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Texas Hold 'Em

January 2, 2023
Last year, the Texas Rangers signed Corey Seager and Marcus Semien for a combined half-a-billion dollars.
This worked out exactly as anyone with an inclination towards sabermetrics would have expected. Corey Seager had a good season, and Marcus Semien had a good season. Between them, they tallied about 10 WAR, or 44 Win Shares, depending on which metric you prefer. They were paid to be good players, and they were good players in 2022.
And the Rangers, a bad team prior to the arrival of Seager and Semien, were slightly less bad. They improved from 60 wins to 68 wins.
Which is exactly what anyone with a lean towards analytics would expect to happen. Free agents can improve your team, but they can’t improve your team that much. A good free agent can move the needle four or six wins.
I thought about that truth when I heard that the Rangers had signed free agent starter Jacob deGrom to a five-year, $185 million dollar contract early in the offseason. I thought about that truth because it leads to another truth in baseball: you can’t free agent your way into contention.
Lots of teams have tried this, of course. Since the outset of free agency, various teams have opened up the purse strings to hire a crop of free agents, on the hope that adding two or three star players would swing the fortunes of an entire team.
And it has never worked.
The players would perform as predicted (or they wouldn’t), and their efforts would move the needle three or five games (or not). Meanwhile, they’d age in the usual ways that we all age, and the contract would look worse. The team wouldn’t get significantly better, and blame would get dished to the most egregious offenders. Then the cycle would start over somewhere else.
It hasn’t ever worked. What the Rangers are doing - trying to build a contender out of free agents – hasn’t ever worked.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t work.
*            *            *
My first impression – my first reaction when Jacob deGrom’s contract with the Rangers was announced a month ago – was that it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.
Jacob deGrom is probably the most effective starting pitcher in baseball. That’s a terrific positive: when he throws the baseball, there might not be a person who is better at getting hitters out on the planet.
The flipside is that he threw 64 innings last year, and 92 innings in 2021. He’s been injured, and he will turn 35 this summer. He is the epitome of high-risk, high reward: deGrom might win the Cy Young Award, and he might throw fewer innings than your average middle reliever.
There are many teams where it would make sense to roll the dice, many teams that contended (or nearly contended) in 2022, who were close enough to take a shot on getting a healthy deGrom. If you had told me that the Mets or Phillies or Cardinals or Padres had signed deGrom, I’d understand. All of those teams were good last year, and have an incentive to get better.
But the Rangers weren’t good in 2022.  
The team’s best player last year - aside from Semien and Seager - was Martin Perez. Perez was fantastic, but his 2022 season (2.89 ERA, 136 ERA+) feels like a massive outlier from the rest of his career (4.71 ERA, 96 ERA+).
Nathanial Lowe was terrific last year, hitting .300 with some power. But his walk rate went from 12.5% to 7.4%, he was a lifetime .260 hitter coming into the year, and he’ll turn twenty-eight in July. Adolis Garcia led the team in RBI and stolen bases, but his on-base percentage was a paltry .300, and he struck out 183 times. He’ll turn twenty-nine before the season starts.
That isn’t a fantastic base of talent, and while the Rangers have some decent prospects in the low minors, they don’t have any prospects projected to be significant contributors in the coming years.
So it didn’t make sense. There are teams that could justify the risk of Jacob deGrom, and there are moves that a team like the Rangers ought to consider. But signing deGrom to the Rangers? It felt – immediately – like a move destined to fail.
I’ve been tossing the move around in my head without writing anything down, and then it came to me that I was thinking about the decision – and the broader question of building a team through free agency – within the context of older structures.
But baseball changed last year: not slightly, but radically.
And that change might justify the Rangers decision to roll the dice on deGrom.
*            *            *
The big change, of course, is the structure of baseball’s playoffs.
The current baseball playoff has a three-game Wild Card round, followed by a five-game Division Series, followed by the traditional seven-game Championship Series and World Series.
This means that six teams in each league will reach the playoffs.  And unlike previous seasons, no team will face a one-and-done situation.
This structure changes both the outlook for the Rangers going into 2023, and the value of having Jacob deGrom.
The Rangers are unlikely to be a better team than the Houston Astros, who have won the AL West in five of the last six seasons. But they don’t have to beat the Astros: the Rangers can finish second in their division, and have a decent chance net one of the three Wild Card slots. Their competition for second place are the Mariners and Angels, and I’d only count the Mariners as having a distinct roster advantage over the Rangers.
It is not outlandish to think of Texas as a Wild Card contender. Their record was poor last year, but their Pythagorean W-L record (77-85) was a hair better than the Angels (76-86). If things break well for them, second place isn’t impossible.
And once they’re in the playoffs, they’d have an ace. A healthy Jacob deGrom would probably contribute more to a deep run in the playoffs than any other player in baseball. Assuming a title run, deGrom could be penciled in for one start in the Wild Card Series, two in the Division Series, two in the Championship Series, and potentially three starts in the World Series: eight starts, in total.
So the change in baseball’s playoff structure makes the Rangers free agent spending spree more coherent: they don’t have a clear path to winning their division, but winning the division isn’t the advantage it once was. They certainly have a path to the Wild Card, and Jacob deGrom gives them a big edge if they reach playoff baseball.  
I wonder, too, if that is the contributing factor to all of the big contracts handed out this offseason: that teams are realizing that the ‘windows of contention’ has expanded slightly. Netting a Wild Card used to mean a coin flip to get into a real series: now the Wild Card teams get to stretch a little more.
*            *            *
Do I think these big contracts will work out for Texas?
No. I remain very skeptical that signing free agents to big contracts is a way for a losing team to turn into a winning team.
Because it is an impatient approach to a problem that is better served by patience. The best way to create a winning baseball team is to scout young players, work to develop them, encourage the best ones, give them a chance, and offer them a good contracts when they show themselves capable of holding their own . This is what the Rays did with Wander Franco, and what the Mariners did with Julio Rodriguez. This is what the Astros did with Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez. This is what the Braves did with Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. And Matt Olson and Austin Riley. And Michael Harris and Spencer Strider. This is Atlanta’s SOP, to be honest.
The Rangers do not have anything like the base of talent that the Rays and Braves and Astros possess, and while I applaud the organization for spending money to make their team better, I can’t recall a team in recent memory that had a stretch of success driven primarily by the accomplishments of free agents.* You can have free agents that contribute mightily to the success of a team, but you have to have some homegrown talent chipping in.
Jacob deGrom is terrific, but he’s also thirty-four years old. Pedro Martinez and Felix Hernandez were already in their declines at that age; Johan Santana was finished. Scherzer and Kershaw and Greinke and Verlander have all pitched effectively at the age deGrom is at, but none of them had deGrom’s record of missed time. None of them were like deGrom, who is a max-effort pitcher with a narrow build.
Corey Seager is a reliably good player. Marcus Semien feels like he’s going to be another Adrian Beltre: one of those guys who has his best years in his thirties.
If all three were youngsters, I’d think the Rangers could fill in the gaps enough to make a contender. But they are all older: you have to anticipate declines. The Rangers are spending to chase a Wild Card: I think they’d have been better off trying to build a team.
David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions and suggestions here and at

