There’s no playoff baseball in Arlington this year. That realization was on display Monday when walking through the locker room at The Globe and seeing boxes being packed sitting next to empty lockers.
Of course, any season that doesn’t involve a trip to the playoffs is considered a disappointment and that’s no different for the Texas Rangers. Despite all the injuries and bullpen problems, Texas was in the wild card hunt until the last week of the season. “Never Ever Quit” is more than a motto, it’s a lifestyle.
“We expect to win,” said general manager Jon Daniels. “We are always going to have that mindset. The Astros are going to be a team to beat in the publications and on paper. Our division is very challenging.”
The Rangers finished the season fourth in the A.L. West at 78-84, 23 games behind the division champion Astros and seven games out of the wild card. So, is this a team in a rebuilding phase? Daniels is not looking at it that way and points to the teams that were in the playoff picture and even punched their ticket to the postseason as an example why rebuilding isn’t in the plans.
“This is not a rebuild,” Daniels said. “I know sometimes teams will say it’s not a rebuild. I think you look at teams like Milwaukee, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, even the Yankees this year; these were not clubs that came into the season in an ‘all in’ mode. They were building, they were developing, and as things happened they made the right moves.”
PITCHING ISSUES: Addressing the pitching issues is at the top on the list of things to do this offseason for the Rangers. They say you can’t win a pennant in April but you can lose one. That seemed to play out in Arlington as the bullpen never got on track, costing some much needed wins during the first month of the season while the Astros took off. The Rangers soon fell in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.
The bullpen was among the worst in baseball with 21 blown saves in 50 opportunities. There remains no real answer at the closer role, with Matt Bush and Keone Kela the favorites to make a case. However, both had chances to seal the deal during the season and struggled. Lefty specialist Jake Diekman missed most of the season after having his colon removed but made the inspirational return to the mound in September and figures into the plans going into next year. Everything else remains up in the air.
“We probably have two starters and four relievers that we can pencil in right now,” said Daniels. “There are a number of other guys in competition. We are going to look to remake half the staff. We are going to get after that this winter.”
The starting pitching ranked in the middle of the pack in the American League statistically in 2017. After Yu Darvish was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a deadline deal, Cole Hamels took over sole possession of the ace role. Hamels did struggle down the stretch but was solid for most of the season, one that saw him miss some time with an oblique strain. He finished at 11-6 with a 4.20 ERA in 24 games.
“All in all; didn’t hit any of the goals so I think that was the tough part,” said Hamels. “At least during the season you can at least say you hit one of your realistic goals. An injury can certainly put a damper on any realistic goal but sometimes a postseason can kind of cover that up and make things better. Unfortunately for us not being able to do so, you have to re-adjust. I know I’m confident that we are going to be able to do what we set out to do next year. It makes you come back that much harder. “
The Rangers are still waiting for Martin Perez to take the next step as a starter and move past the “one big inning” that continues to creep up and be a problem. The lefty did lead the team in wins with a 13-12 record in 32 games. However, his ERA remains high at 4.82. He did have a strong end to the season, going 8-3 in 12 games. The Rangers have felt Perez is a number three starter but that remains in question.
COACHING DECISIONS: The Rangers have picked up the 2019 contract option on manager Jeff Banister. He won two division titles in 2015 and 2016, his first two years at the helm in Texas.
“With Jeff as our manager, we have had a lot of success over the last three years,” said Daniels. “Despite a number of challenges with injuries and other circumstances in 2017, our team stayed in contention until the last week of the season. His leadership and work ethic played a significant role in that. I look forward to working with Jeff as we begin planning and preparing for 2018.”
However, part of the coaching staff will be different next season. The organization has decided to not exercise the 2018 option for bullpen coach Brad Holmen. First base coach Hector Ortiz will now take over that role.
WORTH THE HYPE: The 2017 season saw the emergence of Joey Gallo, who became one of the most feared power hitters in the game. Gallo would put Statcast to work on any given night with moonshots that were legendary. He finished third in the A.L. in home runs with 41 and eighth in the league with a .537 slugging percentage.
Gallo’s bat became so valuable that the Rangers were forced to play him at different positions in order to just keep him in the lineup. He started the season at third base with Adrian Beltre out with an injury. As the season went along, Gallo also played at first base, left field and saw time at DH.
“I’m sure we will continue to evaluate what is the best option for Joey Gallo,” said Banister. “Coming off a year where a young man had some significant growth at the major league level, I look at it as I’m proud of the challenges he was able to accept and excel at. Ultimately with most players, you would like to think there is a singular position for them that they could play.”
With Beltre returning at third, you could possibly see Gallo more at first base should the Rangers decide not to bring Mike Napoli back. Napoli has an $11 million option with a $2.5 million buyout for 2018.
BRIGHT SPOT: One of the most memorable moments from a tough season was on a Sunday afternoon in July when Beltre became the 31st player to collect 3,000 career hits, usually a sure lock for the Hall of Fame.
The 38-year old is showing no signs of hanging up the cleats anytime soon. However, whether his career continues in a Rangers uniform is on the table this winter. Beltre is expected to talk to Daniels about the direction the Rangers are going. He says he wants to stay but also wants another shot at winning before he retires.
“You never know,” said Beltre. “The future is always up in the air. Obviously I don’t want that to be the case but it’s out of my control right now. I know that I want to be here.”
Beltre will be in the final year of his contract next season.
FIELDER RELEASED: The Rangers also officially released first baseman/DH Prince Fielder. The move was made to free up a roster spot going into next season. Fielder spent the entire 2017 season on the 60-day disabled list after having neck surgery last year. His last game on the field wearing a Rangers uniform was on July 18, 2016. He finished his major league career with a .283 batting average, 319 home runs and 1,028 RBI with the Rangers, Brewers and Tigers.