Hitting for the Future: In a Season of Dark Clouds, Texas Rangers' Rookies Offer a Glimmer of Silver

Texas Ranger Jonah Heim celebrates with Adolis Garcia, No. 53, on June 13 in Los Angeles.
Texas Ranger Jonah Heim celebrates with Adolis Garcia, No. 53, on June 13 in Los Angeles. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Now the seats are all empty … let the rookies take the stage.

The sun is setting a little sooner than we’d like. Leaves are falling all around. Each morning the wind blows a bit cooler. The sound of whistles blowing and helmets crashing drifts across the country … baseball season is coming to an end.

With the end of the regular season, the beautifully cruel irony of postseason baseball is upon us. The chaos and calamity we have all clamored for is in our grasp. A team’s titanic yearlong performance is nabbed from them in a single wildcard game. Meanwhile, a suffering Texas fanbase is cursed with the pleasure of experiencing the year’s most exquisite baseball as matches between teams that aren’t theirs, from their couches, at home.

As the Texas Rangers played the final games of what was undeniably a disappointing season, a silver lining appeared as the clouds ran out of rain. The Rangers have undergone an incredible turnover of players in the last few years, with an influx of rookies and new blood pumping life into the team with every at-bat. If this year and last year are proof of anything, it’s that old axiom “you’ve gotta get worse before you get better,” and it certainly seems the Rangers are getting better, thanks to a select few.

Perhaps the most obviously talented newcomer to the Rangers in 2021 is Cuban outfielder Adolis Garcia. Garcia was called up to the Rangers’ lineup eleven days into the season after regular first-baseman-turned-outfielder Ronald “El Condor” Guzman suffered a meniscus cartilage tear in his right knee and subsequently underwent season-ending surgery.
click to enlarge Adolis Garcia at bat against the Los Angeles Angels on Sept.30 in Arlington. - TOM PENNINGTON/GETTY IMAGES
Adolis Garcia at bat against the Los Angeles Angels on Sept.30 in Arlington.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
In the next three months, Garcia supplied the Rangers with 22 home runs, 84 hits, 62 runs batted in, 16 walks and 8 stolen bases. Half of those home runs came in the month of May, when he was able to hit .312 with a .633 slugging percentage. With slugging star Joey Gallo struggling in the early weeks of the season, Garcia quickly became one of the new faces of the franchise, with T-shirts soon added to the Rangers’ team shop depicting a caricature of Garcia with his explosive nickname “El Bombi.” (As catchy and baseball-appropriate as the nickname is, Garcia later explained that it actually was bestowed upon him by a childhood friend who observed that Garcia’s shaved head resembled a bowler hat; in Spanish, a “bombín”).

On a particularly nerve-racking night in May, the Rangers trailed the Houston Astros at home in extra innings 5-4. With runners on first and third and two men out, Garcia stepped up to the plate and launched a three-run walk-off homer that became the first domino leading to the Rangers unbelievably sweeping the Astros in a three-game series. “El Bombi” had arrived.

“El Bombi” is certainly no slouch in the outfield, either. Several of the Rangers marquee defensive plays have come from Garcia, including one particularly spectacular one on Sept. 28 against the Los Angeles Angels in which he was able to nab a foul line drive while colliding into the Rangers’ field-level club seating unscathed, turning what would have been a run-of-the-mill foul ball into an inning-ending out (the Rangers went on to win 5-2). Garcia later said that he was reading the swings of Angels batter David Fletcher and realized Fletcher was trying to hit the ball to the opposite field, and therefore prepared himself in case the ball did indeed come his way. Judgments like that throughout the 2021 season led to Garcia leading the MLB in outfield assists with 16, tied with Red Sox outfielder Hunter Renfroe. Talk of a Gold Glove Award in Garcia’s future abounds.

Naturally, Garcia became a shoo-in candidate for the American League Rookie of the Year Award and was named the Rangers’ representative at the 2021 All-Star Game in Colorado (Gallo, whose season picked up dramatically leading up to the midsummer classic, was also selected at the last minute). Garcia went 1-2 at the All-Star Game with a double, while Gallo’s only at-bat resulted in a walk (appropriate, as Gallo led the MLB in walks at the time). After Gallo’s trade to the Yankees in late July, Garcia became the de facto face of the franchise.

