COLUMN: The Rangers need depth, and mid-tier free agents are their best option

Travis M. Smith Managing Editor | @travis5mith
A double off the wall

Travis M. Smith

If you are looking for possible trade targets such as Jonathan Lucroy, Todd Frazier, Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, Jeff Locke or Elias Diaz, this is the wrong article. However, those names are all reportedly on the radar as Jon Daniels shops first baseman Mitch Moreland.

When looking at free agent targets, the already unsexy list of remaining options gets drastically less sexy when applying the Rangers’ current budget situation.

Colby Lewis and Mike Napoli are still very, very viable options and both players would be accepted back with open arms by teammates and fans, if the situation is right, of course. As it sits, it would be feasible for each player to command somewhere in the ballpark of $7-8 million on a one-year deal.

It is also feasible to see both players receive a contract built around a team option and guaranteed buyout for a second year. While a little more complicated, the deal could be structured as $6.5 million for year one, with a team option of the same value on year two. If the option is not picked up, a guaranteed buyout of a previously agreed upon $1.5 million would bring the final value to a grand total of $8 million. Essentially, it would be a one-year deal with a little protection for the player and team.

Everyone wins, but again, any free-agent deal is dependent on what JD gets in return for Moreland.

Jeff Francoeur’s name popped up late on Sunday evening as a possible fourth – or fifth – outfield target. Keep in mind that while Hamilton is currently your starting left fielder, if 20-year-old (check) Lewis Brinson makes the team out of Spring Training – there are many who think he will – then all of the sudden, Hamilton and Delino DeShields can split time in left field. DeShields could also be the Rangers everyday guy in left, Brinson in center and Choo in right, which leaves Hamilton as quite possibly the best fourth outfielder in the game.

Francoeur is a pure depth move and his possible return to Texas may be as short lived as the first.

In fact, if a player’s name brings thoughts of multiple all-star trips in the coming years or is currently one of the premier players at his respected position – forget about him. Jon Daniels has made it clear that the Rangers are only after depth moves in free agency. Free agency being the keyword, because anything could happen via the trade.

The Rangers need a starting catcher and possibly a starting left fielder, but at the very least a serviceable right-handed left fielder to either backup or platoon with Hamilton.

As for the catcher, it’s not happening in free agency. Jeff Mathis, 32, and Dioner Navarro, 31, are the “best available” and neither is leaps and bounds better than Robinson Chirinos. If this position needs to be addressed, it will have to be addressed on the trade front.

Outfield options

Before eyeing potential right-handed options for left field, remember to keep in mind that Daniels will not be looking to sign a player to fill the spot for years to come. Brinson is well on his way, DeShields is already here, Hamilton is too cheap and too unknown to release, and Choo will be stacking his paper for a few more seasons. Not to mention, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo are still in the near future, too – at least for the time being.

With that being said, there are three legitimate targets remaining on the market – Steve Pearce, Francoeur and Drew Stubbs. All three bring something different, two have been in the organization before, and none are exactly the big splash most fans desire.

Pearce, who will turn 33 years old shortly after Opening Day next season, has been considered one of the bargains of this year’s free agent class, partly because there is no tangible evidence on which version of him a team will get. He is the most intriguing of the three, but will also be the most expensive.

In 2014, the right-handed left fielder and spot first baseman slugged a career-high 21 home runs and posted a .293/.373/.556 slash line in 102 games. The career highs came in his only season to play 100-plus games at the major league level. However, he was only eight games short of that plateau last season and was terrible.

According to Fangraphs, Pearce’s K-percentage and base-on-balls-percentage both declined slightly from 19.8 percent to 21.2 percent and 10.4 percent to 7.1 percent, respectively. He also dropped to 15 home runs and an abysmal .218 average. Maybe the drop in production was a solely a case of bad luck, because he does make contact on 76.8 percent of pitches swung at, but he is not a player that is fully trustable to rollout in left field every day.

