The World Series is over. The Houston Astros are champions for the first time in their 55-year history. The Rangers, just as they haven't been in any of their 45 seasons, are not. For many Rangers fans, Houston's triumph picked the scab that remains festering from the Rangers' 2011 World Series collapse. North Texas baseball fans are again wondering if their team will ever win a championship.
One doesn't have to go too far out on limb to say that 2018 isn't going to the Rangers' year either. The holes exposed during the 2017 season are only going to get bigger, barring an unexpected spending spree from the team's management. Even worse, the American League is going to be tougher in 2018. The Astros return the entirety of their young core, as do the Yankees. The Indians are fresh off a 102-win regular season, and the Red Sox still have the league's best pitcher, Chris Sale.
Despite the strength of the league, the Rangers aren't quite to the point of needing a full rebuilding effort. There is talent throughout the roster, and Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has consistently shown an ability and a willingness to get creative to keep his team in contention. As the offseason begins in earnest this week, here are several storylines to keep an eye on.
The Shohei Otani sweepstakes
This winter, the Rangers are going to have a shot to sign 23-year-old Shohei Otani, the best pitcher to come out of the Japanese major leagues since Yu Darvish — assuming Otani decides, as expected, that now is the time to move to the United States. Otani has electric stuff, featuring a fastball that sits at 98 mph and touches up to 102 mph. If that were all there was to Otani, he'd be the most sought-after free agent on the market, but it isn't.
In addition to being a front-line starting pitcher, Otani is also an All-Star caliber hitter. In just over 1,000 at bats for the Nippon Ham Fighters, Otani has 48 home runs and 166 runs batted in. On Oct. 2, his last start for Nippon Ham, Otani twirled a two-hit shutout and hit cleanup, going 1 for 4.
Otani's skill set makes him a uniquely valuable player, someone who might command $250 million or more on the open market. Thanks to MLB rules for signing previously unsigned international free agents, however, Otani's going to get drastically less from whichever team ends up winning his services. That's why the Rangers have a chance to sign him despite being hamstrung by several bad contracts.
During the 2017 season, the Rangers made several trades to acquire cash for their international free-agent pool, leaving themselves with the ability to give Otani the biggest signing bonus — about $3 million — of any MLB team.
Combined with the relationships Rangers front-office personnel have built in Japan since they began scouting Darvish almost a decade ago, the cash could make the Rangers an attractive destination for the pitcher. It doesn't hurt that that Rangers manager Jeff Banister has indicated that he is open to Otani hitting for the Rangers on days he isn't pitching — something Otani very much wants to do — either.
The only potential snags in the Otani fun are recent reports that the Japanese league and Major League Baseball have been unable to work out an extension to the posting agreement between them that requires teams signing Japanese players to pay a fee of up to $20 million to their former Japanese teams. Until a posting agreement is in place, Otani's status is in limbo.
Where the Rangers must get better
The Rangers will hit the ball in 2018, just like they did in 2017. There is enough talent throughout the lineup — highlighted by an emerging Joey Gallo, a rejuvenated Elvis Andrus and the ageless Adrian Beltre — for the team to be a first-division club offensively. In order to contend, the Rangers are going to have to get a lot better starting pitchers.
The rotation cupboard is bare. After Cole Hamels and Martin Perez, it's unclear who the team's third starter would be if the season started this week, much less who would start the team's fourth and fifth games. Signing Otani would help shore up the rotation, as would re-signing Yu Darvish — although signing Darvish is likely to take at least $150 million. The likeliest scenario is that the Rangers will attempt to pick a few serviceable bargain starters off the scrap heap, which they've successfully done with Colby Lewis and Andrew Cashner over the past couple of seasons, and hope that flame-throwing reliever Matt Bush successfully completes his expected transition to the starting rotation.
One name to keep an eye on is Miles Mikolas. Mikolas, a former Rangers farmhand, is expected to return to the U.S. in 2018 from a stint in Japan. While he doesn't have Otani's eye-popping raw talent, Mikolas racked up a 2.25 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 188 innings pitched in 2017. Mikolas could be available at a decent price and might choose to re-sign with the organization that drafted him in 2009.
Potential breakout player
Nomar Mazara hasn't been great during his two seasons with the Rangers, but he's more than held his own, an impressive feat for a player who won't turn 22 until after opening day next year. Mazara has all the tools and is getting to the age at which players often make the leap to being stars. While Mazara's home run stats have never matched his raw strength, an improvement in his power numbers — he's hit 20 home runs in each of his two big league campaigns — could see him making the trip to Washington, D.C., for the All-Star Game. While the Rangers will have a lot of moving parts this offseason — Mazara's fellow starting outfielder, Shin-Soo Choo will be the subject of numerous trade rumors during the winter — Mazara should be locked in as the team's 2018 right fielder.
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Potential breakdown player
If Rougned Odor doesn't change his approach in 2018, he risks losing not only his starting job at second base, but also his future with the Rangers. Last year, Odor was one of the worst everyday players in baseball, thanks in large part to his abysmal .252 on-base percentage. He was a black hole in the middle of the Rangers lineup, one that the team can't afford to suffer again in 2018.
If he starts off slow, Banister and Daniels will be tempted to give Jurickson Profar, the star-crossed Rangers farmhand who used to be baseball's best middle-infield prospect, one last chance.
Best-case scenario/worst-case scenario
If the Rangers sign either Otani or Darvish, pick up another starting pitcher and find a way to reset Odor, they'll likely be about as good in 2018 as they were in 2017. That's to say they'll be fringe contenders, the second most talented team in the American League West to the Astros. They'll compete for a wild-card spot, hoping to sneak into the playoffs.
If they aren't able to fill in the pitching staff, Mazara doesn't take a step forward and Beltre finally begins to show his age, the Rangers could easily finish a distant fourth in the American League West, behind the Astros, Mariners and Angels, who still have Mike Trout, baseball's best player. At that point, a full rebuild, the kind the Astros experienced earlier this decade, may be necessary to get the club back on track as it gets ready to move into its new stadium in 2020.