The Texas Rangers enter the 2017 Major League Baseball season with favorable reviews. However, for the first time in three seasons, they aren’t the division favorites. That distinction goes to a team that has lived in their shadow ever since they migrated over from the National League Central to the American League West. Talk about leaving a storm for a monsoon.
The Houston Astros joined the same division as their rival Rangers in 2013. Forgetting about 2014 —when Houston won their first Silver Boot Series since 2006— and the Rangers roster was decimated by injuries, leaving the likes of Adam Rosales, J.P. Arencibia, Neal Cotts as the bullpen mainstay and Scott Baker making 25 appearances with eight starts.
Outside of that lone year and since 2009, the Lone Star series has been absolutely dominated by Texas to the lopsided total of 64 to 17.
Houston was admittedly dormant from 2011 to 2014 but after a playoff season in 2015, their rebuild is over. Still, they are 10-28 against the “big brother” Rangers in the past two seasons. And the Rangers aren’t too different, so why aren’t they the favorites?
The past few seasons have seen Houston graduate top prospects George Springer, Lance McCullers, Jr., Alex Bregman and Joe Musgrove. More importantly, mid-level prospects like Jose Altuve (third in 2016 MVP voting) and Dallas Keuchel (2015 Cy Young winner) have become not just good or great but elite players.
Then there’s the big daddy of them all: Carlos Correa. The 2015 A.L. Rookie of the Year will play all but a select few games of the entire season at age 22 and could be the best player in the division by the time he’s 23, at the very least.
Houston has developed their prospects just as the Rangers have. Jon Daniels’ always keeps the farm system feeding into Arlington stocked. Despite multi-top prospect deals for Cole Hamels in 2015 and Jonathan Lucroy in 2016, the Rangers still have one of the more impressive minor leagues.
The Astros made some big deals, too. The regrettable Carlos Gomez deal in 2015. The not as regrettable Ken Giles trade that winter. They dealt Mike Foltynewicz for Evan Gattis the same year. Using some more of their ridiculous depth in the Minors, they also went out and acquired catcher Brian McCann from the Yankees in November.
They prepared to contend using their assets. You can’t play three shortstops and five outfielders.
So if both teams have followed similar trajectory and Texas has wiped the Astros’ floor with Ranger red in recent memory, why is Houston projected to win as many as eight more (91.5) games than the Rangers (83.5)?
The answer falls onto the Rangers’ bungling of their top prospects.
Houston has had their home runs (Correa, Altuve, Springer, Keuchel, Bregman) but they’ve also had their whiffs (Appel, Aiken, Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart).
Prospects hit as much as they miss. It’s how the game works. It’s why we’re so obsessed with learning as much as we can about J.D. Davis and Connor Sadzeck just as we fantasize over the potential of Jorge Alfaro and Josh Hader.
For Houston, the hits have made the misses a far smaller issue than it’s become for Texas.
Though the Rangers have had all-star returns from Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor and Nomar Mazara, there have been far more empty nets cast in Arlington than in South Texas.
Neftali Feliz notoriously broke down and the attempt to convert him to a starting pitcher failed miserably. As it did with Alexi Ogando, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross, Jr.
First round picks have failed the Rangers, as well. The enigmatic Dillon Tate was jettisoned at last year’s trade deadline for Carlos Beltran. After Scheppers the following picks were Jake Skole, Kellin Deglan and Luke Jackson. Chi Chi Gonzalez hasn’t gotten anybody out since 2015.
The draft is only half of the equation to a farm system. The other is international scouting and the Rangers do it better than anyone. This is where they got Jurickson Profar.
Profar could have been traded for anyone in baseball in 2013. The prevailing names were David Price and Giancarlo Stanton. Texas rightfully wanted to keep their potential superstar but four years later he hasn’t even held down a job.
Injuries have plagued him but even if he were to stay healthy, he’s blocked all over the field by Odor, Andrus and future first ballot Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre. In 2016, he played 17 games at first base and 14 in left field. After a scorching start, Jeff Bannister made sure to find a spot for him in the lineup but naturally, the lack of everyday consistency wore down on the still very young player.
The other top prospect Texas has seen a negative return on is the power hitting Joey Gallo. Another player who could have been traded for anyone, this episode in 2015.
Not a terrible problem to have but Gallo, like Profar, had no place to play. Beltre manned third base and Mitch Moreland the opposite corner. The Rangers experimented with him in the outfield and chose to hold onto him despite the familiar predicaments they faced with Profar two seasons prior.
Here we are in 2017 and both players are shells of their former selves. It seems ridiculous to say: Profar is 25 and Gallo is 23 for the entire season, but that’s the way the prospect game works.
Young players need to play. Texas simply had no spot for either and now are relying on both to blossom late in the wake of injuries (Beltre), free agent losses (Ian Desmond) and guys that make too much money not to play (Shin-Soo Choo, formerly Prince Fielder).
The shine is off on Jurickson Profar and Joey Gallo. The Rangers don’t know what they are, baseball doesn’t and other teams surely don’t want to pay to find out.
Houston’s depth chart is decorated with young players who fulfilled their potential, are heading that way or have shot way past it already.
Their two most recent blue chip prospects (MLB.com ranked Profar the number one overall prospect in 2012, Gallo 6th in 2014 and 2015) will both open 2017 as a member of the Opening Day roster. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily because of them but because of what surrounds them. Profar in left field in the first of many starts at many different positions and Gallo at third for the injured Beltre.
Ironically, two Astros’ castoffs are potential integral members of the Rangers. 2015 Rule 5 Draft pick Delino DeShields will currently platoon with Profar in left field and play center behind...Carlos Gomez. Gomez barely made it a year in Houston before the team cut ties and the veteran outfielder signed with Texas for the remainder of the 2016 season. Re-signed to a one-year deal, he’ll open as the team’s starting center fielder after the free agency departure of Desmond.
On paper, the Rangers and Astros don’t appear to be separated by eight wins. But where exciting, young, promising, new names are at Minute Maid Park, Globe Life Park sees the familiar ones and a ticking clock.
A clock that could be seriously extended by the Rangers post-hype prospects. But a clock that ticks nonetheless and in a baseball world of instant gratification, is ticking fast. A clock that could very well decide the winner of the 2017 American League West.