Welcome to checkbook baseball. Having your team sign the checks can be a lot of fun!
The Texas Rangers and Jacob deGrom always made a lot of sense. The Rangers are desperate to start pitching. They’re in win-now mode, having signed Corey Seager and Marcus Semien last year and hiring three-time World Series winner Bruce Bochy earlier this offseason. Most importantly, this is a large market team that has operated like a mid-sized team for too long. After running top-10 payrolls every season from 2012 through 2015, Rangers participated in a rebuild that has yet to yield positive results. Their payrolls have slipped to 19th and 20th in the last two seasons – and they’ve lost 102 games in 2021 and 94 in 2022, leading to the firing of longtime manager Jon Daniels in August.
So Rangers had money to spend … but nobody expected a five-year deal for a 35-year-old pitcher who’s only made 26 starts over the past two seasons. Even one that at its peak of 2018 through the first half of 2021 posted a 1.94 ERA in 91 starts, the highest level of performance the sport had seen from a pitcher over a span of years since Pedro Martinez. ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel predicted a three-year deal for deGrom, albeit at a higher annualized average of $44 million as opposed to the $37 million AAV of that $185 million deal. Others predicted a similar deal.
5 years? It’s the ultimate high-risk signing from new general manager Chris Young and owners Ray Davis and Bob Simpson.
In a way, the analysis is simple. If deGrom is healthy, he’s still arguably the best starter in the game. The Rangers can even dream on the deGrom we’ve seen for 15 starts in 2021 when he had a 1.08 ERA with 146 strikeouts in 92 innings and kept batters at a .129 average. For three months he was a combination of 1999 Martinez, 1994 Greg Maddux and 1968 Bob Gibson firing 100-mile lasers with pinpoint accuracy and unbeatable footage. If they get something like that version of deGrom for five years, that could turn into an A+ signing, and deGrom could do for the Rangers what Max Scherzer did for the Washington Nationals, around the Cy season after season Fight Young Awards.
But deGrom missed the second half of that season with a forearm strain and elbow discomfort. He missed the first few months of 2022 with a shoulder stress reaction sustained at the end of spring training. What’s the over/under about how many starts deGrom actually makes in those five seasons?
Rangers will pay deGrom, Seager, Semien, Martin Perez (who accepted the team’s $19.6 million qualifying offer) and Jon Gray about $133 million in 2023. And there are still many gaps to be filled in this team. Analysts, and no doubt the Rangers themselves, will point out that at 68-94 they smashed their Pythagorean record by nine wins, so the true talent was more like that of a .500 team than a 94-loss team.
Still, it feels a bit like Rangers putting diamonds on a papier-mâché ball, as my colleague Brad Doolittle wrote to me. Glittering yet hollow. This feels like a team that needs 32 starts from deGrom to have any hope of battling the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners in the AL West (and even the Los Angeles Angels). They’re not the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Mets who could get away with 20-25 starts from deGrom if he’s great at the right time. Rangers need him to be great April through September.
The good news is that deGrom ended the season healthy — despite looking human. In his last five starts, including one in the postseason, he had a 5.33 ERA and allowed seven home runs in 27 innings. Maybe just a lapse, a temporary loss of mechanics, or fatigue after not pitching for over a year, but certainly remarkable for a pitcher who’s been so untouchable for so long.
It’s also worth noting that deGrom has relatively little wear and tear on his arm for a pitcher his age. He didn’t become a full-time pitcher until the Mets called him up from Stetson University, and though he underwent Tommy John surgery as a minor league player, he only has 1,326 major league innings by age 34. Compare that to, say, Justin Verlander, who had 2,545 innings by age 34. Or Scherzer, who had 2,290.
For this to come together for Rangers, however, a few things need to happen: 1. They need to spend more money to fill out the 2023 roster; 2. Your prospects need to come and start producing in the majors right away. That includes third baseman Josh Jung, who debuted last year but mainly points to a group of young pitchers: Jack Leiter (the second pick in 2021), Kumar Rocker (the third pick in 2022), Cole Winn (a first-round pecks). pick in 2018) and Owen White (a second-round pick in 2018).
However, this group had decidedly mixed results in 2022. Leiter had a 5.54 ERA on Double-A, disappointing for a pitcher considered a polished collegiate product. Rocker, his former Vanderbilt teammate, was a surprise pick so early in the draft and didn’t even come up after Rangers drafted him until he went through six short games in the Arizona Fall League. Winn had a 6.51 ERA at Triple-A. White has big things but has only served 115 innings as a pro.
Rangers’ current payroll is already an estimated $192 million – higher than ever. They’re still $41 million below the $233 million tax threshold, so let’s look at their next move. If nothing else comes, it could eventually resemble another Rangers deal from a few decades ago, when another owner signed Alex Rodriguez – and when the team didn’t win and couldn’t wait to end their mega-contract of three years later.
As for the Mets, remember: They know deGrom and his medical history better than anyone. They reportedly didn’t even get around to making a definitive offer. Also, more importantly, they have several holes to fill – in rotation, in the bullpen, and in midfield. It makes sense to spread that money out rather than betting so much on one player. This may improve their chances of re-signing Brandon Nimmo – and going after Justin Verlander, Carlos Rodon and others. We’re just getting started.