When Andy Ibáñez lofted a lazy fly ball into short right field on October 3, 2021, cementing the last out in a 6–0 Texas Rangers defeat and the last out of the regular season, the moment was seen as the end of another sorry year for the club. It was the Rangers’ fifth straight campaign without making the playoffs, and with a 60–102 record in 2021, the team had broken the 100-loss barrier mark of extreme ineptitude.
What the 28,396 fans at Globe Life Field that day likely didn’t expect was that the Rangers’ front office would devote its off-season to the largest winter spending spree in baseball history. Since last fall, Texas has committed a total of $580.7 million to free-agent contracts for new players, according to the contract database Spotrac. That’s more than double the amount committed this offseason by the next-closest team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Corey Seager, a gifted shortstop from the Dodgers, signed the largest of those deals with Texas: $325 million over ten years, the largest free-agent contract this year and the largest in Rangers’ history (eclipsing Alex Rodriguez’s $252 million contract in 2000). The Rangers also added infielder Marcus Semien, who finished third in American League MVP voting last season, for $175 million over seven years, and Jon Gray, a former first-round pick and starting pitcher for the Colorado Rockies, for four years and $56 million. Throw in a new starting right fielder (Kole Calhoun, signed in free agency), a new starting catcher (Mitch Garver, acquired in a trade from the Minnesota Twins), and a few more players on one-year deals . . . it’s a haul.
But in making these acquisitions when they did, the Rangers rejected the current baseball orthodoxy—don’t throw big money at expensive veterans before your team is ready to compete for the playoffs and for championships. In recent years, many franchises (including the Houston Astros, before their current run of dominance) have spent years in the cellar collecting valuable draft picks and developing waves of young talent to engineer their turnarounds. Only when those clubs bounce back to the point that they’re vying for playoff position do they acquire one or more veterans to put them over the hump.
So why are the Rangers, coming off two straight seasons when they were on pace to lose more than one hundred games, splashing this kind of cash? To quote an Old West legend, “What in the wide, wide world of sports is a-goin’ on here?” As with most major league clubs’ strategies, there are business reasons and baseball reasons behind the Rangers’ moves—and one can’t easily be separated from the other.
The Business Angle
Over the past thirty years, the City of Arlington has supported the Rangers with billions of dollars in public money for two different stadiums. The most recent, Globe Life Field, a retractable-roof stadium opened in 2020, cost a total of $1.1 billion, $500 million of which was paid for with municipal bonds backed by sales taxes and other local government revenues. COVID restrictions and a shortened season in 2020 hampered any ambitions the club had for a grand opening, but the Rangers haven’t given up on the opportunity to create an exciting live atmosphere before the facility loses its new ballpark smell. And first impressions matter: fans who experience a competitive team in a new, packed stadium are more likely to come back than those who encounter a somnolent club playing in front of scattered, disinterested crowds.
In addition, the Rangers, in partnership with the City of Arlington and the Cordish Companies, have created Texas Live!, a $250 million entertainment district next to Globe Life Field. Texas Live!, which opened in August 2018, is home to bars, restaurants, and live events, as well as a hotel and convention space. Already, the group has announced plans for an $810 million expansion of Texas Live!, to include “an additional 888 hotel rooms, new convention center, corporate office headquarters, mixed-use residential building, small business coworking and incubator space, and additional dining, retail and entertainment options.”
Mixed-use real-estate developments are increasingly popular among baseball ownership groups. Many clubs, including the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, and Chicago Cubs, have either developed real estate projects near their ballparks or currently have agreements to do so. These projects offer a number of advantages to owners, not least of which is the promise of consistent, long-term earnings from tenants, as well as an additional income stream that is not subject to MLB revenue sharing rules, which cover earnings from gate receipts, concessions, parking, local television rights, etc.
But in order to maximize the returns on Texas Live!, the Rangers need to put a compelling product on the field—something that will not only bring fans to the ballpark but also keep them hanging out at the adjacent bars and restaurants before and after games. In 2000, former Rangers owner Tom Hicks financed the team’s acquisition of Rodriguez with a major boost from recently signed deals with Fox Sports, which included lucrative local television-rights fees for Rangers games. Two decades later, the Rangers’ most recent splurge was also made with an eye toward revenue streams far beyond peanuts and Cracker Jack.
The Baseball Angle
But for those of us who prefer rooting for baseball teams rather than tracking billionaires’ balance sheets, one question remains: will these signings make the team any good? If it’s left entirely up to Seager, Semien, and the rest of this free-agent group, the answer is: probably not.
The Rangers will need more than a handful of stars, and they’re counting on getting most of that support from a collection of players who have yet to play a game in a major league uniform.
