After losing Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli to free agency, failing to sign Zack Greinke from the open market and striking out on a Justin Upton trade, a setback for the Rangers in the American League playoff race seemed inevitable. In the AL West, the A's had improved and the Angels had added some big names. The Indians, Royals and Orioles would make the wild-card race more competitive.
Texas had a grasp on first place in its division and then a wild-card bid for a good chunk of the season. But lesser talent on offense and injuries eventually caught up with the Rangers and they lost a one-game playoff to the Rays for the final AL wild-card spot. However, a strong core is still in place to build around and with the right additions, this team should be back in contention against next year.
Adding some thunder to the lineup has to be a priority. Texas led MLB with 808 runs scored in 2012, but fell to eighth (730 runs) this season. Only four Rangers hit 15 homers or more, compared to seven a year ago, led by Hamilton's 43 and Beltre's 36. Getting more production out of the left field and designated hitter spots would help significantly. Add right field to the list of needs if Nelson Cruz departs via free agency.
Though Yu Darvish emerged as one of the best pitchers in the AL, the rotation could use another ace-caliber starter to pair with him. Daniels thought he had that guy when he dealt for Matt Garza at the trade deadline, but he pitched like anything but a top-of-the-rotation starter. The final three spots should be filled by Derek Holland and Martin Perez, along with Matt Harrison or Alexi Ogando. But to compete in the AL West and wild-card races, a No. 1 starter could make the difference.
Another pitching question to address is at closer. Joe Nathan is expected to opt out of his $9 million option for next season and become a free agent. The team might try to re-sign him, but Nathan wants a two-year contract and that might be more than the Rangers are willing to offer. If healthy, Neftali Feliz or Joakim Soria could take over as closer. Tanner Scheppers may also be a possibility there.
Brian McCann would help fill a major hole in the Rangers lineup and the team is expected to make a run at him in free agency. McCann would be a long-term upgrade at catcher and could also get at-bats at DH, which would improve that spot as well. But if the competition for McCann gets too expensive, Texas could also attempt to bring back one of its former catchers. Jarrod Saltalamacchia might not have as much power, but has a comparable bat and probably has less wear on him. Mike Napoli's days as a catcher are likely over after playing the whole season at first base for the Red Sox, but he could alternate with Mitch Moreland at that position and DH.
The free agent market has plenty of players that would fit the Rangers' need for an outfielder. Keeping Cruz is a definite possibility, as extending him a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer demonstrates. He'll probably opt for free agency instead, but could still sign a long-term deal with Texas. However, the team might choose to move in a different direction and pursue one of the top free agent outfielders like Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury or Curtis Granderson. Carlos Beltran would be another option, especially if the Rangers are looking for a short-term fix in the outfield and at DH.
Texas could also find a starting pitcher through free agency, but the No. 1 starter that the team is presumably seeking isn't available on the market. The closest might be Ubaldo Jimenez, and perhaps he'd be a good fit as a No. 2 behind Darvish. But Daniels is probably looking for a surer thing. Other free agent starting pitchers don't appear to be much better than what the Rangers already have. However, Texas has shown interest in Josh Johnson in the past, and might take a chance on signing the injury-plagued right-hander to a one-year, incentive-laden deal.
Is Daniels ready to give up top prospect Jurickson Profar? The Rangers likely could have traded the 20-year-old shortstop in deals for Zack Greinke or Justin Upton over the past two seasons, but opted to keep the top position prospect in MLB and attempt to find a spot for him in the lineup. But that really didn't work this season and Profar figures to be blocked again with Elvis Andrus at shortstop and Ian Kinsler at second base. The Rangers experimented with playing Profar in left field and that could be revisited next year, but he may be worth far more to Texas as a trade chip at this point.
Otherwise, perhaps the Rangers could shop Kinsler around and see if he draws interest among the several clubs in need of a second baseman. That would clear a spot for Profar and save some money. But Kinsler is owed at least $62 million over the next five seasons, which could compel teams to look at trading for someone like Dan Uggla or Howie Kendrick instead.
As the offseason begins, one of the more intriguing rumors is that the Rays will seek to trade David Price before his salary increases significantly and while he's still under club control for two more seasons. If so, the Rangers have the prospects to make a deal and could build a package for Price around Profar. There's been some hopeful speculation that the Mets may try to pursue Profar, perhaps with a young pitcher like Zack Wheeler. But a match doesn't seem likely there — especially if Profar could be used to get a Cy Young Award winner like Price, who's better than anyone available in free agency.
Someone the Rangers could pursue to address their left field concern is the Twins' Josh Willingham. With only one year and $7 million remaining on his contract, he would be a lower-cost option than any of the available free agents. And with him becoming eligible for free agency after next season, Minnesota doesn't have the leverage to ask for a haul in return. Moving Willingham's power bat from Target Field to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington could result in some impressive numbers.