COMMENTS (18 Comments, most recent shown first)

The cool thing about the third wild card is you can get into the playoffs with 85-88 wins, probably. That isn’t easy, but it’s much easier than catching the Astros. I know Dave brought this up already, but it’s a point that bears repeating. The Phils (87 wins) came within two games of a world championship.

The extra playoff spots that come with the new format are the best thing MLB has done to help small market teams since what? Collusion? the luxury tax? As an O’s fan, I think it’s awesome!
11:38 PM Jan 9th
Thanks for the laugh, Bruce!

Yeah, I realized I haven't thought much about the Rangers at all since Josh Hamilton's heyday. I think they might be the team that is least on my radar, though I'm not sure why that's the case.

I love that they've hired Bruce Bochy: he is an absolutely competent manager, and it's a great call that they hired him.

The Marlins are a good example, but they also prove the point: you can sneak a winning year with free agents, but it's going to get ugly quick (54 wins the next year, 62 the year after that). The Rangers might sneak a run with deGrom and Co., but it doesn't look like an effective long-term strategy.

That said, I agree that it's always a positive when teams are trying to win, even if the approach isn't brilliant from a cold-calculus perspective. I'll be watching the Rangers more this year than I have in a while, so that's a positive.
10:44 AM Jan 8th
That’s f*ing hilarious!
6:15 PM Jan 4th
Nicely turned, Bruce. :)
5:04 PM Jan 4th
I imagine some exchange similar to this may have occurred this past weekend:

Dave [Answering cell phone]: Hello?

Bill: Hi, it's Bill....Hey, look...I'm in a bit of a jam here...where are you?

Dave: I'm in Natick, visiting family...

B: Are you alone?

D: Yeah, just out to get coffee?

B: Dunkies?

D: Nah, Cumbies; hadda get gas too. What do you mean, a jam?

B: Well, I'll just come right out and say this - I need a thousand words on the Rangers by Tuesday.

D: The Rangers? When did we start covering hockey?

B: No, no. The Texas Rangers. You remember them...Josh Hamilton, IRod, David Clyde...Anyway, long story short, the Jayhawks didn't cover against SMU, and now I owe ClayYearsley a thousand words on the Rangers by Tuesday. Only problem is I broke my thumb and can't type a lick. Can you help me out?

