The 2018 Rangers are dead. Out of the race by May, this year's model of Arlington's finest limped to a 67-95 finish, ending up last in the American League West. That got their manager fired despite his having won two division championships in four seasons at the helm. They saw their best prospect suffer through a lost season with both the big-league club and Triple-A Round Rock.
The arrow, for the first time in Jon Daniels' tenure as general manager, seems stuck pointing down, waiting on the kind of seismic change that seems to take longer in baseball than any other sport. As Daniels, former Rangers manager Jeff Banister and third baseman Adrian Beltre settle into their recliners to watch the playoffs for the second year in a row, let's take a look at what's worth paying attention to this offseason, as the Rangers get set for their final year at Globe Life Park.
1. The search to replace Banister — It's obvious, but it's also important. The Rangers have to replace Banister with someone better suited to Major League Baseball in the 2010s, which means finding someone who can better relate to young players and understands and implements advanced analytics. In addition to the Rangers' performance over the past two seasons, Banister's old-school proclivities reportedly rubbed the clubhouse the wrong way, hastening his departure.
Finding a young ex-player, someone like Raul Ibanez or Carlos Beltran, could help some of team's prospects push through their developmental roadblocks, in addition to making Arlington a more attractive landing spot for free-agent talent.
2. The decision on whether to step up for Clayton Kershaw — There has always been a sense of destiny around Kershaw and the Rangers. Kershaw grew up in Highland Park, became one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball history with the Dodgers and has a conveniently placed out clause in his contract that he can activate after this season. The Rangers, much like they were when they signed Nolan Ryan after the 1988 season, are in need of pitching help and, more important as they open the new stadium in 2020, star power.
Assuming Kershaw opts out as expected, there will be big-time pressure on Daniels to spend the $200 million or more that it will cost to lock up his signature. That's a big ask when the team seems to be, at least, two years from competing for a playoff spot, but it's rarely a good idea to spurn a generational talent. Despite being in the big leagues for a decade, Kershaw is still just 30 years old.
3. Finding Willie Calhoun — Calhoun, the key piece in the trade that sent Yu Darvish to the Dodgers last summer, made no impact at the big league level in 2018, getting into just 35 games and making just 108 plate appearances while racking up a paltry .602 OPS. Calhoun, seemingly bored, wasn't great in the minors either, hitting just nine home runs in 470 plate appearances at Round Rock.
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He's still the best hitter in the Rangers farm system, however, and likely to get his first full year in the big leagues in 2019. If the Rangers' new manager can keep him engaged this winter and help him turn the corner, Calhoun will be a middle-of-the-order bat for the team to build around.
4. Center fielders as far as the eye can see — Outside of Calhoun, three of the Rangers' best position-player prospects — Juan Pablo Martinez, Leody Taveras and Bubba Thompson — all play center field. They're all basically at the same level, too, needing a couple more years in the minors before potentially starring for the big club in 2021. The problem is, they all need center field reps every day, and the Rangers have only so many low-level minor-league teams. Watch how Martinez, Taveras and Thompson get assigned, and you'll know how Daniels and company think of them.
5. Replacing Adrian Beltre — While it isn't a sure thing, Sunday afternoon's loss to the Mariners sure did feel a lot like the end of the road for likely future Hall of Fame third baseman Adrian Beltre. While replacing one of the 10 best third basemen in history as a player is impossible, one of the current Rangers is going to have to step up as the face of the franchise in 2019. Shortstop Elvis Andrus and first baseman Joey Gallo seem to be the likeliest candidates, but Andrus can opt out of his contract in each of the next two winters. If the Rangers are counting on fans to swallow another year of bad baseball in 2019 before showing up to the new stadium in droves in 2020, the team needs an identity.