Texas' offseason focus on offense for first time in years
Rangers must address catcher, outfield with expectations to return to playoffs in 2014
ARLINGTON -- The Rangers will enter 2014 expecting to contend for a division title and make another run at the World Series. After four straight seasons of 90-plus wins, there is no reason to feel differently.
But after two straight seasons that came to an end after 163 games, the Rangers know they need to get better. More precisely, they need to score more runs. For once, the Rangers go into the offseason feeling good about their pitching -- although the closer situation must be examined -- and concerned about their offense.
Specific areas of concern are the outfield and catcher. First base may also be reviewed. The free-agent market offers the usual: some quality players and others who come with risk. Catcher Brian McCann, designated hitter Kendrys Morales, and outfielders Curtis Granderson, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Shin-Soo Choo are among the outside names that are attractive to the Rangers if they don't re-sign their own free agents. Choo is probably the best of the outfield free agents that could help the Rangers.
The Rangers have money to spend, but must do so wisely. They also have to decide what to do with infielder Jurickson Profar, and that could influence what they do as far as possible trades.
Arbitration eligible: RhP Neftali Feliz, LHP Neal Cotts, IF Adam Rosales, LHP Travis Blackley, RHP Alexi Ogando, 1B Mitch Moreland, OF Craig Gentry
Free agents: C A.J. Pierzynski, C Geovany Soto, IF Jeff Baker, OF David Murphy, OF Nelson Cruz, RHP Colby Lewis, RHP Matt Garza, RHP Jason Frasor, RHP Joe Nathan (club option), DH Lance Berkman
Rotation: On the surface, the Rangers have a set rotation for next season, even if they don't re-sign Garza. If Matt Harrison is fully recovered from all his injuries -- and the Rangers expect that to be the case -- then he would join Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Martin Perez in the rotation.
Ogando remains the swing guy, having bounced between the bullpen to the rotation over the past four years. Right now, the Rangers' inclination is to include him in the rotation, but that could change if something better pops up in the offseason. Garza is likely to be as good as anyone on the free-agent market.
The Rangers will likely at least explore the possibility of re-signing Garza, considering they gave up four players for him and won't get Draft-pick compensation if he signs elsewhere. The Rangers could bring Lewis back on a Minor League contract. Luke Jackson, who was 11-4 with a 2.04 ERA in 25 Minor League games this season, is one of the Rangers' top pitching prospects.
The Rangers are also at least monitoring Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who could be posted this winter and is considered the next big star out of Japan after Darvish.
Bullpen: The Rangers should have another strong bullpen next year. The question is: Who will be the closer?
The first big issue this offseason will be with Nathan. The Rangers have a $9.5 million option on his services for next season, but Nathan could also void that option himself and become a free agent.
If Nathan is back, he is the closer. If not, the Rangers will choose between Feliz, Tanner Scheppers and Joakim Soria. Feliz and Soria were both All-Star closers before going down in 2012 with torn elbow ligaments that required Tommy John surgery. They are not all the way back yet, but may be after a full Spring Training. Scheppers has the talent to be a closer, but was also invaluable as the eighth-inning setup reliever.
Feliz was working as a starter in 2012 when he went down. The Rangers are expected to use him in relief next year.
Frasor is a free agent, but left-handed relievers Neal Cotts and Robbie Ross will be back.
Catcher: Pierzynski and Soto are both free agents. So is McCann, and the long-time Braves catcher is somebody the Rangers will consider this winter. He will be 30 in February, is a seven-time All-Star, and has won five National League Silver Slugger Awards.
Pierzynski and Soto worked well as a tandem this season. Pierzynski's offensive numbers were normal for his career, although his walks and on-base percentage were both career lows. Soto's numbers were up over the past few years, though in a backup role. But he did have some big hits when he was in there, and his throwing is considerably improved.
