One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.
A few days ago, general manager Jon Daniels announced that the Rangers were going to pick up the club option on Colby Lewis for 2012. The decision was a no-brainer. For a solid mid-rotation starter like Lewis, a club option of $3.5 million is a bargain in today’s market.
Predictably, Daniels was asked about the future of the Rangers organization. With wounds still fresh from the heartbreaking loss in the recent World Series, the mood became somber but the overall message was optimistic. Daniels stressed that the franchise is committed to winning and that its “team process and philosophy” has proven successful. As far as the ownership is concerned; nothing is going to change and the team will stay focused on keeping its course to winning for next season and into the future.
That process has certainly paid off well, The Rangers have reached the World Series the past two seasons and are a favorite to contend next season. This success has brought the team some financial flexibility which grants the Rangers the luxury to become major players in the free agency market.
The Rangers’ offseason mantra: depth and versatility
In same press conference announcing Lewis’ signing, Daniels stressed that the key focus will be depth and versatility as he and his staff go assemble the 2012 team.
However, keeping the current team together will be expensive.
According to fWAR (FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement), the Rangers had a team total of 60.6 which was best among major league teams last season. Even more impressive was the fact it was assembled on a budget of $92 million, a payroll close to the league average of $95 million.
Of course with all that quality comes a price. This offseason the team faces a high number of players qualifying for arbitration—nine. Many of these players will be necessary if the team expects to continue forward in 2012.
The Rangers are likely to retain the services of many arbitration-eligible players such as Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Mike Adams and Mike Napoli. But some of these cases could become contentious: Napoli, Andrus and Harrison are expected to qualify for some hefty raises that should see their salaries nearly double and even quadruple.
|Name||Pos||Class||2011 Salary||2012 Salary Proj.|
|Mike Napoli||C 1B||Arb 4||$5.8 M||$9.2 M|
|Nelson Cruz||RF||Arb 2||$3.6 M||$5.7 M|
|Mike Adams||RP||Arb 3||$2.5 M||$4.5 M|
|David Murphy||UT OF||Arb 2||$2.4 M||$3.2 M|
|Elvis Andrus||SS||Arb 1||$0.4 M||$2.9 M|
|Matt Harrison||SP||Arb 1||$0.4 M||$2.9 M|
|Mark Lowe||RP||Arb 3||$1.2 M||$1.6 M|
|Andres Blanco||UT IF||Arb 1||$0.5 M||$0.5 M|
To retain those above players, the payroll for the 2012 season will push well past last season’s $92 million budget toward something closer to $105 million. With the team enjoying a steady increase in revenue as well as a new television deal set to take off in 2014, the Rangers can easily move into a higher pay scale, but one major piece is missing.
The case for signing C.J. Wilson
The popular guess has Wilson signing a five year deal worth around $75 million. That factors to around $15 million per season and seems to be on par with other front-end starters. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2010, Wilson has averaged well over 200 innings while showing improvement in his overall effectiveness, going from a 1.83 K/BB ratio in 2010 to 2.78 last season. He has also compiled a 10.5 fWAR total since becoming a starter.
According to current WAR valuations, a win is likely worth between $4 million and $5 million next season. If Wilson can come close to the 5.9 fWAR, then the Rangers could find themselves on the right side of this deal. Even a lower average of 4.0 will net the team a good return on its investment.
Wilson will turn 31 this month. As a starter, his velocity has taken the expected dip dropping from an average of 93-94 mph to 90-91, but how much of this can be attributed to age? Properly assessing a pitcher’s aging curve can be difficult since factors like “situational pitching” can improve with age while power pitchers tend to peak earlier.
Wilson is in a unique category in that he began his major league career in the bullpen after two failed starts in August of 2005. He never had a blazing fastball, but being a left hander with the ability to throw an effective slider as well as having a feel for the change-up made him worth a roster spot. Looking at our Oliver forecasts through 2017, Wilson is expected to age well as he becomes a solid mid-rotation pitcher averaging a 3.6 WAR during that time.
Without Wilson in the rotation, the Rangers would be expected to depend on Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and Matt Harrison to keep things in order at the top. All three pitchers are very capable, but can they sustain their increase in innings?
