Rangers’ big investment in the middle infield is paying off

The most recent two offseasons have had a batch of excellent shortstops available in free agency. The saw off season 2021-2022 Carlos Correa, Corey Seeger, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story and Javier Baez reach the open market. He took a free agent class with Correa again after opting out of his first deal after one year, along with Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson.

Each player garnered plenty of interest and eventually secured a guarantee of over nine figures, often well above. All of the deals were among the most important for their respective franchises and certainly came with a lot of thought and scrutiny. Deciding to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over a period of about a decade on one player is not something that is done lightly. The deals are still years away and it’s too early to start declaring winners and losers, but one team that should be excited right now with how it played out in this market is the Texas Rangers.

The club had a lot of defeats until recently. After falling to the Blue Jays in the ALDS back-to-back years in 2015 and 2016, the Rangers entered a rebuilding period, finishing under .500 in each season after that. They apparently got fed up with this futility and tried to push the rebuild quickly by spending money aggressively. That came in surprising fashion after the 2021 campaign, when they nabbed two of the aforementioned star shortstops. They gave Seager $325mm over 10 years and Semien $175mm over seven, installing the latter as their everyday second baseman.

These contracts still have a way to go, but it’s hard to imagine they’ve gone much better so far. Last year, Seager launched 33 home runs and slashed .245/.317/.455. Even with a .242 average on balls in play dragging him down, he still posted a wRC+ of 117, or 17% above league average. When combined with his strong defense, he was worth 4.5 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.

Here in 2023, he’s missed significant time with a sprained left hamstring and a sprained right thumb, but he’s been eerie when he’s on the field. In just 78 games, he has 22 home runs and his BABIP fortunes have turned on him this year, hitting .370 in that category. His .348/.411/.661 line corresponds to a wRC+ of 190, the best such mark in the league among those with at least 350 plate appearances. He’s already at 4.8 fWAR despite not even having played half a season.

As for Semien, he was similarly BABIP’d last year, with just a .263 mark in that department. But his 26 home runs helped him hit .248/.304/.429 for a 107 wRC+. His defensive marks were pretty strong, not at all surprising for a former shortstop on the foundation. His 11 Defensive Runs Saved and eight Outs Above Average were both in the top five among second basemen. He also stole 25 bases and finished the year with a 4.2 fWAR tally.

Here in 2023, he’s walking more, striking out less, and his .296 BABIP is much closer to league average. His .282/.353/.472 line translates to a 127 wRC+. Only the 11 paths of DRS Andres Jimenez among second basemen while his 11 OAA is topped only by Thairo Estrada. He’s already at 5.0 fWAR this year with about six weeks remaining, with him and Seager among the top seven players in the league this year in that category.

Those two players have been a huge reason why the club has now returned to relevance, as the Rangers are 72-49 this year, with only three clubs around the majors currently having a better winning percentage. Simply buying an elite midfield might not seem like an achievement to some, but spending big doesn’t always lead to a commensurate return on investment, as seen by the other players listed at the top of this article.

Correa had a strong campaign last year and is back on the open market. Although he had two deals that were ultimately voided due to health concerns, he returned to the Twins on a six-year deal with $200MM guaranteed and vesting options that allow him to bank even more. But he’s hitting just .231/.308/.409 this year for a 98 wRC+ as his previously top-notch defense has fallen closer to league average. Bogaerts has just 12 home runs for the Padres and is hitting .272/.346/.400. His wRC+ of 109 shows he’s still above average, but it’s well shy of his .300/.373/.507 line and 134 wRC+ over the previous five seasons. Turner is coming off the worst year of his career, currently sitting at a .250/.302/.394 line and 86 wRC+. Story had league-average offense last year and needed elbow surgery over the winter, only to return to the Red Sox in recent days. Báez hit just .238/.278/.393 for the Tigers last year and has a terrible .221/.262/.320 line this year. Swanson is the only non-Ranger of the bunch who has prospered after signing a mega deal.

As already mentioned, we can’t start handing out awards and calling certain teams “winners” or “losers” at this point. These contracts range from six to 11 years in length, leaving plenty of time for things to change. But most clubs sign these long-term free agent contracts, hoping for great production at the beginning and usually expecting some painful years at the end. Many of these deals are off to a rocky start, and the respective players will need major improvements over the next few years to prevent them from looking like big failures.

The Rangers don’t have a perfect record in free agency and are very familiar with how big spending can pay off. They spent $185 million this winter to get it Jacob deGromwho made six starts before requiring Tommy John surgery and won’t return until the second half of 2024 at the earliest. Their faith in Martin Perez looks like a mistake, as they gave him a $19.65M offer, but saw him post a 4.85 ERA this year and recently skyrocketed. But as far as the shortstop market goes, they’ve apparently done pretty well. It was a surprise to see any club deposit so much money that they were able to capture two of the big free agents. Not only did the Rangers make the dough, but it looks like they made a wise decision on who to spend it on. Twice.

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