The 28-year-old Garcia was on the MLB’s radar long before he defected from Cuba in 2016. Baseball America named him the No. 20 best baseball player in Cuba in April 2015, the year he hit .319/.399/.523 with 14 homers and 11 stolen bases for Cuban League outfit Ciego de Avila. The year of his defection, he spent most of the summer in Japan, where he made seven plate appearances with the Yomiuri Giants and spent time with the Nippon Professional Baseball club’s farm team before being released.

To think, Garcia’s place with the Rangers almost never happened — several times. He was originally signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in early 2017, spending the next couple of years bouncing between Double-A, Triple-A and the occasional big-league stint with the Cardinals. His minor league numbers were substantial. In the 112 games he played for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds in 2018, he batted .256 with 22 home runs, 71 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. His major-league numbers, however, were not as substantial. In 21 games for the Cardinals, he hit just .118. He was designated for assignment (taken off the Cardinals’ roster) at the end of 2019. Days after being DFA’d by the Cardinals, he was traded to the Rangers in exchange for cash considerations and went hitless in his six at-bats with the Rangers in 2020. He was then again designated for assignment before the Rangers invited him to spring training as a non-roster invitee before finally calling him up to the big leagues in the wake of Guzman’s injury. It didn’t take long for Garcia to start hitting balls out of the park.

While his high-octane performance slowed post-All Star Game, his numbers remained impressive, ending the 2021 season with a team-leading 31 home runs, 90 RBIs, a .741 slugging percentage, and 16 stolen bases; the former two stats breaking Pete Incaviglia’s 35-year record of 30 home runs and 88 RBIs for a Rangers rookie.

Since 2000, the only other rookies in the MLB to achieve 30-plus home runs, more than 80 RBIs and at least 10 stolen bases have been Brewers slugger Ryan Braun in 2007, Angels titan Mike Trout in 2012, and Dodgers star Cody Bellinger in 2017, all of whom went on to win Rookie of the Year in their respective leagues. If Garcia wins this year, that would make him only the sixth Cuban to ever win Rookie of the Year. “It would be a privilege,” Garcia told the MLB’s The Rundown through an interpreter. “It would be very emotional, very beautiful.”

Garcia isn’t the only rookie to step into the spotlight with the game on the line. Behind home plate as catcher for much of this season has been switch-hitting Buffalo native-turned Texan Jonah Heim. Raised in the cozy Buffalo suburb of Kenmore, New York, Heim made his MLB debut in 2020 with the Oakland Athletics before being traded to the Rangers before the 2021 season.

"Just getting to do that in the big leagues, on the biggest stage — you learn pretty quick up here. If you don’t, you’re gonna be sitting for a while.” - Ranger Jonah Heim

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Heim’s own marquee moment(s) came in late July against the Seattle Mariners. A classic baseball nail-biter: bottom of the ninth, Mariners 4, Rangers 3, a man on second, Jonah Heim at the plate, two balls, two strikes. With a single, seemingly effortless swing of the bat, Heim sent the ball and the Mariners’ chances at victory out of the park. It was his second home run of the game.

The following day, after a late, game-tying homer by Andy Ibanez, Heim found himself in a nearly identical situation: bottom of the ninth, Mariners 3, Rangers 3, two balls, two strikes. With the same, seemingly effortless swing, Heim sent the ball on a practically identical trajectory deep out to right field, into the bullpen, sealing a series victory for the Rangers against the Mariners. With his back-to-back walk-off homers, Heim became the first rookie in MLB history to do so, earning him the nickname (from us at least) “The Buffalo Bomber.”

Heim’s roots in Buffalo led to one of the most particular headline moments for the Rangers in 2021. Due to border issues stemming from COVID-19, the Toronto Blue Jays were prevented from playing at their usual home park, the Rogers Center in Toronto, instead being forced to play at their triple-A affiliate the Buffalo Bisons’ Sahlen Field in Buffalo throughout much of the year. This meant that a July matchup between the Rangers and the Blue Jays resulted in an opportunity for Jonah Heim to play three major league games in his otherwise MLB-less hometown. (For the record, in the eternal debate regarding who has the best authentic Buffalo wings between the Anchor Bar and Duff’s, Heim firmly recommends Duff’s.)

Despite the homecoming hullaballoo, Heim says he feels very welcomed and at home in Texas, perhaps due to its cultural similarities to Buffalo. “Buffalo is the low-key Southern part of New York,” Heim says with a chuckle. “There’s a lot of country folks, we grew up listening to country music, we love it. There isn’t that much difference, honestly. I’m very happy to be in Texas. My wife and I are actually building a house here, so we’re really excited to grow some roots here, for sure.”

