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The Rangers are at a crossroads, with nowhere to go

After years of contention, the future looks hazy for the boys in Arlington.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Rangers have terrible timing. Since the dawn of this decade they’ve made the playoffs five out of seven times, played in two World Series, and won four divisional crowns. By most any measure, they’ve been one of the most successful teams in the American League for quite a while now. They’ve also had a farm system ranked somewhere in the top ten by Baseball America every year from 2012 to 2016 (technically, they were 11th in 2015, but who’s counting?). They also are employing the ageless Adrián Beltré as he burnishes his credentials for Cooperstown, and have one of the best pitchers in baseball in Yu Darvish. And yet, for all their feats, this era of Texas baseball could soon be all but forgotten because of what they haven’t done. They are finding themselves a footnote, an also-ran, even a little brother in their own state. They’re a team caught in the middle, with no place to go.

In a contention sense, they’re actually just caught behind. The Rangers never really rebuilt in advance of their drive to back-to-back World Series or this stretch of very good baseball since then. They lost 97 games in 2014, mostly due to injury and some bad luck, but including that year they’ve only been in last place twice in the last decade. Not quite Yankees level in terms of your bad teams having better seasons than others’ good ones, but certainly a solid enough franchise through the years. While they were fielding competitive teams, the Houston Astros tanked, moved into in the division, tanked even harder, and now win games almost by accident. The Rangers still field a strong team, but benefited from crazy 1-run game record a year ago (36-11!) to win the division, and got harshly bit in the butt by lady luck in 2017 (6-14 in one-run games so far). It’s a roller coaster of a team, and hard to trust one way or the other.

Then there’s the team itself. This squad is a frustrating mix of players who aren’t quite there yet and older veterans whose best years are behind them. This second cohort is encapsulated most severely by Mike Napoli this year. Napoli was supposed to return to Texas and have his customary return to slugging greatness, as he has twice already. Instead he’s been singularly dreadful at the plate since last August, owning an 87 wRC+, striking out nearly 30 percent of the time and walking 11 percent of the time, his lowest rate since 2010 when he was an Angel and Mike Scioscia hated him. He is an anchor for the team, in the bad way.

There’s also Adrián Beltré, though, who continues to be truly amazing. Despite being 38 and probably injured at any given moment, Beltré has been quite excellent in limited time this season with a 121 wRC+, a still-steady glove at third, and a hit total edging toward 3,000. He’s still an impact player when he plays, but that’s the problem — he’s 38. He’s only been in 29 games so far. It’s frustrating to not see him every night, and it’s all the more bothersome that he’s on this Rangers team that can’t get out of its own way. He needs one last shot at glory. It’s weird to feel selfish for someone else, since I don’t think that’s actually a thing, but the Rangers need to do something this year to get him to October.

But the identity of that “something” is unclear, because the Rangers are full of “not quite yet” in their young studs. Joey Gallo is tremendous in his power. Nomar Mazara has all the talent in the world. Rougned Odor is a special collection of skills. All three are vital parts of the future of the Rangers, which continues to look bright. But Gallo either hits the ball a quarter mile or strikes out, his 12.1 percent walk rate no match for the 38.9 percent K rate or sub-60 percent contact rate. Mazara has shown his own impressive raw skills, from power at the plate to a laser cannon on his shoulder, but it hasn’t coalesced quite yet into “baseball player.” He’s 22 years old. By 27 I expect him to be an All-Star, but that’s half a decade away. Odor is already performing, though the bat is quieter this season than was expected after he hit 33 homers a year ago and was a slightly above-average (107 wRC+) hitter. He’s just a guy who loves to swing, and swing hard, as evidenced by that 3 percent walk rate the last couple seasons. And he’s got a strong glove and… interesting facial hair. He’s exciting, so is Mazara and so is Gallo. But they haven’t even begun to realize their potential yet. It’s sure to happen, but when?

MLB: Texas Rangers at Chicago White Sox Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

This is not to say the Rangers are a bad team. They’re hanging around .500 and have been bedeviled by the most wildly hard-to-predict part of any team, in their bullpen. Outside of spending $100 million on five or six elite guys, there’s no real art to constructing a bullpen. Guys who were good one year can be crap the next, and the other way around. Sometimes it just goes sour on you even when you get a bunch of fireballers in there. It’s fickle, and it’s struck the Rangers hard. There’s still talent in their ‘pen, though, talent that could have an unhittable second half. In Matt Bush and Keone Kella, they have two of the 25 hardest throwing relief pitchers in baseball this year. Jose LeClerc throws in the mid-90’s and has a weird cut change-up that moves in some non-Euclidian way and twists hitters’ minds. Alex Claudio has an absurd 71.2 percent ground ball ratio, which plays right into the hands of the excellent infield defense, and away from that looming right field fence in Arlington. They can’t possibly be as bad in the future as they have already been.

The Rangers probably won’t win a World Series this year. Stranger things have happened, somewhere I’m sure, but they’re underdogs to even make the playoffs. But they’re in the hunt for a Wild Card, and have the right now to at least go on some kind of a tear. They’re just in an unfortunate position to truly contend for titles at this point, especially with the hard reset the Astros did and seemed to have fully succeeded at. The windows of their old and young guys isn’t lining up correctly, and they’re hanging too much on Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and some other retreads while their main divisional rival looks prepared for at least a decade. That vaunted farm system I mentioned has been slowly cleaned out as the front office has tried to bolster that aging core, chasing the dream a year ago by getting Jonathan Lucroy (who is now kind of terrible), Carlos Beltran (now gone to Houston), Jeremy Jeffries, and Dario Alvarez. This came at the cost of their first round picks from 2012-15. That can leave a gaping hole in any farm system, and hurt the depth and long term contention of a team.

They still certainly have money for potential free agents. they have one of the newer ownership groups in the game, and generally new owners have more money than old owners. A willingness to spend is of course important too, and I have a feeling based on his team building tactics that Jon Daniels wants to reinvest in internal growth. That needs to happen, of course. They've also spent dozens of millions on Shin Soo Choo, Beltre and were able to eat $25 million from Josh Hamilton's monstrously bad contract without a problem. You have to wonder how gun-shy/frugal they’ll be when their older vets start leaving and things start to look bleak.

So the future isn't dark for the Rangers, but it's kind of odd and hazy. They'll get a new park in a few years that has a roof, further enriching them and allowing their fans to not broil in the ever-hot Texas summer, and they’ll probably keep fielding pretty good teams. But who will be on those teams? Their top ten players by fWAR feature mostly old guys (Choo, Beltre, Chirinos) and players who will be gone at some point soon like Carlos Gomez. Delino DeShields is a fine player. Elvis Andrus is having a career year nobody thought possible. But these guys don’t move the needle that much. Mazara and Gallo in particular need to pan out, along with Odor. Otherwise it’s going to get really expensive or really ugly in the Metroplex before the decade is up. The forgotten Jurickson Profar living up to his former Top Prospect billing would help too. They have a margin for error because of bank accounts, but you wonder if the front office went all in at the wrong time with non-money assets.

A Texas team should take big gambles; it just feels right. But it doesn’t always pay off. We’ll see what the flop looks like in Arlington sooner rather than later.

Merritt Rohlfing writes for Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe, and records the fantastic Mostly Baseball Podcast. He’s not biased, it’s just that all his favorite players are on the Indians. It’s weird. You can find him on Twitter @merrittrohlfing.