Grading the Rangers’ latest splurge: Can Corey Seager help Texas contend?

MLB

The transaction orgy of the past few days has been stupendous for baseball fans accustomed to a more leisurely pace during the late autumn and winter months. That said, it’s been more stupendous for some fans than others, and no fan base ought to feel more adrenalized than that of the Texas Rangers.

With the news Monday that Texas had reached an agreement with star shortstop Corey Seager on a 10-year, $325 million contract, the Rangers’ offseason has gone from encouraging to exhilarating. Seager’s megadeal comes on the heels of Texas’ trio of agreements on Sunday, landing the Rangers Marcus Semien (now probably an ex-shortstop turned second baseman), starting pitcher Jon Gray and outfielder Kole Calhoun.

All it took was a can-do spirit, an aggressive mindset — and $561 million in salary commitments.

The scale and pace of this year’s free-agent frenzy has been something to behold, especially coming at a time on the baseball calendar during which it’s usually safe to do things like visit family, watch an episode of “Succession” or go to the grocery without missing a breaking news alert. Not this November. As someone who moved over from NBA coverage a few years back, I’ve noticed that these past few days have a familiar feel, and I like it. Hopefully, as the players and owners negotiate in Dallas on the expiring CBA, they’ve taken note of the buzz their sport is currently generating.

However, there is another NBA dynamic that sprang to mind when I heard the Seager news. Executives in the NBA have long recognized the most important step in building a championship-caliber roster is also the hardest one: acquiring a franchise-level star player. There are only so many in the league at any given time, and NBA teams used to plan for the expiration of certain contracts so that they might be positioned to grab such a star in free agency.

Baseball rosters are constructed very differently, of course. Star players matter, but one or two stars can’t carry a team alone. Depth is as important in baseball as star power. But the opportunities to acquire a franchise-defining player are not particularly common. For that reason, even if you aren’t necessarily at the point where a franchise player might put you over the top, it’s not out of the question to go ahead and get one while you can, even as you continue to build up.

Which brings us back around to the Rangers. We remind you: Texas lost 102 games last season, the most since 1973, and its winning percentage of .370 was actually an improvement over its .367 in the pandemic-shortened season. When you check those records against run differential, there was nothing fluky about them. The Rangers have been legit terrible the past two seasons.

Unfortunately for them, there’s no shortcut for getting from terrible to great in baseball. A free-agent splurge might push a middling team into contention, but the cost of splurging your way from the cellar to the penthouse can be enough to give even spendthrift Mets owner Steve Cohen the jitters. In reality, you’ve got to augment big buys with players who produce wins in an efficient way, and young, internally developed, team-controlled talent is the biggest part of that equation.

Well, the Rangers are working on that. Let’s consider the trajectory of their place in the organizational rankings at Baseball America:

2017 preseason: 23rd
2018 preseason: 22nd
2019 preseason: 24th
2020 preseason: 20th
2021 preseason: 24th
2021 midseason: 11th

Things are getting better, even if the waves of talent haven’t started crashing onto the oceanic parking lots of Globe Life Field. Thus, the pessimist might look at Texas’ splurge and think that lead executive Jon Daniels and his staff are putting the finishing touches on a portrait that does not yet have any discernible figures.

It’s a fair concern. The starting rotation is improved with Gray, but he’s not a No. 1. Dane Dunning and Spencer Howard are former prospects still trying to establish themselves as rotation stalwarts (Dunning is slightly further along in the process). Texas’ top prospect is a starting pitcher — former Vanderbilt hurler Jack Leiter — but Leiter, a 2021 first-round pick, is just getting started. Meanwhile, the current state of the bullpen is that of an absolute cipher. There is no escaping it: Even with the dollars and headlines of the past two days, this is not yet a contending Rangers roster.

But the counter is that if the Rangers believe their system is going to yield a progression of big-league-caliber players over the next few years, locking in some long-term cornerstone players makes sense. So what if the arrival of this free-agent class didn’t dovetail with Texas’ contention timeline? Now is when the stars are there to be grabbed.

Let’s consider the Rangers’ strengths with Seager on board. Middle infield is a clear strength. Semien, Seager and Isiah Kiner-Falefa have all been everyday shortstops in the recent past, so there are a lot of ways manager Chris Woodward might want to configure things. The simplest: Seager plays shortstop. Semien won a Gold Glove at second base in 2021, and Kiner-Falefa won one at third base in 2020. That seems like the most likely outcome. And if we assume that Seager and Semien will be the middle infield, it’s perhaps the best combo in the majors.

Seager is also a clear offensive upgrade for the Rangers — as he would have been for basically any roster in the majors. He is a perfect offensive player, who hits for both average and power while displaying outstanding on-base skills. His career OPS+ (131) marks him as a consistently elite offensive threat with the added value of deploying that stick from the shortstop position. He won’t turn 28 until after Opening Day in 2022, so he’s still got a lot of prime seasons ahead. If this deal goes sour for the Rangers, it’ll be because Seager can’t stay in the lineup, not because the Rangers overestimated his skill set.

But that’s a real concern. Seager was limited to 26 games in 2018 because of elbow trouble. In 2019, he missed 28 games, largely because of a hamstring issue. He was mostly healthy during the shortened 2020 campaign, but last season he missed 67 games because of a fractured right hand. That last injury was mostly bad luck, as his hand was broken when he was hit by a pitch thrown by Miami’s Ross Detwiler. But the results are what they are. If health is a skill, so far, he has rarely displayed it (the exception is his best season, 2016, when Seager played in 157 games and finished third in NL MVP balloting).

As long as Seager stays on the field often enough to justify $32.5 million per season, given the 10-year, $341 million extension Francisco Lindor signed with the Mets last season, we can view the terms of Seager’s impending deal as what elite shortstops get paid in Major League Baseball in 2021. (Carlos Correa, just as good or better than Seager and a few months younger, is surely paying attention.)

It’s easy to dig into the Rangers’ history and look at the Seager signing as the possible reprise of a cautionary tale, when a 91-loss Texas team went out and signed Alex Rodriguez to a mind-blowing, interminable contract two decades ago. But that was a different team, a different player and a different time in baseball.

Between Semien’s seven-year deal and Seager’s new contract, Texas is on the hook for $57.5 million in payroll through 2028 for just those two players. That’s not a problem if they are who they project to be in the short term: Texas’ two best players. The best thing for the Rangers now would be to target roster depth, however they can find it, rather than tying up even more payroll. Improving as many roster spots to as close to league average as possible is their best path to get back to .500 in the immediate future, assuming Semien, Seager and Gray provide the expected baseline of well-above-average production.

In a sense, nothing has changed in the long-term outlook of the Rangers. They need their pipeline of homegrown talent to start pouring, or else the money they’ve spent over the past couple of days won’t mean much. But, returning to our NBA comparisons, as crosstown NBA owner Mark Cuban would surely attest, when you have a chance to get the star, you get the star.

The Rangers have added a couple of stars over the past couple of days. How brightly they shine will be determined by the work they’ve done over the past couple of years to put them in position to make these investments.

GRADE: A-

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