BALTIMORE — More than anything else, this Rangers season has been about giving young players opportunities and determining if they can contribute to a future winner.
So, have they gotten answers?
“There have absolutely, definitely been some guys that have done that,” manager Chris Woodward said when asked that exact question this weekend. “Now what they look like on a championship team that’s, going to take some time to figure out.”
In other words: Yes. And no.
The Rangers believe they have gotten some affirmative answers for the future from the guys they’ve auditioned most intensely. There are at least who will have significant roles next year, Woodward said Saturday: Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Nathaniel Lowe and Adolis García. He just isn’t sure if those roles will be at their current positions. Or as starters.
On Saturday, despite Lowe’s second homer in as many days, the Rangers lost 3-2 to Baltimore to drop them to 56-99, one loss away from their first 100-loss season since 1973. And while they have gotten some answers this year, their stated position is they intend to be active in free agency this winter. That could impact the roles or futures of numerous players.
Here’s a look at how things stand with the position players the Rangers intended to give the biggest opportunities to this year:
He’s held up physically, which may have been the Rangers’ biggest concern and he’s been a top-tier defender. Especially encouraging: He’s hit .313 with a .737 OPS since a July funk, perhaps induced by focusing too much on things like an All-Star Game berth that was not forthcoming.
But Kiner-Falefa is still only a 2.3 WAR player at shortstop, 18th among 38 players with at least 300 plate appearances at the plate. In other words: A tiny tick above league average. There are a handful of more offensive shortstops available on the free agent market, which means Kiner-Falefa could be on the move to another position again in 2022. It also might mean that long-term, he best profiles as the Rangers’ super utility player, capable of handling three different infield positions.
“I feel like he’s played [shortstop] really well,” Woodward said. “We’ve expressed that to him and that if we have a chance to sign a shortstop, he’s expressed the opinion he would have no problem moving over somewhere. He just wants to win.”
He has largely lived up to exactly what the Rangers believed they were getting, a disciplined hitter who still has work to do on hitting high velocity. He entered Saturday leading the team in OPS at .754 and 18th in the AL in OBP.
Perhaps most encouraging: He’s hit better against above average velocity over the last two months, taking a .291 average against 93 mph (considered league average) or better fastballs since August 1 into Saturday. He’s hitting only .230 with one homer against 93 mph or better for the year.
“Incrementally, I’ve done better,” Lowe said. “But there is still work to do. I have to be better against higher velocity. That’s where the game is heading. I’ve got to be better at getting a little more of a jump rather than hoping a fastball shows up and then reacting. When I do that I’m behind on the ball. I’ve got to be a little more aggressive, responsibly.”
He’s been somewhat better since a month-long mid-season minor league demotion. But it’s basically been a league average OPS: .739. Because of Solak’s defensive limitations, he needs to be an above-average offensive player. He has not. Andy Ibáñez has out OPS’d him for the 70 games he’s played and his defense, considered a weakness, has been better than expected. In addition, if the Rangers add a free agent shortstop, it’s possible Kiner-Falefa could be asked to slide to second.
“I don’t know if that’s a position that will be filled when we move guys around,” Woodward said. “We’ve got some guys who can handle the position. I guess that’s the best answer I can give you because I don’t really know who is going to be a free agent target.
His future is cloudy. Both President of Baseball Operations Jon Daniels and Woodward have acknowledged there is still a lot of uncertainty about Calhoun as he approaches his first year of arbitration eligibility.
He’s not an asset in the outfield and the Rangers prioritize outfield defense. He would profile best as a DH, but the Rangers would like their DHs to be versatile fielders. It puts all the more emphasis on offense and he simply hasn’t shown enough when healthy to make a case to have a role as a one-dimensional player.
He took a .638 OPS for the last two seasons into Saturday. It’s hard to even make a case for security as a platoon DH. The left-handed hitter’s splits are virtually identical vs. right-handed pitching (.638) and lefties (.640) the last two seasons.
On Saturday, he hit four balls that left the bat at 100 mph or higher but had only a single and two double play grounders to show for it. Woodward said he “likes where Calhoun is at right now.”
But he can’t commit to him either.
“We can’t honestly look them in the eye and say, hey, you’re going to do this next year, because we don’t know who we’re going to bring on,” Woodward said. “So, once we have those pieces in place, then we can kind of assess where some of these current guys fit.”