In their second straight big-spending offseason, the Texas Rangers appeared intent on stockpiling a surplus of major-league-caliber starting pitchers. Jacob deGrom was the headliner, of course, but GM Chris Young — a former starting pitcher himself — kept going. He brought in Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney and re-signed Martin Perez, adding that group to Jon Gray to form a rotation and holding Dane Dunning and others in reserve.
A glance at the standings says it’s paying off. The Rangers enter Thursday with the third-best record in MLB and atop the AL West, still three games clear of the red-hot Houston Astros. And their run differential points toward the potential for more. At +112, they have played like a 33-15 squad, a signal of strength … and a need to upgrade the bullpen by the trade deadline.
Some of that has been the pitching, undeniably. Prior to hitting the injured list, deGrom blazed through six starts with a 2.67 ERA and his usual heavy doses of Ks. Eovaldi has been dynamite, working deep into games with a 2.60 ERA, 66% better than average by park-adjusted ERA+.
But excellence — with some health questions — was the expectation for those guys. The difference between the Rangers’ projected place in the pecking order and their current position in first place can be found in their bats. Spring forecasts had to reckon with the possibility that the Rangers had more playoff-caliber starting pitchers than playoff-caliber hitters, which sounds great until you think about it for a second.
As it turns out, Texas leads MLB with 6.4 runs per game and ranks second in team OPS+ at 118 (behind the Tampa Bay Rays’ astounding 137), even with Corey Seager having missed more than half the campaign. The Rangers have seven hitters with at least 100 plate appearances under their belts logging OPS+ marks of 115 or better — again, second-most behind the Rays. And that’s the development worth talking about.
Star second baseman Marcus Semien, comparatively old news now after signing a $175 million deal prior to 2022, is the best of the group, leading the team with a 139 OPS+. Having already accumulated 2.4 FanGraphs WAR, he ranks among the five most valuable position players in baseball thus far in 2023. Nathaniel Lowe, the first baseman who broke out in 2022, has also continued hitting. But new levels of optimism are springing up thanks to other hitters taking serious steps forward: Adolis Garcia, Jonah Heim, Ezequiel Duran and Leody Taveras — plus top prospect-turned-reliable rookie Josh Jung, who has a 120 OPS+.
Adolis Garcia is still getting better
One of the holdovers from the Rangers’ rebuild is perhaps the most encouraging cog in this hitting machine. The Rangers acquired Garcia, a 30-year-old outfielder from Cuba, from the St. Louis Cardinals for cash in December 2019. (That was less than a month before St. Louis traded away Randy Arozarena, the Rays’ superhero whose powers are activated by national television cameras. Not a great month for the Cardinals.)
Garcia stepped into real playing time in 2021 and looked like a thrilling but undiscerning hitter. He slugged 31 homers that year and scraped out league-average production despite a .286 on-base percentage and 31.2% strikeout rate — which, frankly, was an accomplishment in and of itself. The power, combined with good defense, won him a role as the Rangers turned an eye toward contending again. Garcia rewarded the team with an improved, if still lackluster, .300 OBP in 2022, cutting his strikeout rate to 27.9% and stealing 25 bases to go with 27 homers.
This season, more drastic improvement is afoot. Garcia’s average exit velocities rank among the game’s elite, and he has never had any issue lifting the ball. He has the bat speed and muscle to pulverize the league’s nastiest pitches, as he proved last week when he became the first hitter to go deep off Atlanta Braves flamethrower Spencer Strider twice in one game.
As the Rangers were surely aware, a version of Garcia with even average plate discipline could be a monster, and this year, he might be turning into that. Thanks to a more patient approach at the plate, his on-base percentage is up to .323 — just above MLB average — and his strikeout rate is down again to 23.4%. After chasing a grimace-inducing 40% of balls out of the strike zone in 2021 and 2022, Garcia has refined his eye. This season, he’s going fishing only 30.3% of the time (as of Tuesday), better than your typical hitter.
You see where this is going. Garcia is boasting a career-best 134 OPS+. He’s tied with Aaron Judge for the AL lead in homers, with 14, and leads all of baseball with 49 RBI. Presented with an MLB-leading 114 plate appearances with runners on, he has risen to the occasion with a .326/.395/.695 line, one of MLB’s 10 best by OPS (as of Tuesday).
The Rangers’ burgeoning 20-somethings
Then there are the younger guys making progress, and their almost uniformly upward trajectory counts as a bigger pleasant surprise than Garcia’s big bopper star turn. See, the Rangers had been in a bit of a hitter development rut. Prior to Lowe, the most recent 28-or-under product of their farm system to log even a 100 OPS+ (or a league-average offensive line) came in the forms of Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar in 2018.
The next wave had never really materialized — until now.
Many of the Rangers’ new faces came in via trade. Heim, the 6-foot-4 catcher, arrived in the deal that sent Elvis Andrus to the Oakland Athletics (remember when the A’s were trading for major-league reinforcements?). While valuable for his excellent receiving, the switch-hitting Heim struggled with low batting averages in previous seasons.
The issue wasn’t a lack of contact; he actually makes a heartily above-average rate of contact, especially on strikes. But he was often popping the ball up or reaching deep counts and then ending at-bats on tough pitches. This season, he has made something like the opposite of Garcia’s adjustment, swinging far more often at pitches down the middle and straightening them out. Right now, that amounts to a .280 batting average and 120 OPS+, huge production for a catcher. Soon to be 28, Heim won’t reach free agency until after 2026.
Fellow trade addition Duran has also boosted his stock by crushing hits all over the place during a stint filling in for Seager. The former Yankees prospect — he came over in the Joey Gallo deal — is probably swinging a less sustainable stick than Garcia or Heim due to extreme aggression, but it’s working for the moment. Duran, just 24 years old, is batting .301 on the season, thanks to an all-fields line-drive approach.
With the star shortstop back, Duran doesn’t have a lock on an every-day role, but Texas would probably be happy to see him keep hitting and supplant Brad Miller or Robbie Grossman, veteran hitters on the downsides of their careers. Duran has slotted in at DH three times in the past week and played two more games at shortstop with Seager easing in as DH.
Then there are the fully homegrown hitters. Taveras is playing in his fourth MLB season but earning regular playing time for only the second time. A top Texas prospect since he was 17, he is a superlative defender in center field who simply had not hit to this point. He’s likely never going to light the world on fire with power, but he’s hanging in more at-bats and getting the bat on more of the sliders that bedeviled him last season.
Jung, meanwhile, hasn’t required nearly as long of a learning curve. The No. 8 overall pick in the 2019 draft emerged as a polished product from Texas Tech, got his feet wet in the majors last season and is barreling ahead this year. His strikeout rate is a bit concerning, but it improved from April to May. This early in his career, it’s promising that the pull-happy, right-handed slugger is getting to his power consistently.
Granted, some of these performances are likely to wane as the Rangers reach the summer. The Astros might soon power ahead in the division. But what was once a questionable lineup now appears to have a well-stocked menu of options beyond Semien and Seager.
Add the rebuilt starting rotation, and the Rangers’ so-simple-it-just-might-work plan is cruising toward success — enough so that they will probably feel compelled to go hard after the final pieces of the puzzle by August.
This post was originally published on YahooSports
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