Yesterday wasn't a good day for the Rangers in any conceivable sense. While a crack was busy making itself visible in the Scott Feldman facade, James Shields was busy spinning a masterful four-hitter. Both Feldman and the relief corps would had to have been damn near perfect to even give the Rangers a fighting chance at winning -- and, to make matters worse, the still-lingering Angels trumped the visiting Mariners by four runs despite recording four fewer hits on the night. Not even the aspect of the team that I want to focus on this morning was able to do anything of note yesterday, but, fortunately, that won't do much to detract from the overarcing point I want to make.
For all of the semantic disagreements that tend to arise whenever one stops to point out the quality of the Rangers' 2011 offense, and all of those arguments about whether or not it is truly "elite," the reality of the matter is that it has flourished from what was a nice, above-average component of last year's team into an enormous, game-changing asset. Case in point: in 2010, the Rangers' offense was good for a grand total of +36.6 park-adjusted runs above average for the entire regular season. With 20 games to go in the 2011 regular season, it's sitting at +95.2 runs -- nearly 60 runs better (or six full wins), with the offensive gains at one position in particular being especially profound.
Because even though the Rangers have taken meaningful offensive steps forward this season at first base (65 sOPS+ in 2010 to 90 sOPS+ in 2011), second base (107 sOPS+ to 128 sOPS+), third base (108 sOPS+ to 129 sOPS+), shortstop (86 sOPS+ to 93 sOPS+), center field (90 sOPS+ to 101 sOPS+), and right field (123 sOPS+ to 132 sOPS+), the heavy drop-off out in left field (154 sOPS+ to 105 sOPS+) cuts deep into all of those other positional gains, and, again, there's one position in particular that has helped greatly in counteracting the fall of Josh Hamilton this season:
Last season, the Rangers charged Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who landed on the disabled list almost immediately with a back injury, then found himself relegated to the minors, and then encountered a well-publicized spate of throwing problems before being shipped to Boston in a mid-season deal), Taylor Teagarden, Matt Treanor, Max Ramirez, and (eventually) Bengie Molina with the catching duties, and while there was abundant talk at the time about how they were able to extract the very best from the Rangers' starting pitching, the ugly reality of the matter was that they were, on the whole, utterly horrendous with the lumber. In addition to their ugly composite .217/.288/.317 showing (74 sOPS+), the Rangers' backstops collectively ranked third-worst offensively at their position in baseball -- a feat Texas hadn't managed since 1984.
This year, though? At the risk of getting too far ahead of myself, I think that we're looking at a sort of catching renaissance in Texas, however brief it may prove to be.. Outside of Pudge's prime (1994-2002), the Rangers have been within spitting distance of the 120 sOPS+ mark only three other times -- from 1978-81 (or during Jim Sundberg's prime), from 1987-88 (during the brief window when Geno Petralli was actually a good hitter), and in 2008, when the quartet of Saltalamacchia, Teagarden, Ramirez, and Gerald Laird gave rise to all kinds of talk about the Rangers' unprecedented catching depth. Three years later, Saltalamacchia is the starting catcher for another team, Teagarden is on the "lifetime backup" career track, Ramirez is playing for his third organization this year alone, and Laird ... well, it's not looking good.
And, of course, full credit is due to Yorvit Torrealba (339 PA, .275/.308/.406, 102 sOPS+) and Mike Napoli (187 PA, .325/.417/.619, 192 sOPS+) for driving the biggest single-season catching offense turnaround in franchise history, and for vaulting the Rangers from the third-worst catchers' sOPS+ mark in baseball to third-best (127 sOPS+), behind only the Tigers (139 sOPS+) and the Braves (138 sOPS+). Even if you build a nice dose of regression into those numbers going into 2012, I would suggest you're looking at a duo capable of sitting in the general vicinity of a 110-115 sOPS+ next season -- and given how poorly things have gone behind the plate in terms of offense during the post-Pudge era, I think we could all very easily rally behind that kind of showing.
But there's a problem.
I've thought it to be virtually inconceivable that the Rangers would cut bait with Napoli after this season, in spite of the enormous pay raise that he'll deservedly be in line for -- and while I still don't think the Rangers will pull any non-tender or sign-and-trade-type move, I suppose there is a scenario where exactly that sort of thing could end up transpiring.
I haven't yet gone over my own self-estimated payroll projection for next season with a fine-toothed comb, but I currently have the Rangers' 2012 payroll commitment -- which consists of guys with guaranteed major league deals, as well as guys like Elvis Andrus and Matt Harrison who are headed for assured paydays via arbitration, and critical pre-arbitration pieces like Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz -- pegged at around $84-85 million. Now, throw in the likes of Mark Lowe, one of Yoshinori Tateyama or Darren O'Day, probably Darren Oliver on another one-year deal, and possibly David Murphy, and you're sitting very close to $94 million for next year's major league payroll.
That's before accounting for Napoli, who banked $5.8 million before his monstrous 2011 campaign, and who is hitting .293/.392/.583 with 23 home runs in just 360 plate appearances, which works out to a little more than four wins above replacement this season. Tack on the fact that he is entering his final, most expensive year of arbitration eligibility, and the fact that he's also able to claim the title of "part-time catcher," and I think you're looking at a very good chance of Napoli requiring a $9 million commitment next season. That would send Texas soaring north of the $100 million mark.
And that's before consummating any trades, or signing any free agents ... or, for that matter, even thinking about re-signing C.J. Wilson, who would be looking at no less than $17-18 million in the first year of his forthcoming post-2011 megadeal. Now, team revenues are certainly up, as the Rangers are flirting with the three million mark in attendance this season after last year's deep post-season run, and the pockets of Rangers Baseball Express run deep -- but, as we all know, there are always limits as to how far any team not named the Red Sox or Yankees can stretch its capital. Could the Rangers support a potential $110-plus million payroll as early as next season? Will they?
I'm hopeful that the answer is 'yes' on the first count (and 'yes' on the second count as well, provided that they wisely allocate their resources), but I'm not brimming with confidence. Perhaps I should be, but I'm not. All I really am certain of at this point is that payroll will likely increase by a substantial margin in the next six months ... and that there is little hope of the Rangers' present catching renaissance persevering onward into 2012 unless the organization elects to make Mike Napoli part of that increase. Granted, that may not even be foremost on the Rangers' minds, and it's certainly possible that the master plan (which we do all have to trust in at this point, I think) doesn't have any room carved into it for Napoli ... but I, for one, am definitely not ready for life without Napoli.