Pierzynski turns 37 in December, but otherwise showed he is still a front-line catcher. The Rangers could go after McCann, re-sign Pierzynski, or find another partner for Soto. Catching is relatively deep on the free-agent market.
Catcher Jorge Alfaro, who turned 20 in June, is the Rangers' top prospect, but hasn't played above Class A.
First base: Anybody notice Moreland was 12th in the American League as far as home runs per at-bat? No, it's hard to notice that when he has 117 strikeouts, the 10th lowest on-base percentage in the league and batted .185 with runners in scoring position.
Moreland's .736 OPS wasn't overwhelming, but there were only nine first basemen in the Majors this year with an OPS greater than .767. The point is as much as the Rangers need more offense out of first base, there aren't many attractive options beyond hoping Moreland can take the next step the Rangers thought he would make this season.
The Rangers have strong interest in Jose Dariel Abreu, a power-hitting right-handed first baseman who just left Cuba and is working out for clubs in the Dominican Republic. But even if they sign him, it's still unknown if he would be ready to play every day in the Major Leagues.
The free-agent market doesn't offer much unless the Rangers can convince Mike Napoli to return, or they want to take a chance on somebody like Kevin Youkilis or Mark Reynolds.
Second base: Ian Kinsler finished his eighth season with the Rangers with his usual numbers, although slightly lower as far as power. By this point, everybody pretty much knows what kind of player he is both offensively and defensively, and his ability to hit anywhere in the order remains a plus.
He has four years and $62 million left on his contract. If the Rangers wanted to go with Profar as their long-term second baseman, they could probably trade Kinsler and get value in return. But Kinsler has a partial no-trade contract and is not eager to leave Texas.
He is also not eager to move off second base, and that still doesn't appear to be an attractive option for the Rangers.
Shortstop: Elvis Andrus signed an extension in April and finished the season strong. He is going to be the Rangers' shortstop for the next several years, and this is not Profar's long-term position.
Third base: Adrian Beltre is still one of the premier third basemen in the game, but his defense did fall off considerably in 2013. The biggest concern is keeping his legs healthy, and he finished this season at half-speed because of a nagging hamstring injury.
This could be the spot for Profar as the Rangers transition Beltre into a designated-hitter role over the final three years of his contract. It makes far more sense than uprooting Andrus or Kinsler if the Rangers feel Profar can handle the position.
Left field: Murphy is a free agent. Despite being an integral part of the Rangers' success over the past four years, it's unlikely he will return. This could be a spot for Cruz if the Rangers are able to re-sign him.
The Rangers want Cruz back and need his power in the middle of the lineup. They are almost certain to extend him a qualifying offer. Cruz's value in the free-agent market may hinge on how clubs perceive his 50-game suspension. But there will be somebody who can't resist the idea of adding Cruz to their lineup on a multi-year deal.
Gentry finished the season as the Rangers' left fielder and playing some of the best baseball of his young career in September. He may not be a full-time player, but he is still a winning piece.
Center field: The Rangers gave Leonys Martin a chance to win the job, and he will carry that into 2014. He has great speed, a trememdous arm and significant offensive potential. But he still needs a lot of work both offensively and defensively. He walked 28 times and struck out 104 in 457 at-bats. He needs to learn to cut down on his swing when needed and needs to improve his bunting.
Angels outfielder J.B. Shuck is a good example of a young, inexperienced outfielder who knows how to cut down on his swing and just put the ball in play at the right time.
Right field: Alex Rios played well for the Rangers after being acquired from the White Sox, taking over in right field while Cruz was gone. The Rangers have him for one more year at $14 million and they should feel good about that based on how he performed down the stretch.
Designated hitter: The Berkman experiment is over. The Rangers could sign a full-time designated hitter and they certainly have interest in Morales. The other option would be continue to rotate regulars through the position, while Profar serves as a utility player. Certainly Beltre is going to need more time at designated hitter, even if he remains the regular third baseman. Justin Morneau is another interesting free agent candidate.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.