Somehow, on paper, Heim’s batting numbers don’t seem to paint as flattering a picture as the spectacular nature of his in-game actions would indicate. In 2021, he batted just a hair under .200, with a significantly better on-base percentage of .239. Yet, he had the sixth-most home runs of any Ranger this year with 10, and in some ways is single-handedly responsible for keeping the Mariners out of the postseason. But don’t let those numbers fool you; when Heim gets hot, he takes care of business. In his last three games of the season, he hit a game-defining home run, bat .400, with 4 RBIs and an OPS of 1.300; those are Bryce Harper-type numbers.
click to enlarge Jonah Heim works behind the plate in his 4th of July-themed gear during the third inning of the game against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on July 4 in Seattle. - ALIKA JENNER/GETTY IMAGES
Jonah Heim works behind the plate in his 4th of July-themed gear during the third inning of the game against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on July 4 in Seattle.
Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Heim admits that he cooled down a bit between his back-to-back homers in July/August and his scalding end-of-season streak, but he’s been making the necessary adjustments, mentally and physically, to keep up the pace in 2022. “I’m just trying to slow my swing down a bit; I kinda get too big in some moments and get out of myself,” Heim says. “The mental side of the game is the most important. I can let the games speed up on me and get a little ahead of myself and get down on myself when I’m not doing so great, but those experiences, those learning moments, have been huge. Just getting to do that in the big leagues, on the biggest stage — you learn pretty quick up here. If you don’t, you’re gonna be sitting for a while.”

If you ever have the pleasure of attending a game when Jonah Heim gets on-base, you’re likely to see him raise his hand and gesture for the ball to add to his personal collection. He was fortunate to have both of his walk-off homers land in the Rangers bullpen, but his final game-defining, three-run homer of 2021 landed squarely in the stands and was picked up by a fan. “That one’s gone, they can have it,” Heim says beaming. “I’m just excited that we got the runs, we got the W, and on to tomorrow.”

"All these guys have that innate hunger to improve. This year is the most improvement we’ve made, I’m excited.” - Rangers manager Chris Woodward

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Rangers manager Chris Woodward says that he undoubtedly recognizes Adolis Garcia and Jonah Heim’s talent, and — knock on wood — plans to have them as a part of the Rangers family in 2022. “Obviously, they’re going to play,” Woodward says. “Adolis was an All-Star this year. … He’s had a heck of a year for us, and he’s part of the future. As far as Jonah goes, he’s made a ton of progress this year, and I’m really proud of him. He’s a big part of our future for sure.”

Woodward says the influx of rookies has made it easier to impart a style of management that may not have been possible in the past few years with older, veteran players. “Absolutely,” Woodward says. “It’s something we talked about a lot this offseason, to establish this culture in the big-league team, it’s easier with younger players. They’re not hardened like some veteran players stuck in their ways. That’s been the most positive thing about this year: maintaining that culture. Through the losses, we’ve maintained that mentality. Same for our minor-league system. I see real progress there. All these guys have that innate hunger to improve. This year is the most improvement we’ve made, I’m excited.”

For the final month of the season, (September, including the final three games of the season in October), the Rangers went 13-17 for a .433 win percentage. Not much to sing about unless one realizes that the team otherwise went 60-102 with a .370 win percentage in 2021. Considering that the homestretch of the season was played post-Joey Gallo with a bolstered roster of rookies, that certainly seems like an upward trajectory. Not to mention, as Woodward said, the Rangers’ prospects at the minor league level continue to impress: infielder Josh Jung had 19 home runs this season, with nine of those being in the 34 games he played with Triple-A Round Rock; 2018 first-round pick Cole Winn pitched with a 2.41 ERA at Double-A Frisco; infielder Dustin Harris batted .327 with 20 home runs, 85 RBIs and an OPS of .943 at Single-A Down East and Hickory; and 2021 first-round pick Jack Leiter is on the horizon. The Rangers’ struggles have primarily come from the pitchers’ mound, but with prospects like Leiter, Winn, and whoever else is acquired in the offseason, there is reason to have hope.

While it is easy to lament anything in these days of perpetual information reminding us of the state of the world, sometimes looking down reveals rays of light at our feet. Now’s the time to take a breather, Rangers fans. Collect your cards, bundle up for the winter and get ready to see the new blood at spring training in 2022.

They won’t be rookies next year.
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Vincent Arrieta
Contact: Vincent Arrieta