility infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa into a catcher on the fly. The 23 year-old Hawaii native logged his most games at third base (46) in 2018 while Adrian Beltre struggled with hamstring issues in the first half of 2018, but the Rangers gave Kiner-Falefa 35 starts behind the plate as the season wore on. The results were mixed, but not anything that would make you think there’s no chance that Kiner-Falefa couldn’t eventually be a quality backstop.
This winter, the team added veteran Jeff Mathis on a multi-year deal to perhaps mentor “IKF” and even some of the young pitchers on the Rangers roster. While he’ll undoubtedly get a lot of run behind the plate, there’s no doubt that- barring injury- Kiner-Falefa will get the opportunity to take the starting catching job and run with it in 2019.
What if this doesn’t work? Jose Trevino had a fun moment with the big league club in 2018 before an injury ultimately ended his season. In the minors, one site listed the soon-to-be 21 year-old Samuel Huff as the top catching prospect in the Texas system. He hasn’t played a game above the single A level, so I wouldn’t bet on him being a factor in Arlington over the next year or two.
Is Joey Gallo going to be someone you build a successful lineup around?
We’d all love for the answer to this question to be a resounding: YES!
40 home run power is pretty awesome. It’s marketable. Gallo still just being 25 years old is great too. However, 2019 is going to be Gallo’s third full season at the major league level. While he improved in some ways last season, his strikeout numbers were still too high and he still isn’t drawing enough walks. While being in the same lineup with 23 year-old Nomar Mazara, the Rangers are pinning a lot of their offense on two young hitters who still seem to have another level they need to reach in order to be true stars.
While we’re all fine with giving Gallo another opportunity to take a step forward in 2019, the expectations for the walks being up, him holding teams accountable for using the shift against him and limiting his strikeouts in whatever way possible will all be things to watch for in a vital season for his long-term outlook.
Are there pitching prospects ready to make valuable contributions at the Major League level this year or next?
News broke Wednesday afternoon that the Rangers added another name to their “Let’s See if This Works” starting rotation for 2019 as Shelby Miller was signed to a one year, $2 million deal. As currently constructed, the Rangers 2019 rotation could look something like Mike Minor, Drew Smyly, Shelby Miller, Edinson Volquez and Lance Lynn. While only Minor and Lynn had healthy 2018 seasons, all of this quintet of starting pitchers have experienced high levels of success at various points in their careers. The likelihood of all of them all regaining that form in 2019 in a Rangers uniform?
Slim to none.
At the very least, those arms will need to hold down the fort for a slew of pitching prospects that simply aren’t close to being ready for pitching at the major league level. Of the top ten Rangers prospects list from Baseball Prospectus, spots five through ten are occupied by starting pitchers. However, none of them have played past the AA level. DFW native and #5 ranked prospect Taylor Hearn is currently expected to have a chance to begin the season at AAA, but others like #6 Cole Winn were just selected in last year’s draft and are yet to pitch in the minors.
Will any minor league pitchers be ready to get to, and stay in, the majors in 2019? It seems unlikely to happen until at least August or September, but if some do get to Arlington and have success, it could have a major impact on the answer to the next question.
Is the window for contending opening soon or much further away than we care to admit?
With the new Globe Life Field opening in just over a year, most fans would like to think that the team will be ready to be back in playoff contention right in time for a sparkly new stadium to open. While that’d be nice, it doesn’t seem likely for that to be the case right now. There are more holes on the Rangers roster than can be filled by the ownership finally opening up their checkbooks over one offseason.
The expectations for this 2019 squad are currently lower than any Rangers team since the early 2000s. Vegas currently has their over/under for wins at 70.5, “Overachieving” on a win total like that shouldn’t be the most groundbreaking accomplishment for this team. Maybe if this team is able to hover around .500 thanks to some of their starting pitching fliers working out and their lineup taking some positive steps forward under a new, refreshing coaching staff, things will begin to look up. If the team shows some promise, the owners are willing to spend next winter and the front office is able to pitch the new stadium effectively, maybe this team could be a major threat in free agency and upgrade some of the spots needed to get them back to contending for a division title.
With pitchers and catchers reporting to Surprise, Arizona in just over a month, it’s finally time to get your popcorn ready for baseball again. While it will be easy to just dismiss 2019 as another rebuilding year filled with losses for the Rangers, there is a major opportunity in front of new manager Chris Woodward and his team to speed up the franchise’s trek back to relevance.
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