Offseason Optimism: Excitement Despite Injuries

Being the reigning World Series Champions has as many positives for a fanbase as it does negatives. Yes, we all love being number one and reminding everyone around us who the top dog in the MLB is each morning. However, our greediness consumes our every thought and forces us to want more and more with each passing hour (especially during off-season free agency).

To this point, the Rangers front office has been relatively quiet this offseason, and injuries have unfortunately overshadowed each headline. Kirby Yates signed a one-year, $4.5M deal to provide the veteran bullpen presence needed to sustain a deep run for 2024. Yates had a strong 2023 season posting a 3.38 ERA, but is a year removed from his 2021 Tommy John surgery return. Tyler Mahle joins the rotation after signing a two-year contract with the Rangers. Mahle has Tommy John issues of his own, slated to be a mid-season acquisition as he continues to rehab from the procedure himself. Let’s not forget that we’re all still awaiting the return of Jacob deGrom who underwent his own TJ procedure this past June after only six starts for the Rangers (five of which were REALLY good).

And then there’s Max Scherzer who will now be gone until June or July after undergoing surgery to address a herniated disk in his lower back. Though this isn’t a major surgery like his teammates, it’s still a cause for concern when talking about a player who is entering his age 40 season. Mad Max certainly knows his body and is likely to return without any lingering issues; but it’s yet another key rotation piece that the Rangers will need to wait on for results.

So, what gives? What should everyone be so excited about when several key pieces of this rotation won’t be ready until near/after the All-Star break? In a word, opportunity.

For the Rangers to sustain championship level success, the farm system needs to produce talent that can be relied on over the next several seasons. Yes, the Rangers went out and spent over $700M to acquire veteran talent that ultimately led them to the 2023 title. However, it’s foolish to think they’ll continue to be a player in that market as it’s not a sustainable business practice for any team. Prospects and player development provide the financial support needed to sustain success that Rangers fans have waited so long to enjoy. Now is the time for some touted prospects to take advantage of what lies in front of them, an opportunity.

Cody Bradford

Bradford looked like a seasoned veteran during the 2023 postseason run and overall had an impressive showing in his first MLB stint. A much-needed southpaw presence, Bradford has a calm demeanor and length off the mound that produces a deceiving fastball and slider mix. Boasting a high SO/9 and a low BB/9, I see his stats trending upward as he continues to learn how to avoid the barrel of big-league hitters. He seems to already be slated into the starting rotation as 2024 begins, and I see him being a key contributor for the first half of the season. Once the staff reaches full strength, look for Bradford to be one of the first names out of the pen, having gained a ton of trust this year from Bruce Bochy.

Owen White

Two MLB appearances and a 11.2 ERA probably isn’t what White was hoping the start of his big-league career would look like. White has had some recent injuries during his development and still looks to be searching for his upper-nineties fastball to return to form. His cutter is above average, and the changeup is improving with each appearance. With a healthy off-season and another spring camp under Mike Maddux, it’s not impossible to imagine the back of the rotation held down by White.

Jack Leiter

Rangers fans everywhere have been ecstatic about Leiter’s big-league potential since he was drafted in the first round back in 2021. Since then, it hasn’t been the storybook journey we all hoped for. Command issues have shot his walk numbers to a concerning rate and his delivery looks to be a work in progress as the proper adjustments are made. However, his recent bullpen sessions have looked significantly better, and promise appears to be on the horizon for the Vanderbilt star. His stride off the mound gives his fastball the speed and life to be an above-average pitch for years to come. If his slider can consistently border the zone and not dive for the dirt, he will have the tools to be mid-rotation starter with frontline potential. It’s felt like a long two years waiting for Leiter to be at the major-league level, and this off-season opportunity might just be the final push needed for him to make his debut.

Zak Kent

Ten starts at AAA Round Rock in 2023 leading to a sub-four ERA might just be the evidence the front office needs to give Kent a serious look going into Spring camp. Only one pitcher at Round Rock had more starts with a better ERA than Kent, Cody Bradford. In 2023 Kent allowed fewer hits, homeruns, runs, and earned runs all while issuing fewer walks than his 2022 campaign. The fastball won’t blow hitters away, but the crafty, off-speed offerings keep hitters uncomfortable in the box. The Rangers already have a plethora of flamethrowers in their rotation, so it makes sense to add a guy like Kent to the rotation. He’s been a grinder in the minor leagues, and he just might see his opportunity to make the final jump in 2024.

Honorable Mention: Cole Winn

Going into the 2022 season, no one had a higher ceiling than Cole Winn. Back-to-back subpar seasons, since, have turned the former top-three Rangers prospect into a question mark for 2024. Winn did spend time in the Puerto Rican Winter League recently and put up strong numbers to close out his 2023 season. In the PRWL, he played in seven games, posting a 2.43 ERA and 24 strikeouts. Though he did still walk roughly 10% of the batters he faced, there is a renewed optimism that Winn could be a factor for the 2024 season.

Obviously, a lot will change between now and when players begin reporting to camp in mid-February. I still anticipate another starter or two being added via free agency or a trade (Edward Cabrera from Miami but that’s for another story). It also can’t be ruled out that someone is signed during camp like Will Smith or Robbie Grossman last season. Either way, there are opportunities in place for someone to claim a spot on the 2024 pitching staff. Prospects will eventually need to step up and perform for the Rangers to have any chance of maintaining their success over these next few seasons. Why not start that process in 2024?

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