Former first-round pick and soon-to-be 32-year-old Francoeur is a 6-foot-4 right-handed corner outfielder who was previously with the Rangers in 2010 and comes equipped with a Howitzer on his right shoulder. Injury limited him to 10 starts in 2014, but he appeared in 119 games last season with the Phillies and hit .258 with 13 home runs and 34 runs batted in.

For his career, Francoeur has fared better against lefties than righties – striking out nearly half as often and posting a .280 clip versus lefties, as opposed to a .254 mark against righties. The defense and ability to tee off against righties makes him an intriguing platoon player to match with Hamilton.

Stubbs is the third option and was a JD waiver grab last season in the Rangers’ late push to the playoffs. As recently as 2014, the 31-year-old speedster and defensive guru posted a .289/.339/.482 line with 15 home runs and 67 RBI in 132 games for the Rockies. But for his career, Stubbs has been extremely suspect to the swing and miss – 30.3 percent K rate, according to Fangraphs – and has never hit above .300 in his career in the big leagues.

Stubbs will be cheap, is right handed, and provides a little versatility.

Two starters and a bullpen piece

A starter like Mike Leake or Wei-Yin Chen would be fantastic additions for Jon Daniels’ club, but both are projected to sign for somewhere in the ballpark of five years and $80 million. Money the Rangers just do not have available for several reasons.

Yu Darvish is out for at least the first month, so unless Lewis is resigned there is a need for a backend starting pitcher. In a perfect world this dilemma is addressed in the seemingly imminent trade of Moreland to Pittsburgh. However, if it is not, there is still a viable option on the market outside of Cobra.

If the Rangers add a starting pitcher in free agency, it will not be a reclamation project. They need the help immediately, right out of Spring Training, while Darvish is preparing for his return. Even still, the free agent signee will have to be a mid-tier, short-term option.

Doug Fister will be 32 years old by the time Spring Training rolls around and is reportedly looking for a one-year deal in the $10 million range to rebuild his market before one final payday. He posted a 4.19 earned run average and averaged just over 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings last season with the Nationals in 25 starts.

Even though, according to Fangraphs, his fastball dipped to a career-low 86.2 miles per hour last season, Fister still tossed it a career-high 69.7-percent of the time. In fact, his fastball velocity has decreased every year since 2011, as has his slider velocity and usage.

Lewis is the obvious second option, and everyone in Arlington already knows what he brings.

Keep in mind that while after the All-Star break and barring an injury the Rangers plan to rollout Darvish, Cole Hamels, Derek Holland and Martin Perez, they need to do more than survive until then with a fourth and fifth starter. Texas needs to be able to compete regardless of who is toeing the rubber.

With that being said, I am not convinced that Fister, newest-rumored-target Cliff Lee, nor any of the other mid-tier options available are any better – or any better suited – than 36-year-old Colby Lewis or even one of the young arms we have seen over the last season and a half. I will also not be upset if either of the three are signed to a short-term deal.

The outside the box signee? Former New York Mets reliever and 31-year-old Tyler Clippard. The two-time All-Star, is projected to sign for three years at $18 million, and even though Daniels rarely forks out cash for relief pitchers, there have been rumblings of a Tolleson trade which would open up a spot for a backend of the ‘pen piece.

Clippard converted on 19-of-his-25 saves in 2015, but his use for the Rangers could very well be as a seventh-inning reliever to offset the three left-handed starters. He has proven throughout his career to be quite the strikeout pitcher, posting a 9.8-percent K rate over nine innings and holding opposing hitters to a .191 batting average.

Clippard even picked up 147 holds from 2010-2014 while with the Nationals. With the way the pitching market is shaking out now, $6 million a year for a setup guy may be the new norm.

Recap: If Moreland is dealt, account for $14 million-ish to be split between Lewis and Napoli. Remember, you may very well be paying more for Napoli’s intangibles than his performance. A video circling Twitter on Tuesday morning showed the first baseman leading a workout group consisting of Holland, Nick Martinez and Chirinos. The $14 million-ish to those two leaves approximately $6 million to fill an outfield depth move and possibly a veteran to use as a utility infielder.