D: Uh sure thing, Bill.

B: Thanks Dave. It'll be 1500 words if it falls into Wednesday....The vig in Texas is a killer....

2:17 PM Jan 4th
—Do you mean to say that fans in Texas can't watch their own teams on television. hhmm

That’s exactly what I’m saying. Even with the MLB tv package, I can’t see the Rangers until the next day, unless they’re on a national broadcast. I could only see them (and the Stars, Mavs, and even the hated Astros) if I have AT&T Uverse or Spectrum cable. I guess I could buy the Sinclair/Bally Sports app, but it’s $19.95/month.

This is true in several other markets, too.
9:33 AM Jan 4th
Good article, Dave.

-- I think your assessment of the Ranger's 2023 chances is spot on, but I think that is why they gave Jake 5 guaranteed years. They are hoping he has Verlander type longevity.

-- to understand deGrom you have to realize that going into his Age 35, he only has 1326 innings pitched. As Bill said a year or two back, he has half a Hall of Fame career so far. His peer Kershaw had 1378 innings pitched after his Age 26.

And deGrom hasn't missed time due to an injury the last 2 years.....he missed time due to about eight injuries, elbow, shoulder, oblique, neck, back, other oblique. He looks like a guy breaking down.

I wish him luck, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Rangers never get 120 innings out of him in a season.
8:02 AM Jan 4th
Do you mean to say that fans in Texas can't watch their own teams on television. hhmm
11:46 PM Jan 3rd
Wow! A Rangers article! As a Texas fan, I’m excited to see it.

Some points:
* John Daniels was let go during last season primarily because ownership got tired of not making big moves to improve. He had a long and, by Rangers standards, successful run as the top baseball guy, but that only got him so much patience.
* The club had a run differential that should have resulted in a better record last year, in spite of having a very thin rotation. The bullpen was heavily used and completely unraveled in the last 2 months of the season.
* The club stated that a big reason for their free agent activity was indeed the expanded playoffs and that they didn’t necessarily have to dethrone Houston to get into the tournament.
* Bruce Bochy. Full stop.
* According to Baseball America, the Rangers have the 6th rated minor league system. They DO have at least one prospect projected to be a significant contributor in 2023, Josh Jung. (I don’t happen to be sold on Jung. He’s got big power, but a lot of swing-and-miss and zero patience at the plate.) They also have homegrown CF Leody Taveras, who isn’t a star, but did finally appear to be a bonafide major leaguer last season. In addition, they have a lot of middle infield talent in the minors, not all of it in the low minors, not to mention both of the vaunted Vandy pitchers, Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker. What they don’t have is a track record of turning prospects into productive big leaguers.
* They have a new stadium - well, 3 years old now - and they’ve been embarrassed by the product they’ve put on display there. (You might remember that Corey Seager had the most HRs hit at the new park after their first season in it - but, of course, Seager played for the Dodgers at the time. He hit more homers in a couple rounds of the playoffs than any Rangers player hit during the entire, albeit much-shortened, 2020 season.)
* As far as ventboys’s suggestion that they’re trying to lure eyeballs. Maybe. I’d buy the argument more if they weren’t stuck in the stupid dispute that Sinclair/Bally has with all the cable systems. Unless you have one of two specific cable providers, fans in DFW can’t see the Rangers (or Astros), or the Dallas Stars or Mavericks. Until MLB or someone steps in (do something Mark Cuban!!), they won’t get those eyeballs even if they bring in de Grom, Scherzer, Verlander, Ohtani, Soto, and Vladdy Jr. (Exaggerating for effect.)

Am I buying it? I’m on the fence. Am I interested? HELL YES!
6:20 PM Jan 3rd
There's no denying your overall point, but let's see, weren't the 1997 Wild Card World Champion Florida Marlins built mostly from free agents?

Their ace and regular Cy Young candidate Kevin Brown was a free agent acquisition from the previous season.

Their no. 2 starter Alex Fernandez - also a free agent.

No. 3 starter Al Leiter - free agent

Rookie sensation SP Livan Hernandez - home grown from Cuba

Star hitter Gary Sheffield - acquired years earlier for an unproven Trevor Hoffman and pitching prospects.

Moises Alou - other star player - free agent

Charles Johnson all-star catcher - home grown

Devon White - outstanding CF - previous year's free agent

Bobby Bonilla - free agent slugger

Edgar Renteria - 20 year old home grown SS from Colombia

Jeff Conine - decent first-baseman - an expansion pick

Closer Robb Nen - 1993 trade

Righty set-up man Jay Powell - essentially home grown

Lefty set-up man Dennis Cook - free agent

So, I'd bet this was the champion team most built by free agency ever, but they couldn't have won without Sheffield, Hernandez, or Johnson - and possibly not without Renteria, Conine, Nen, and Powell.

