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Why the Rangers Just Made a Seemingly Weird Move for a Rebuilding Team

Jon Daniels speaks to Rangers fans at an Academy Sports and Outdoors in 2009.
Jon Daniels speaks to Rangers fans at an Academy Sports and Outdoors in 2009.
Sam Merten

Rangers general manager Jon Daniels seems to be trying to do two things at once. He's trying to rebuild a major league roster and farm system that desperately need it, that's his first priority, but he's also trying to do so without completely ruining his team's on-field product for four or five seasons, as other teams, most notably the Astros, have done in recent years.

The Rangers aren't going to win 90 games, but Daniels is doing his best to make sure they don't lose 90, which partly explains his most recent move.

Wednesday, Daniels handed relief pitcher Jose Leclerc a contract extension that's going to end up being worth between $14 million and $26.25 million, depending on whether the Rangers elect to pick up two team options at the end of the deal. Based on last season, Leclerc deserves his new contract.

Leclerc finished 2018 with a 1.52 ERA, .123 batting average against and 85 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings. His stuff is electric, perfect for the back end of a winning bullpen. The 2019 Rangers aren't going to the playoffs, though, so what's the point of locking down a player who might be the team's best asset when it seeks to add a couple of prospects at this summer's trade deadline?

The Rangers have been burned by this type of deal. Three times in the last decade, they've made significant commitments to players years away from free agency — in 2012 with Derek Holland, in 2013 with Martin Perez and in 2017 with Rougned Odor. In the cases of Holland and Perez, the Rangers ended up with far less than they hoped for.

Holland was OK during the first two years of his five-season, $28.5 million extension, but he made just 35 starts for the Rangers over the last three years of the deal. Perez signed his new contract after a career year in 2013 but tore his ulnar collateral ligament the next year and was never the same. The Rangers declined their 2019 club option on Perez, making him a free agent. He's trying to revive his career with the Minnesota Twins.

While the jury's still out on Odor's six-year, $49.5 million extension, he was the worst position player in baseball in 2017, the year after he cashed in. Odor was OK in 2018, but 2019 is still a big year for the second baseman.

Despite the club's recent history, Leclerc's contract still makes sense because, even though it could end up running as long as six years, it is so cheap that it doesn't make him any less of an asset to the Rangers, whether it's on the field or to seal a trade. The most expensive potential years on the deal — the fifth- and six-year options at $6 and $6.25 million, respectively — would cost the Rangers less than half of what a reliever of Leclerc's caliber would cost on the open market. Even if Leclerc never pitches like he did in 2018 again, the deal has every chance of being a steal.

For at least the first couple of years of Leclerc's contract, the Rangers aren't going to be any good. By year three or four, however, there's no reason to think they won't be in playoff contention. Leclerc might be taking the mound for the next great Rangers team. He might have been traded to help build it. Either way, Daniels' move Wednesday did nothing but brighten the Rangers' future.

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