As Spring Training continues, we shall also continue on our previews from around the division. Last week, I looked at the new-and-improved, 2020 Los Angeles Angels, so why don’t we take a look this time at the team that finished just ahead of them in the standings? After all, the Texas Rangers made some notable improvements of their own this winter.
Once again, let’s take it from the top: the 78-win Rangers finished a full 29.0 games out of first place in the 2019 AL West race, with their Pythagorean Win-Loss rate three wins below even that. That gap isn’t quite as big as the Angels’, but it’s still fairly massive, and it will probably take both some downwards regression from the Astros and some upwards regression from the Rangers.
I’m going to switch things up this week and start with the pitching, since that’s the area that saw the biggest movement. Last year, by Fangraph’s Wins Above Replacement, the Houston’s pitching staff was worth 23.7 Wins, while Texas’s was worth 14.2. In fact, these were the only two AL pitching staffs in 2019 to see multiple arms drawing Cy Young support, with the alliterative duo of Mike Minor and Lance Lynn representing Arlington. If we try and make them meet halfway: did the Astros drop roughly 4.75 wins, and did the Rangers improve that much?
For the first part of that question: yeah, there’s a good chance the Astros are that much worse. Getting Lance McCullers back and more starts from Zack Greinke helps, and it’s not hard to see Jose Urquidy stepping in for Wade Miley. Forrest Whitley stepping up could maybe help as well. But Gerrit Cole leaving was just a massive blow, and there are other smaller losses to make up for as well, like Will Harris and Collin McHugh. There’s a chance that the Astros avoid losing those ~4.8 Wins, but it’s going to be really close even if they do, and things will be highly susceptible to down years and injuries.
Meanwhile, the Rangers made big strides in this area, more than enough to make up the difference if the Astros don’t drop their nearly-5 WAR. Sure, new signees Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles look more like three/four-starters than aces, but that’s a massive step up for a team that was using Ariel Jurado and Adrian Sampson in those roles last year; things were rough after the top two. And of course, there was the arrival of Corey Kluber, who’s just one year removed from finishing third place in Cy Young voting.
Maybe one or both of Minor and Lynn fail to repeat on their surprise 2019 campaigns. Maybe Kluber’s injuries mean he doesn’t pitch like an ace. But the mediocre case still feels like a rotation full of middle-rotation-starters, and that’s still respectable, especially compared to what they had last year! It’s also not at all hard to see them finishing as one of the three or four best pitching staffs in the AL, even if they have a mediocre bullpen. Who comes out ahead in this category between them and the Astros will probably come down to injuries.
But…just like last week with the Angels, that’s only half of the question. And on the matter of position players…well, the Rangers are going to be counting on their new pitching staff to be picking up a lot of slack.
In 2019, the Astros’ position players managed 40.8 WAR, which is probably not going to happen again since it was pretty historic, but the team’s lineup should still be good. Texas’s lineup, in contrast, was worth 9.2 WAR, fourth worst in the majors and ahead of just Baltimore, Miami, and Detroit (the Tigers somehow managed -2.6 WAR from their position players, which is astounding for all the wrong reasons).
So yeah, our question is: are the 2020 Astros 15.8 WAR worse, and are the 2020 Rangers 15.8 WAR better? Last week, I wouldn’t commit to the Astros being 10 Wins worse, so losing another 6 Wins or so on top of that is the type of thing that we’re only going to see with some miserable injury luck or something.
How do the Rangers look in comparison? Well, Robinson Chirinos will be missed in Houston, and he definitely improves what was a net zero last year. Todd Frazier improves third base, but not quite as much, since they at least had half of a decent year from Asdrubal Cabrera (plus, Frazier will be 34 this season).
In the negative column, Hunter Pence will be missed, and Nomar Mazara and Delino DeShields were both shipped out of town. On the injury rebound front, a full season from Joey Gallo after his injury-marred-yet-breakout 2019 could mean extra wins. And…that’s really about it. This just isn’t at all close to 16 WAR.
The Rangers definitely look better in 2020, and their pitching is especially formidable. Their efforts to improve are commendable at a time when so many in the league are outright punting on the season. But they still only have half of the equation right now, and barring multiple big surprises, the Astros should definitely be able to hold them off again in 2020.