One thing shelling out half a billion bucks in 24 hours will almost always do is generate good vibrations, and no Major League Baseball team needed them more than the Texas Rangers. This is how you change the narrative around your dismal little franchise. This is how you cause your long-suffering fans to sit up straight and take notice.
To go with that beautiful two-year-old ballpark, Globe Life Field, the Rangers took a huge step toward a return to respectability and more this week. In one of the craziest and most fun 24-hour stretches in baseball history, the little franchise in Arlington spent more money on free agents—$561.2 million—than any team ever has in an entire off-season.
This is not a finished product. The Houston Astros are still a better team. But the Rangers are gaining on them, and quickly. Their new middle infield of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien is expected to be among baseball’s best in 2022. The rotation just got deeper and better with the addition of Jon Gray. And new outfielder Kole Calhoun is a very good, under-the-radar fit.
Is there more to come? Absolutely. The Rangers could still use another outfielder and lots more pitching help. Clayton Kershaw? Come on over, buddy. It’s a short drive from your home in Dallas to Arlington, and the Rangers would be thrilled to see you write the final chapter of a Hall of Fame career for your hometown team.
Rangers fans didn’t believe something like this would happen, at least not to this dizzying extreme. After you’ve watched your favorite team rack up 102 losses in 2021, after you’ve watched the franchise lose more games than it won for five straight years, you begin to lose hope that the people in charge know what they’re doing.
Here’s what was happening behind the scenes of all that baseball futility over the last eighteen months, and here’s why it was time to spend on proven talent: the Rangers were building what may eventually be seen as one of Major League Baseball’s model organizations. They brought in a new general manager, Chris Young. They hired analysts that speak the new language of player evaluation and game preparation, emphasizing mathematics, spin rates, and launch angles over old-school baseball clichés. MLB’s best teams—the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, and Tampa Bay Rays—have done this for years.
The Rangers made the playoffs five times over a seven-season stretch between 2010 and 2016. That stretch included two trips to the World Series. In the years since, the team mostly went for quick fixes until last summer, when the franchise finally gave in to the reality that it needed to rebuild. That’s what prompted president of baseball operations Jon Daniels to trade away Joey Gallo, Kyle Gibson, and Ian Kennedy to help replenish the Rangers’ minor league ranks. In doing so, Daniels was tacitly admitting that “half measures” no longer worked. When this season mercifully ended, only the Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates had scored fewer runs than the Rangers, and only six teams had allowed more.
That set the stage for what happened this week. With a freeze on operations expected to begin when MLB’s labor agreement expires Wednesday night—and who knows how long it’ll take players and owners to settle on a new collective bargaining agreement—teams rushed into free agency like they’d never done before. Suddenly, there’s a buzz surrounding the Rangers that hasn’t been heard around North Texas in a long time. Whatever else Rangers fans say or think about their team, no one can claim that ownership isn’t all in on turning the franchise into a winner.
Until this week, the most money ever spent by a team in one off-season was $471 million, a record set by the New York Yankees after the 2013 season. The Rangers ran up a tab almost $100 million larger in one day. This why the team made those trades that reduced its 2022 payroll commitments to approximately $50 million. That’s about $100 million lower than the franchise’s pre-pandemic spending. At the moment, the Rangers have bumped it up $76 million, which means there’s room to do more.
“We said towards the end of the season that we are committed to having a payroll consistent with our market size,” Rangers general manager Chris Young told reporters at the MLB General Managers Meetings earlier this month. He said he’d polished his sales pitch to free agents weeks ago: “You have the opportunity to be part of something that’s never been done in Texas Ranger baseball history: Be part of a world championship team that is being built from the ground up. If you’re buying stock, now’s the time to buy stock in the Rangers.”
Rangers fans of a certain age might cringe at yesterday’s news, thanks to the bitter memory of a previous spending spree that didn’t turn out so well. That would be the ten-year, $252-million contract the team inked with shortstop Alex Rodriguez in 2000. Looking back, though, that deal was more about creating a marketing splash than winning games. After three consecutive losing seasons, Rodriguez was shipped to the Yankees, and the Rangers began building the teams that would make back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011.
This time, the Rangers know that one big signing won’t be enough. This is a squad with weaknesses up and down the roster, and they won’t all be filled until some of the franchise’s minor league players arrive and hopefully blossom—in 2022 and beyond. But this is a great start.
Semien and Seager got $500 million of the $561.2 million. At 31, Semien hit 45 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2021 and has finished third in American League MVP voting in two of the last three seasons. He’ll make $175 million over seven seasons. Seager, 27, is arguably the best offensive shortstop in baseball. His ten-year, $325 million contract is the second-largest ever given to a free agent. Only the thirteen-year, $330 million deal Bryce Harper got from the Philadelphia Phillies in 2019 is larger.
But don’t start scheduling parades just yet. The Rangers will be the first to say that all this spending does not come without risk. In recent MLB history, rebuilding franchises has meant being willing to stomach the pain of several losing seasons in order to spend more time accruing and developing minor league talent. Then, once the prospects reach the big leagues and teams show signs of becoming playoff contenders, free agency has been used to add the finishing touches to already-solid rosters.
The Rangers aren’t that far along in their rebuild, so they fast-tracked the process through free agency. Seager and Semien also bring the type of clubhouse presence—work ethic, leadership, teamwork—that manager Chris Woodward values.
That’s important for a franchise with a minor league system flush with young players who are expected to begin contributing in the majors in 2022. Among the most prominent is former Texas Tech third baseman Josh Jung, a 2019 first-round draft choice.
Over the next two seasons, pitchers Jack Leiter and Cole Winn, along with first baseman Sam Huff, could all impact the major league roster. How quickly they arrive will probably dictate how soon the Rangers return to the postseason for the first time since 2016.
The Rangers were already headed in the right direction. That’s the thing that’s been nearly impossible for some fans to wrap their minds around amid all the losing in Arlington. Progress occurs so slowly that it’s nearly impossible for any of those on the outside to even know it’s happening. It’s a brick-by-brick process, as minor league systems are steadily infused with better players and coaches, and as the team patiently allows its brightest talents to learn the game before throwing them in with the best players on the planet.
This is what Rangers front office executives mean when they speak of building “a championship culture.” In recent months, as rumors of big spending became a subplot in every nugget of news about the franchise, Daniels said he understood there might be some cynicism. “I don’t blame fans for taking a ‘we’ll believe it when we see it’ type of approach,” he said.
We believe it.