MLB: Texas Rangers at Los Angeles Angels

The Texas Rangers are a uniquely positioned baseball club. Few teams appear as dedicated to winning as the Rangers, a club that used its considerable wealth to engineer the Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder trade, taking on a very significant amount of salary to upgrade their offense.

In addition to spending on players like Prince Fielder (not to mention extending Kinsler (twice) and signing shortstop Elvis Andrus to a longterm deal), the Rangers have a deep pool of prospects to draw from, should they opt to spend some of that prospect capital in search of a difference maker. And yet, other than the Matt Garza trade, the Rangers seem more interested in holding their prospects than moving them (until, of course, they do move them en masse.)

Despite spending as they do and taking such definitive steps to improving their team on a regular basis, the Rangers haven’t quite reached the top of the mountain. They came as close as any team can without winning, reaching the World Series in two consecutive seasons. Then came the famous collapse of 2012 and, to a lesser extent, 2013.

The Rangers are in tough in the AL West against the bewildering A’s and the free-spending Angels. Both their World Series close call and 2013 pre-playoff game show just how much a single game matters. Which makes me wonder about their willingness to role with their as-yet-unproven young players.

For all their investment in Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish and Adrian Beltre, the Rangers still have many question marks around the diamond. At yesterday’s Prince Fielder unveiling/jersey sales opportunity, Rangers manager Ron Washington specified that Leonys Martin will begin the season as his leadoff hitter. Coupling this with the idea that the Rangers will, barring something unforseen, start the season with Jurickson Profar as their second baseman, I start to wonder if Texas might put too much stock in the abilities of their young players.

Last season, the Rangers transitioned into Life After Josh with Martin, Craig Gentry, Nelson Cruz and David Murphy as their outfield. The upgrade in defense and base running along with traditional performances from the veterans in the bunch to overcome the loss of Hamilton’s bat. According to Fangraphs flavor of WAR, the Rangers outfield was two wins worse in 2013 compared to 2012. They lost Nelson Cruz to suspension after 100 games but replaced him with Alex Rios seamlessly. David Murphy was dreadful in 2013, a far from his standard league-average season and is now gone as a free agent.

Leonys Martin responded with a decent season, worth about 2 wins thanks to his defense. His offensive numbers don’t inspire a great deal of confidence (.260/.313/.385 for a 87 wRC+) but he got on base at an above-average rate and stole bases effectively. Next year, he is projected to produce at a similar clip, improving to a 95 wRC+.

Even though the current trend in baseball points to more offensive center fielders (Martin ranked last among CFs with 500 plate appearances by wRC+) he still produced to a league-average level. When we look to the infield, the story is slightly different.

While more and more center fielders demonstrate an ability to swing the bat capably, the shortstop position heads the other way. More and more teams are willing to punt offense in exchange for decent defensive play from their shortstops. Which makes the Rangers decision to switch Jurickson Profar to second base a little problematic.

Is there any guarantee Profar can hit as well as an average second baseman? His 2013 season is a bit of a mess as he was played sparingly and switched around the diamond as the Rangers groped for offense. Anchoring him to second base allows Profar to focus on his offense. Keith Law of ESPN likes Profar’s chances to stick at second base on his “very advanced approach for his age and surprising pop for a player who’s not that physical, boasting strong hands and good bat speed from both sides of the plate.” The early projections don’t love Profar’s offense, based on his tiny big league sample but still crediting him to improve greatly over 2012.

Even if Martin and Profar play to their projections, the Rangers big picture strategy veers dangerously close to the stars and scrubs approach. It comes back to something Russell Carton wrote at Baseball Prospectus, something I feel as though I’ll reference on more than one occasion.

Teams aren’t trying to buy marginal wins as much as they are trying to increase their chances of making the postseason. Sometimes that means using a high-variance strategy. In that case, the volatile player might have more value to a team and be worth the extra million.

The Rangers seem to prefer high variance young players where a team like the Red Sox made hay by using high variance veterans. My fear, for Texas, is the difference between a high floor veteran like David Ross or Mike Napoli and higher ceiling but undetermined floor players like Profar, Martin or even Elvis Andrus (as marginal an offensive player as there is, but still a valuable commodity as a good defensive shortstop and base runner).

Jurickson Profar is talented enough and young enough that the range of his output in 2014 is incredibly broad. He might be a 2 WAR player, as great defense with little else at second base ala Darwin Barney. Or his tools translate into a very strong offensive player who also plays second base like a shortstop converted by circumstance (which is to say: very well.)

Young players are a different kind of volatile than veterans. The Rangers are gambling an awful lot of money (the zillions they’re paying Fielder) that Profar, Martin, and eventual Jorge Alfaro will not fall on their faces at the big league level. Betting that they can “get away” with “overpaying” Prince Fielder (relative to his value) by spotting in-house players around the diamond requires a minimum level of production from their young, cheaper options.

If it works for Texas, it won’t be stars and scrubs as much Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder with a whole lot of decent players. Might that be enough? Is it ever enough? Again – the Rangers were so desperate for offense in 2013 that they worked out a 21-year old shortstop in left field, hoping for a spark from a player with 20 career extra base hits.

Could the Rangers invest in a more expensive insurance policy? Robinson Cano still lurks on the free agent market, ready to blow this fiscally responsible plan out of the water. The same holds for a potential Giancarlo Stanton trade or even David Price.

The Rangers have nothing but options, making their decision to sit tight at the moment interesting. Not that they won’t make another definitive move to better insulate their expensive toys (Yu Darvish, Beltre, Rios, and Fielder will earn a combined $64 million in 2014) against the unpredictability of young players. There is a certain devotion to prospects among Rangers fans and supporters, a seemingly unwavering belief that their guys will pan out in a world where so, so few prospects ever realize their potential.

The Rangers front office can only keep piling up the talent and believe they can make the right decisions as to who to keep, who to push and and who to move. Successful as they have been, hopefully they don’t fall in love with their own ability to evaluate talent and end up squandering more great seasons from stars like Yu Darvish and Adrian Beltre. That kind of high end production doesn’t come easily or cheaply – even the TV cash rich Rangers have their limits.