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Two Deadline Deals Just Turned the Rangers From Lucky to Good

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Through a quirk of the calendar, this year’s Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline came a day after its traditional date. As usual, though, GMs used every hour available to upgrade their rosters for the stretch run, completing a flurry of last-minute moves. No team was busier just before the buzzer than the Texas Rangers, who wheeled and dealt down to the wire, landing three of the summer’s most attractive trade targets. In the space of an hour, the Rangers added both the best overall position player (Jonathan Lucroy) and perhaps the best hitter (Carlos Beltrán) traded on deadline day, with a quality closer (Jeremy Jeffress) thrown in for good measure. And almost miraculously, they did so without surrendering their top prospect, Joey Gallo (who ranked 11th on Baseball America’s midseason list), or either of the coveted 20-somethings who’ve already become staples of their big league lineup, Jurickson Profar and Nomar Mazara.

As August began, the Rangers’ record sat at 62–44, giving them baseball’s third-best winning percentage. But something was screwy: Their base runs record, an expected win-loss mark based on the runs their underlying stats said they “should” have scored and allowed, figured them for a winning percentage of only .496, 89 points below their actual mark — by far this year’s biggest gap in the “good” direction. Often, we’ll point to a team’s bullpen as the source of its power to overperform, but that argument didn’t work for the Rangers the way it did for recent Royals and Orioles teams, or this season’s pre-firesale Yankees (there’s an unfamiliar phrase). The Rangers’ bullpen had the worst strikeout rate and second-worst WAR in the majors, and the worst deserved run average of any team close to contention. Nor had the Rangers relied on an especially strong starting rotation. Their starters, too, had MLB’s lowest strikeout rate, as well as its fourth-highest walk rate and the sixth-worst deserved run average of any rotation. Put it all together, and the Rangers’ staff was actually worse than the much-maligned Orioles’ through July.

The Rangers’ success came down to timing: Both their hitters and their pitchers had been clutch for most of the season, but that kind of clutchness isn’t likely to last. Those Rangers wins were banked, and with a six-game lead and 56 games to go, they had the advantage in the AL West. But the second-place Astros remained a threat, especially if they made their own moves. And even if the Rangers held off Houston’s charge to win the division, they wouldn’t have been a playoff favorite with as many holes as they had. With an hour to go until baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline, the Rangers’ rest-of-season production, as projected by Baseball Prospectus, looked like this:

Catcher was weak, home to Robinson Chirinos and the real Killer B’s (Bryan Holaday, Bobby Wilson, and Brett Nicholas). Left field was a wasteland where Delino DeShields and Ryan Rua roamed. Rookie right fielder Mazara, filling in for the oft-injured Shin-Soo Choo, had slumped to a combined .690 OPS in June and July, and Profar was needed at more positions than even he could play — moonlighting in left, spelling the aged Adrián Beltré at third, platooning at first with a mediocre Mitch Moreland, and subbing at DH for Prince Fielder, who’d had season-ending surgery days earlier. Despite their first-place status, the Rangers really needed help.

They really got it. As I wrote last month, Lucroy was the most valuable position player available, owing not only to the production he’ll provide at catcher over the rest of the season, but also to his $5.25 million team option for 2017. Although he’s slipped as a framer, he’s still a durable presence with a good glove and a big bat by the standards of the defense-first position, and probably the best overall backstop behind Buster Posey (unless you really like laser-enhanced Wilson Ramos). Before Lucroy’s arrival, Rangers catchers had collectively recorded a .285 on-base percentage; Lucroy’s addition is a huge improvement at the plate and also makes Texas much better behind it. Because the Rangers weren’t on Lucroy’s no-trade list, he couldn’t block the deal in hopes of reaching free agency sooner, as he’d done when the Brewers tried to trade him to Cleveland on Sunday. But he does get what he told the world he wanted in July: the chance to play for a contender.