As the market for free agents has skyrocketed (particularly for the best players in the game), big-league clubs have increasingly relied on their farm systems to fill out their rosters with young talent at rock-bottom rates. It’s one thing to spend $32.5 million a year on Corey Seager; teams today invest more time, effort, and money than ever before on searching for and attempting to develop young players who can provide impact similar to that of a Seager at a cost of at or near $700,000 (the MLB’s minimum salary for 2022).
Here, the Rangers have made strides over the past year, thanks to the maturation of several young minor leaguers, as well as a passel of prospects acquired in trades last summer for outfielder Joey Gallo (to the Yankees), and pitchers Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy (to the Phillies). Texas now ranks ninth among MLB teams in Baseball America’s 2022 team prospect rankings. That’s up from twenty-fourth in 2021, representing the largest jump of any team in baseball during that period.
Since 2019, the club has shifted from drafting toolsy, über-athletic high school players in the early rounds of the draft to selecting more polished prospects from the college ranks—players who may lack the potential superstar “ceiling” of the high school draftees, but who reach the big leagues at a higher rate and tend to get there faster. The Rangers’ farm system now includes three of Baseball America’s top one hundred prospects, including two recent first-round picks from the college ranks, pitcher Jack Leiter (number 25, drafted last year from Vanderbilt) and third baseman Josh Jung (number 26, taken in 2019 from Texas Tech). Those two, along with pitcher Cole Winn (number 61), could all be playing in the Metroplex by or before 2023.
Only the Mariners’ farm system (ranked first in MLB) tops Texas among teams in the American League West, and the other clubs in the division (the Astros, Los Angeles Angels, and Oakland Athletics) all ranked among the bottom five. In the next couple of years, that additional surge of young talent could make a crucial difference in a division race. And even with their signings this off-season, the Rangers’ projected opening day payroll for its forty-man roster is only $149.9 million, nineteenth-highest in baseball, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. If the club makes significant strides toward contention in the next couple years, there should be enough financial room to acquire more talent for a playoff push.
For now, Rangers fans can close their eyes and dream of a 2023 infield with Seager bracketed by Semien, Jung and first baseman Nate Lowe, or a pitching rotation with Leiter, Winn, and young fireballer Spencer Howard backing up Gray and Dane Dunning. It’s asking a lot of those young players to provide immediate impact upon their MLB debuts. But in a league that just expanded its playoffs from ten to twelve teams, if the Rangers have the right veterans in place when the kids arrive, is it too much to imagine playoff runs around the corner?
Maybe it would have been better timing for the Rangers if they had signed Seager, Semien, and Gray in a year or two, once some of the prospects in the team’s farm system were more firmly established as big-league players. But those same free agents won’t be available in a year or two—they were available now. This off-season boasted perhaps the best-ever collection of free-agent shortstops, and Texas acquired two of them. There’s no guarantee the team could have done the same next year, or the year after.
If most clubs wait for their young talent to arrive before breaking the bank on expensive free agents, the Rangers are just doing it the other way around: Get the veterans first, and then wait for the cavalry of developing players to push them over the top. For ownership, this is a riskier way to build a roster.
Seager, who turns 28 later this month, has already lost a career total of 259 days to the injured list with elbow, hand, and hamstring issues, and players rarely become more durable as they grow older. Semien is 31, an age at which teams often start anticipating a decline in player performance. Gray has spent his entire career starting home games in the high-altitude environment of Denver’s Coors Field, which has been a graveyard for lesser pitchers; moving to Texas may unlock new levels of performance (reports from spring training have already touted the new slider Gray developed with the Rangers’ pitching coaches), but that’s not guaranteed.
Prospects, especially young pitchers, rarely develop exactly as you’d expect, and right now there are still weak spots scattered throughout the Rangers’ pitching staff. There are innumerable ways for any strategy to go sideways; success or failure depends on the proper execution of countless small actions or decisions that won’t attract public notice, as well as a dash of luck. If the plan doesn’t work and the team continues to lose, the Rangers will be the only thing worse than bad. They’ll be bad and expensive.
But in baseball, there’s a difference between managing risk and operating in fear. At some point, every team with championship aspirations will have to take chances on impact players and hope they’ve made the right call. The Rangers’ off-season spending, while unprecedented for a one-hundred-loss club, makes sense for the organization, both as a team-building and a profit-seeking enterprise. At a time when some teams seem comfortable slashing payroll and languishing in the basement, Texas deserves credit for trying something different and ponying up to do it.
The Rangers are taking their shot. What happens next . . . that’s where the game starts.