12:22 PM Jan 3rd
The context of this article is real world Major League Baseball - what is actually happening. I'd like to veer off into what should be happening, just for a minute: Teams should be trying to win as many games as possible, as the Rangers did in 2021. They went from 60 wins to 68 wins; that's a big step forward, and Seager and Semien may be the primary reasons for that improvement. Every team should be trying to win as many games as possible, every year. That's the way it is supposed to work.

Now, back to the real world - I understand why teams don't worry about getting from 60 wins to 68 wins. There are no incentives to do so. This should be understood as a problem - the incentives of modern day baseball are making some teams less competitive. It needs to be fixed. How to fix it? whole different topic. But we need to never, every forget that something is wrong with the current setup.
11:45 AM Jan 3rd
Good to see your byline, Dave, always a great read ... I kind of wonder if the Rangers have some sort of financial angle going on with the free agent signings; not to WIN, necessarily, but to be relevant enough to help build their fanbase and increase cable subscriptions -- that sort of thing -- while they wait for the recent draft picks to mature.

As you write, it's probably not a good long-term strategy ... and I don't think the Rangers have earned the right to say "trust us" lately. Being wrong is as American as apple pie, especially Dutch apple. So lucky us, we get to see if it works.

sayhey -- if you bring those sorts of memories to the Reader Posts section, there are a few of us who might be able to help you find that sort of thing. I've read both historicals cover to cover several times, and I have generally had good luck finding things like that. I'd/we'd be glad to help you out. :)
11:03 AM Jan 3rd
I suppose another effect of the expanded playoffs will be that the top-level teams, such as the Dodgers and Astros, become less likely to sign the most high-profile free agents. After all, if they fall a bit, they will probably still make the playoffs as a wild-card, and still have a shot at the title. And they can avoid the inherent risk of watching the player decline over the length of the contract.​
9:16 AM Jan 3rd
Good to see another article from you, Dave.

I recognize a kind of baseball philosophical truth at play here - the higher a percentage of teams in the playoffs, the more a short sequence of games gains in importance. A playoff series is just that.
11:36 PM Jan 2nd
I think it was Bill himself who wrote in one of the Abstracts* that Steinbrenner had the earliest and best strategy for signing free agents, which was to not worry about your needs and just sign the best (or two or three best) free agents out there. That was a million years ago and isn't really relevant today.

*Often when I send in a "Hey Bill" that recalls, from memory, something from one of the old Abstracts, Bill says he doesn't remember writing such a thing. I can never go back and check because they're not indexed and it would take forever to find what I'm looking for (if I'm indeed correct that he wrote it).
8:57 PM Jan 2nd
The idea that having a top-notch ace is extra valuable in short series playoffs is a great theory, but i would like to see a little more evidence before I start shelling out millions.
The Mets' season came down to six games...
They needed to win one against Atlanta, with deGrom and Scherzer starting one and two... both lost, then so did Bassitt in game three.
Two aces for the best-of-three wild card round produced one win.
The value of starting pitching just isn't what it once was... and that includes the value of ace starters.
5:42 PM Jan 2nd
Strictly speaking, J.T. Realmuto was acquired by the Phillies in a trade, not via free agency. Nevertheless, when a friend asked me what I thought of what the Rangers were doing a week ago, I had the same reaction: it's like the Phillies with a time lag of a year or two. I don't like this Phillies team, even though I grew up rooting for them in the 1970s. I too find it easier to root for a team built through the farm system and occasional trades. But when your farm system doesn't produce for a period of years, as with the Phillies and the Rangers, what are you supposed to do, just sit there and lose? The Angels of the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s are an obvious example of a team that had some success building largely through free agency. In 1982 they won the AL West with a lineup acquired entirely from other organizations, and Fred Lynn was the youngest of them at 30.
4:36 PM Jan 2nd
*I left an asterisk in the article about successful teams that built around free agents.

One team to consider are last year's Phillies, who were very much built around free agent acquisitions (Harper, Realmuto, Wheeler, Schwarber). The Phillies have some homegrown talent (Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins, Ranger Suarez), but there is no denying that a good part of their success last year rested with free agents.

It remains to be seen if the current Phillies are a good team, or just a team that got lucky. Sure, they reached the Series last year, but that was after an 87-win season where they lurked in third place in their division, sneaking the last Wild Card slot in Game 162. They were a poor team in 2020 and just mediocre in 2021.

But they're interesting. I hope folks will remind me of some other free-agent-heavy teams throughout history.
1:38 PM Jan 2nd
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