Meanwhile, Beltrán, who at age 39 was having his best offensive season as a Yankee, fills the DH slot vacated by Fielder, freeing Profar to play outfield until Choo returns (and bolstering the team’s middling defense). This is the third time Beltrán has been moved at midsummer, and while he’s a much more limited player than he was in his youth, he’s still a scary hitter, toting a .304/.344/.546 slash line to Texas. Of course, he’s also a fabled playoff performer, the owner of a .332/.441/.674 line in 52 career postseason games. The Rangers hope he’ll burnish that legacy before he hits the open market at the end of the year.

Jeffress, who’s been the guy getting saves for the Brewers, is (like almost every reliever) a hard thrower, sitting at 96 and topping out near triple digits. He doesn’t miss many bats, but he’s stingy with walks and has one of the highest ground-ball rates over the past three-plus seasons, which has helped him limit homers (and, as Jeff Sullivan observed, hard contact of all kinds). He’s under team control through 2019, although his salary will climb quickly when he becomes eligible for arbitration this winter.

Incumbent closer Sam Dyson has pitched in more games since the start of last season than anyone but Jeurys Familia, and the arrival of Jeffress (who’s worked hard himself) should allow manager Jeff Banister to lay off a little, regardless of who sets up whom. The Rangers’ current relief corps is stronger than its unsightly full-season stats, which were inflated by since-demoted, DFA’d, or outrighted relievers Tom Wilhelmsen, Shawn Tolleson, and César Ramos (among others). With Jeffress and Dyson locking down the late innings and Jake Diekman, Matt Bush, Tony Barnette, the recently reactivated Keone Kela, and late-July acquisition Dario Álvarez handling everything up to the eighth, the Rangers’ reconfigured pen is capable of picking up some slack from the starters. Even with Yu Darvish looking more or less like his old self in three starts since his most recent DL stint, the Rangers’ rotation remains thin, but the market for starters was weak, and there’s only so much a team can do at one deadline.

To land this huge haul, the Rangers had to further two teams’ rebuilding efforts. For Beltrán, they surrendered last year’s fourth overall draft pick, righty Dillon Tate, whose stock has headed south this season along with his stuff and his stats in the South Atlantic League. They also sent the Yankees two other right-handed pitchers, Nick Green and Erik Swanson, both 2014 draftees who are probably bound for the bullpen or the back of a rotation. None of those prospects compares to the blue-chippers the Yankees’ reliever sweepstakes brought back, but they add depth to the truly formidable farm system Brian Cashman has built. As I noted on Twitter, the Yankees haven’t had a top-five draft pick of their own in 25 years, but they’ve now traded for other teams’ top-five picks (Tate and Clint Frazier) on back-to-back days. Waving their long-furled white flag worked.

The big cost to Texas comes in the package the team sent to Milwaukee, which was headlined by the Rangers’ former second- and third-best prospects, Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz (plus a player to be named later). Brinson, the Rangers’ top pick in 2012, is a 22-year-old Double-A center fielder who’s expected to stick and excel at the position, which lowers the bar for what his bat needs to be. He has good power and has cut back on his K’s, although he still doesn’t draw walks. The righty Ortiz, Brinson’s 20-year-old teammate, doesn’t allow them. Although he’s still refining his feel for the breaking ball, he has two above-average offerings at an age when most arms are still raw. Both players have warts — Brinson’s impatience at the plate, and Ortiz’s physical conditioning and injury history — but between them, they elevate Milwaukee’s already strong system into the very top tier. The Brewers and Yankees now possess 14 of the 100 prospects on Baseball America’s midseason list, which seems almost unfair.

With two last-second swaps for superior players, the Rangers bettered themselves by roughly three wins over the next two months, narrowing the big gap between what their win-loss record said they were and what their underlying stats said they were about to be. On a day when the Astros did nothing notable, those upgrades probably put the Rangers out of Houston’s reach, while also positioning them for a deeper playoff run than we could have forecasted for their formerly flawed roster.