The Texas Rangers are in much better financial shape going into this off-season than they were last year and are hoping to use their increased capabilities to keep the excitement building in the franchise. It’s not hard to squint your eyes just so and see how a good front office continuously putting a good product onto the field helps Chuck Greenberg work his marketing magic and turn the Texas Ranges into one of the more successful franchises in baseball, both on and off the field. It’s certainly what we are all hoping for.
However, they are not there yet. While last year’s team was able to make moves and get by on an extremely limited budget, players heading into arbitration and the impending free agency of several key players means that the Rangers have less flexibility than those who survived the ownership saga might have hoped for. It’s easy to see how this franchise could sustain a salary in the second tier (No. 3-8) of MLB, but it’s also quite possible that they can’t capitalize on this momentum and stay in the middle tier in terms of payroll. Fortunately, baseball is at a point where it is possible to not only contend, but excel with a mid-tier salary.
In order to compete with franchises that have more cash, the Rangers are going to have to make some unconventional moves. Last year’s team was built on the success of a reformed addict, starting pitcher cast away to Japan, and a reliever turned starter. After adding Yorvit Torrealba, the 2011 Rangers need to address DH/1B in addition to needing another starting pitcher and depth throughout. There are a number of options in free agency that could fill the DH/1B role, but perhaps the Rangers could address another glaring weakness at the same time: third base defense.
While it is true that Michael Young’s role as one of the faces of the franchise has resulted in increased expectations of performance, and much grumbling when those expectations aren’t met, he is not the replacement-level player that many of us imagine him being in the emotional reaction to a strikeout. He has been a reliably (slightly) above league-average hitter since 2003. His value as a hitter has ranged from 22.5 to 58.5 runs a year, settling in for a 35-run average. However, those who have hung around these parts for a while know that there is another critical issue with Michael Bryan Young: his defense. After (somewhat) graciously moving from shortstop to third base, many, including myself, assumed that he would provide at least neutral defense and mainly hoped that he would be able to hit well enough to justify the move.
Two years later and the hitting seems to be acceptable, while the defense has been below average. UZR often needs a large sample size than hitting statistics to mean anything significant, with three years being the rule of thumb. Two years' worth of poor UZR numbers and the anecdotal visual evidence give us enough data to suggest that Young is unlikely to be an even average defensive third basebmen next year. He had a UZR of -7.6 in 2009 and -5.4 in 2010. I think a reasonable projection for him for 2011, considering age and recent performance, would fall somewhere in the -5 to -10 range. This means that even another solid year at the plate next year would make him a league-average (~2 WAR) player. And any decline, age-related or other ...
Addressing third-base defense is not the most pressing concern for the Rangers; however, addressing it appropriately could result in as big of an improvement as signing or trading for one of baseball’s elite talents. This is because the Rangers currently have an opening at DH/1B. Fortunately, the team has enough good hitters that it doesn’t need to invest in the best hitters in free agency, but their location on the win curve means that every improvement is important. Moving Michael Young to first base with Moreland becoming the backup first baseman and getting more plate appearances in the DH role would result in a harsher positional defense penalty (-12.5 runs at first base) for Young, but I have a feeling that he would likely end up with similar value defensively. Offensively, he would likely be somewhat below average compared to the average MLB first baseman, but still have a better projection than the Rangers' current first base options.
Now, this move would only make sense if there was a good candidate to replace Michael Young. Enter Adrian Beltre. The perception of Beltre by those who doubt him seem to focus on his disproportionate success in contract years and his reputation as a player who gets injured a lot. While he has had some injuries, his only season in the past nine that resulted in him seeing less than 600 plate appearances was in 2009 for the Mariners, when he only hit 477. The ‘contract year success’ seems to conveniently ignore how poorly he played in his last year for the Mariners, though that still resulted in a nice 2.5 WAR season (one of only three seasons under 3.0 WAR for him in the last 12 years). Additionally, his relatively mediocre hitting statistics during his time in Seattle become less worrisome when one sees his .340 wOBA away from Safeco and remembering that it also encompassed two of the worst years of his career.
Please note that I do not think that Adrian Beltre will hit as well as he did last year, where he flourished in moving from Seattle’s cavern to Boston’s more hitter-friendly confines to the tune of a .321/.365/.553 slash line, a. 390 wOBA, and an All-Star appearance. StatCorner had his park-adjusted wOBA* at a still-excellent .384. Oddly enough, he hit better on the road than at home, with .403 and .375 wOBAs, respectively. I think that it’s more likely that Beltre goes back to being the solid, above-average hitter that he has been previously in his career while also rolling the dice that he has a couple more powerful years in the Texas heat. So why take on the risk of signing him? Quite simply:
Adrian Beltre’s UZR the past 3 years has been +11.0, +14.7, and +11.8. Most anecdotal reports confirm that he is an excellent defender and his two Gold Gloves certainly don’t hurt (though how much they help is a separate debate). Assuming health, most would feel comfortable projecting Beltre as a +10 UZR/year defender for the next couple of years. This is where Beltre’s value lies, value so great as to warrant moving Young across the diamond. As Young’s defense continues to decline, it seems likely that Beltre will be providing 15 to 20 runs better defense, or approaching two games, all while providing similar offense.
There is definitely some risk to pursuing Beltre. As a 31-year-old player who is seeking a four- or five-year deal, signing him involves taking on a player who is currently in his plateau phase to a contract that will likely involve some of his decline phase. However, he is a player who I would comfortably project in the 3-4 WAR range over the next 2-3 years, when the Rangers are likely to be at a critical point on the win curve. The great news for a team in the Rangers’ salary range is that since a significant portion of his value is derived from his defense (roughly one-third), it is likely that he can be signed for a below-market or fair contract based on his projected performance rather than the highly inflated prices we’ve seen handed out already this offseason (yes, you, Jayson Werth).
Roughly projecting forward, it seems likely that Beltre will be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of 9-10 WAR over the next three years, 11-12 WAR over the next four years and 12-14 WAR over the next five years. It seems unwise to project 4 WAR seasons 3-4 years into the future for a player who is currently 31, though it can and does happen. While I would love to minimize risk and see him signed to the Rangers for three years, I think he will get four years, necessitating a contract in the four-year, $60 million range, possibly with an optional/vested fifth year bringing the total value up to $70 million.
In return, the Rangers would get a likely 3.5-4.0 WAR player for third base and improve first base production to an unsexy but steady level that has not been seen over the course of an entire season since Mark Teixeira left. It’s hard to project what the total improvement would be because of the variance in Mitch Moreland’s future, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this move could be a 5.0 WAR improvement to the team next year. In other words, it could be as significant as signing a certain pitcher everyone seems to be clamoring for endlesslee.