The Texas Rangers died as they lived last Sunday: playing a one-run game. Texas played in 47 such games during the 2016 regular season, winning 36 times for a .766 win percentage that is the best in major league history. Much was made in the run-up to the playoffs about the validity of the Rangers' division championship season given their +8 run differential, good only for an 82-80 Pythagorean W-L, which they bested by 13 wins.
It was a bit on the nose, then, that their 2016 run differential flipped negative after a 10-1 game one drubbing against Marco Estrada's Blue Jays. And Ms. Morissette might say that it's ironic that their season ended three days later in a one-run game on a walk-off ... whatever this was:
Now facing the offseason several weeks earlier than planned, Texas must again pick up the pieces after another failed run at the franchise's first World Series championship. The Rangers have been one of the decade's most successful teams, appearing in the postseason five times in seven seasons, including back-to-back appearances in the fall classic. Yet as any baseball fan in northern Texas will tell you, the team's prosperity has only amplified the pain of the October losses.
Its not the sort of run that's going to generate a ton of sympathy from the rest of the baseball world, but getting so close to the prize while never winning is a special kind of hurt in its own right. Their fans are frustrated but hopeful, and they'll expect another run in 2017. That makes it very difficult for the Rangers to make the choices that may be best for the future of their team.
To understand the path Texas might be on, we can take a look at a team they worked hard to reconstruct themselves in the second half of this season: the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers. This year's Rangers have more in common with the 2011 NL Central champions than their mutual employment of Jonathan Lucroy, Prince Fielder and Carlos Gomez. Both teams had playoff aspirations, but neither was viewed as a favorite to make the playoffs. Both teams exceeded projections to win their divisions handily. And both teams saw their championship hopes fizzle and faced the reality of a core about to break apart.
Like the 2012 Brewers, next year's Rangers will have some large holes to fill. First base is chief among them, just as it was for Milwaukee, ironically, both teams lost Prince Fielder. The Rangers used Mitch Moreland this season, and he was last among qualified first basemen with a wRC+ of 87. They still have a Hall of Famer at the hot corner, but Adrian Beltre turns 38 four days after Opening Day Carlos Beltran has said he wants to return to Texas in 2017, but he's no spring chicken either, turning 40 in April. Ian Desmond and Carlos Gomez are also free agents; the former is in line for a sizable raise after being forced to take Texas' lowball $8 million offer last offseason, and the latter rebuilt his value with the Rangers after a disastrous run with the Houston Astros.
On the mound, Texas has a pair of aces locked up long term in Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, but the rest of the rotation leaves much to be desired. Their top prospect is Yohander Mendez, a lefty with a mid-rotation profile, but he's only 21, began 2016 at Class-A High Desert and struggled in a very limited September call-up, surrendering six runs in three innings with zero strikeouts.
The Rangers will have to plug these holes and they'll have limited financial flexibility with which to do it, especially since $9 million per year of Fielder's remaining contract remains on their books. Billy Casey breaks down their payroll situation for 2017 at Shutdown Inning here, if you're interested in a full breakdown, but suffice to say that the Rangers will have about $150 million in liabilities before they even start to think about resigning their own free agents or bringing in new ones in They'll have enough money to keep their guys if they chose to, but they probably won't be major players for this winter's crop of big money free agents.
Down on the farm, the cupboard is nearly bare. Joey Gallo's power will keep folks dreaming, but he did nothing to assuage fears that he won't make enough contact for the power to play. After his disappointing 2015 debut, he slashed .040/.200/.160 in 30 plate appearances with the big league squad this season while striking out at a 63.3 percent clip. Mendez is the lone Rangers prospect remaining on the MLB.com Top 100.
The cavalry's not coming. Texas does not have the prospects to swing any more big trades, and they don't have the money to sign any more big free agents. What they have now is what they are going to be in 2017, and while the team had success, maintaining status quo is far from a guarantee that they'll find their way back to October next year. They probably aren't going to win 77 percent of their one-run games again next season, because no one ever has. If that alone normalizes, they're basically a .500 team. Texas accrued just 28.8 fWAR this season, just a game and a half more than the lowly Angels (hi, Mike!). Could the team they have now go out and win 90 games against next season? Sure, they just did it. But it's not a given, or even a particularly likely scenario.
And so the 2017 Texas Rangers faces the same decision Milwaukee did four years ago: cash in all the chips for one more desperate run, check and see what what the flops brings, or fold and sit the next couple of hands out while they wait for some better cards to play.
Milwaukee chose the middle road, which is really no choice at all, and it led to a half decade of mediocrity with an as-yet nebulous terminus. Shutting it all down and starting the rebuild is probably the right choice, but it's an impossible one to sell to a fan base that has come to expect meaningful October baseball. So no one would blame the Rangers, at least not in the short term, if they sold off the last of their prospects for one more real run at a title, particularly with fan favorite Beltre entering the twilight of his career. If they do that, however, they do so with the knowledge that the window is closing soon, and they won't be able to prop it open much longer.
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Travis Sarandos is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score, a Taylor Swift enthusiast and a very nice person. You can follow him on Twitter at @travis_mke.