Remember when the Mavericks started this season at 16-18? That was 36 wins and 12 losses ago. It’s not exactly useful for the point I’m about to make, but bear with me.
No, Rangers didn’t jump on the sweetest win-loss record, losing four of the top five (and needing to dig a 6-1 hole in their lone win). But it’s not like we’re a 40% Mavs equivalent in the club schedule. It’s also not like 2022 position in the standings is the priority metric here.
Of course, Rangers – at least the ones in uniform – would suggest I could walk back on that last part. Gone are the days when “process” was preached in the clubhouse. “Every message to me,” Chris Woodward said as camp began last month, “is going to include the word ‘winning’.”
It is a relative term. Texas expects to win tomorrow when the Angels come to town and the next three days before hitting the road. But it has a different connotation than when the White Sox, Mets or Blue Jays – who took two of three in their season-opening series against Rangers and probably feel like it should have been the three – say the same thing. For these teams, the context spans 162 games and more. For Rangers, for now, it’s just the next game on the schedule.
Even spending half a billion dollars in a week, as the first two series of the season remind us, isn’t enough to turn a 102-game losing streak into a contender. The “process” remains a mission statement for Ranger management. And if their the goal is to see that the steps forward outnumber the steps back, things seem to be going well. Consider last year’s and last week’s opening day lineups:
The only player reprising his role was Nathaniel Lowe (although his name has since changed to Mom’s insistence), reaching fifth and playing first base. The shortstop and second baseman are still hitting one-for-four, but now it’s Corey Seager and Marcus Semien over Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Nick Solak, the latter of whom has moved from cleanup hitter to short end of a platoon. Like Solak, Charlie Culberson and Eli White are back but not as starters. Former Silver Slugger Mitch Garver replaces Jose Trevino behind the plate. Adolis Garcia is coming off a 31-home run season, while last year’s season-opening center fielder Leody Taveras gets daily Triple-A reps. The offense that was last at OPS in 2021 now claims the fourth-best rating in baseball, leading the league in points after having the third-worst total a year ago. That’s without Joey Gallo, the group’s only huge loss from last year, who picked up four prospects at last year’s deadline.
In the rotation, neither Kyle Gibson (2021) nor Jon Gray (2022) had a stellar start to the opening day, but Gray is younger, has twice as many years in club control (Gibson doesn’t was never going to be around after the rebuild, at least not on his original contract with Rangers), and a better track record. Overall, this one feels better too. Dane Dunning and Taylor Hearn are no longer auditioning until they’ve established themselves and are looking to take the next step. Also a plus point.
On the farm, we’ve already highlighted the growth of the Rangers system, which has been bolstered by many new names, but it’s also worth pointing out that the top talent already on board are all within a year of arriving in Arlington. (other than Josh Jung, whose Texas debut will be pushed back almost a year due to injury). The only local player on the Game One roster this year was 29-year-old Andy Ibanez, who is older than Seager. This must change, and it will. It’s as foolish to fret about a few days of minor league stats as it is to worry about the first two major league series of the season, but lines like these at the top levels of the farm system are at least water for optimists The Rangers fan mill:
- Triple-A Round Rock:
- Starters Otto, Cole Winn, AJAlexy and Jake Latz: 19 innings, seven runs (3.31 ERA), eight walks, 21 strikeouts
- Taveras: .476 average and 1.262 OPS
- Outfielder Bubba Thompson: 0.364 average and 0.864 OPS
- Late reliever Nick Snyder: two perfect innings, three strikeouts
- Double-A Frisco:
- Starters Leiter, Cody Bradford and Cole Ragans: 10-2/3 innings, three runs (2.53 ERA), four walks, 17 strikeouts
- Duran: 0.364 average and 0.962 OPS
Don’t get me wrong: Brad Miller’s explosive start is Hunter Pence-style fun. But I’m more interested in where things are going with Dunning, Hearn, White, Spencer Howard, Willie Calhoun and Brock Burke – players competing to have a deeper impact on the team in Seager and Semien’s contracts. The same goes for Taveras trying to redefine himself, and Leiter, Winn and Smith trying to force their way into the picture.
I’m also very interested to know if Lowe — who probably doesn’t have any more name changes in the future — is quietly about to break out in what is only his second full major league season. Seager and Semien are the mainstays; And if Lowe also imposed itself as a winning piece? What if New Mexico native Garver and the Rangers are mutually interested in extending this relationship beyond 2023, when Jung will have moved to third base? What if Smith — who played the field for the first time as a pro on Sunday (after not playing it at all at LSU or, I guess, Catholic High in Baton Rouge) — or Duran or Davis Wendzel transforms in Chris Taylor weapon all over the field? What if Howard reclaims his top prospect status and joins Dunning, Hearn, Leiter and Winn as candidates for rotational roles behind Gray and whatever impact the Rangers add in free agency next winter? We can certainly assume that the player Rangers take third in the July draft will be on a direct path to roster or rotation, with an Arlington ETA before Seager or Semien are halfway through their deal.
There are reasons to believe that all of these things are possible, which in itself is a big difference from what it was a year ago. Optimism in a reconstruction can be its own virtue. Tangible progress is even more important, and in 2021 we have seen it all over diamond, on many levels. Compare this snapshot in the days of baseball to where the Rangers were just a year ago. This is the story of the first two series for me, not which team was credited with the comeback victory in each of the five games that started the club’s season.
Jamey Newberg covers Rangers for StrongSide. He’s lived in Dallas all his life, with the exception of a…