Probable 2012 Rangers rotation (2011 stats)
Looking at the table above, only Colby Lewis was able to reach the 200-inning plateau. Holland, Harrison and Ogando came close, but a workload increase that averaged around 127.1 innings had to be achieved.
The Rangers don’t subscribe to the theory of restricted pitch counts, extended rest and mandatory time spent in certain minor league levels. I did wrongly predict that Wilson would fall to some injury time prior to the 2011 season, based on his jump in innings. Injuries are tough to predict and it’s entirely possible that everyone listed above comes back fully healthy and ready to shoulder 200 plus innings. Or, based on Holland’s age (25 next season), Ogando’s tendency to wear down in July and August, and Harrison’s past shoulder problems, this unit could unravel due to a hangover effect.
The case against signing Wilson
When addressing needs such as depth and versatility, one doesn’t expect the focus to be on a single elite player. Last season, the Rangers made a push to re-sign Cliff Lee and felt they were in a good position to retain him. When Lee decided to go elsewhere, the team regrouped and courted its first major free agent since Daniels came on board by signing Adrian Beltre at a cheaper rate over the same amount of years it would take to keep Lee.
Now, Daniels is faced with another major piece of his starting rotation ready to depart. He hasn’t made a firm commitment yet to the team’s intentions regarding Wilson, but seems more inclined to wait and see how the market plays out.
Wilson is certainly the most attractive pitcher available in the free agency market, but the lack of other choices may be superficially driving up his price. Wilson has said that he wants to be made to feel special this offseason. The Rangers will certainly keep their eye on him, but I doubt any serious courting and desperate late night phone calls will be made. The team is well aware of its internal options, but could any of them realistically be included in the 2012 rotation?
Neftali Feliz: Even if Wilson is retained, I expect the team to re-visit the idea of converting Feliz into a starting pitcher. Last season had its ups and downs for him; early during spring training, Feliz seemed resistant to the idea of recreating himself into a different pitcher after his 2010 sucess. This was expected, but after he worked with pitching coach Mike Maddux on developing a two-seam fastball some positive news began to surface.
Now if the team decides to try Feliz out again for a spot on the starting rotation, he may have to do it without the services of Maddux. since it’s looking very possible that he becomes a manager next season.
Martin Perez had his struggles in the Pacific Coast League last season. I haven’t seen him pitch but many prospect mavens see his ceiling as a solid No. 2 or No. 3 pitcher. He turns 21 in April and could benefit from a little more seasoning in Triple-A. Some reports noticed his strikeout percentage on the rise toward the end of last season.
Neil Ramirez had issues with shoulder fatigue but could be pressed into starting duty if all signs say go. Scouts don’t see No. 1 potential, but he could serve as a solid mid-rotation starter. He does have a tendency to be a fly ball pitcher, which should be addressed.
Miguel De Los Santos: I was able to watch him start an Arizona Fall League game a few weeks ago. He flashed a solid fastball and sneaky change-up when ahead in the count. His command eventually got sloppy after four innings, which is why scouts figure him as a high leverage reliever.
If the minors don’t prove fruitful, Daniels could look into the trade market, where James Shields, Wandy Rodriguez and (gasp!) Tim Lincecum could be available this offseason. (Please note: Lincecum’s name was added after a fun, speculative piece yesterday on FanGraphs… nothing official.) The Rangers do have access to some enviable prospects and affordable major league talent, making their phone calls welcome to any team looking to barter.
Finally, the Rangers have a wealth of options available if another team caves in on Wilson’s expected price. But if the Rangers feel that Wilson is worth the $15 million per season, that should drive the 2012 payroll up to $120 million. That isn’t out of line, especially for a team whose revenue has been on the rise.
However, the team could stand firm and looks toward a mega-trade for a younger, more prototypical No. 1-type starter. This also would allow them to fill any rotation leaks with other internal options and possibly save their payroll for another bat.
Perhaps the Rangers can entice one of those expensive first basemen to come south to bat cleanup next season. Fom what I understand, the Rangers face another dilemma next offseason when Josh Hamilton declares himself a free agent. Having a Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols on the 2013 roster could make a Hamilton departure much easier to swallow, but let’s save that for next year.
References & Resources
Projected 2012 salary table provided by Matt Schwartz at mlbtraderumors.com