READY, SET, GO!

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

The Rangers are off and running in the race to put together their 2014 team, which hopefully will be better than 2013′s. When the Boston Red Sox, the team with four former Rangers on their roster (Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Ryan Dempster), put away the St. Louis Cardinals, the team with no former Rangers, last week in game six to win the World Series; the start of the off season officially began.

The end of the World Series begins the period for eligible players to file for free agency. By the weekend, more than 150 players had done so, and the list will get longer before it gets shorter. Beginning Tuesday, teams can sign free agents. Also by Tuesday, teams will have to have tendered qualifying offers to eligible free agents in order to be in line for draft choice compensation in next year’s amateur draft. The salary to qualify for compensation this year is $14.1 million, up from $13.3 million a year ago, a 6% increase.

There were just nine qualifying offers tendered last year, including one by the Rangers to Josh Hamilton. This year, the Rangers are expected to again tender one qualifying offer, this time to Nelson Cruz.

It has already been a busy week for Texas. The day after the Series ended, they declined their 2014 option on Lance Berkman, who is expected to retire. Texas paid a $1,000,000 buyout of Berkman’s contract rather than exercise the option which would have paid him $12 million next season.

A day later, the Rangers claimed relief pitcher Chaz Roe on waivers from Arizona. Roe, who is the nephew of Hall of Fame second baseman Bill Mazeroski, pitched in 21 games with the Diamondbacks this year with a 1-0 record and 4.03 ERA. Roe is 27 and has also played in the Colorado and Seattle organizations after being drafted in 2005.

Texas also exercised their option on closer Joe Nathan for 2014, who promptly declined the offer and elected to become a free agent, a contractual right that Nathan earned by virtue of completing more than 55 games last season. The economic effect for the Rangers is that they avoided paying the $750,000 buyout of Nathan’s contract that would have been payable if they declined to exercise the option. From Nathan’s standpoint, cancelling the Rangers’ option and taking free agency gives him the opportunity to land a multi-year contract totaling far more than $9.25 million he would have earned pursuant to the option.

Had Nathan not exercised his right to become a free agent and accepted the Rangers’ exercise of the option, Texas likely would have traded him. There is no question that Nathan has turned in fantastic results in his two years as the Rangers’ closer, converting 80 saves in 86 opportunities. However, he will be 39 next season and Texas has at least three internal closer candidates in Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria, both of whom have made All-Star teams in the past as a closer, and Tanner Scheppers. Alexi Ogando is currently targeted for the Rangers’ rotation; but if that changes, he too could be a closer candidate. With so many quality closer candidates, it made little sense for Texas to commit more than $9 million to Nathan, rather than utilize the salary to shore up other areas of the team.

On the coaching front, bullpen coach Andy Hawkins did not land Baltimore’s pitching coach position. The Birds opted for Dave Wallace instead, so for now, Hawkins is still in the fold. Texas did name Bobby Jones to the coaching staff. His area of responsibility is not yet defined, but he likely will be the first base coach. Jones, who has the distinction of being the last Viet Nam veteran to play in the Major Leagues, has been a long time manager in the Rangers’ minor league system. Steve Buechele, who was also a candidate for the Rangers’ coaching staff, is expected to move from managing at AA Frisco to managing the Rangers’ AAA team at Round Rock.

As for this winter’s free agent market, Texas is expected to make a strong bid to retain Nelson Cruz. Cruz is extremely well liked by his teammates and within the organization. He reportedly made a proposal to the Rangers earlier this year to sign a contract extension for four years at $56 million, which the Rangers did not choose to counter. He may well attract an even more lucrative offer this off season as in the post steroid era of baseball, scoring is down dramatically making power hitters like Cruz even more valuable. Already Hunter Pence has signed a $90 million contract extension with the Giants and Cuban defector Jose Abreu has signed a $68 million deal with the White Sox despite never having played in the Major Leagues.

Starting pitcher Matt Garza may ultimately command $14.1 million in annual salary in free agency, but the Rangers aren’t eligible to receive draft choice compensation for Garza if he signs elsewhere, as he did not play for Texas for the entire 2013 season. Consequently, there is no need for Texas to make a qualifying offer for Garza. Both catchers, A. J. Pierzynski and Geovany Soto are also eligible for free agency, as are David Murphy and Colby Lewis. Jason Frasor would have been eligible for free agency, but he has already re-signed with Texas for 2014.

The biggest name on the free agent market is Yankees’ second baseman Robinson Cano, who is seeking a 10 year, $305 million contract. He is a premier hitter, a left-handed bat capable of competing for batting championships and hitting home runs. The rumor mill persistently has Texas as one of the teams “in” on Cano. Certainly, his bat would look really good batting third for the Rangers and hitting home runs into the Ballpark in Arlington’s inviting right field outfield seats. However, it is doubtful the Rangers have the salary capacity to play in Cano’s league, and Texas already has a middle infield log jam with Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler and Jurickson Profar.

Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Carlos Ruiz are the leading catchers among the free agents in addition to Pierzynski and Soto. The Rangers’ top catching prospect is Jorge Alfaro, who has not played above the A minor league level; so there are virtually no internal catching candidates.

Speculation in the trade market has two possible big names available for a block buster trade – Tampa Bay’s left-hander David Price and Miami outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. Needless to say, both would look really nice in a Rangers’ uniform. It is actually quite likely that Price gets traded by the financially strapped Rays. He is two years away from free agency and is already commanding more than $10 million in arbitration. Those were the circumstances last year when Tampa Bay traded James Shields to Kansas City.

However, Jim Bowden of ESPN radio tweeted that Marlins GM Dan Jennings said “Mr. Stanton is NOT available. He will be in RF at Marlins Park on Opening Day. We are building around him.”

The General Managers’ meetings begin November 11 in Orlando. The trade market could get moving then. More likely, there will be discussions that lead to trades in December at the winter meetings. The goal for the Rangers is to utilize this winter’s opportunities to make current rather than former Rangers the winner of next year’s World Series.

RANGER NOTES: Rangers’ first base prospect Brett Nicholas went 3-4, including two home runs, in the Arizona Fall League All-Star Game to win the MVP Award for the game. The Arizona Fall League is for Major League teams’ elite prospects, and Nicholas was one of the few participants this year that was not considered one of his team’s top 20 minor league prospects. He was a sixth round draft pick in 2010, but had a break out year at AA Frisco this past summer, hitting .289 with 21 home runs and 91 RBIs. He was originally drafted as a catcher, has been converted to a first baseman, but is expected to see time behind the plate again in 2014 to increase his versatility. He is scheduled to continue playing in the Dominican League when the AFL season ends to hone his catching skills.

Mike Maddux expressed interest in the Detroit managerial opening when Jim Leyland retired. However, the Tigers named Brad Ausmus to manage the team this weekend, so for now, Maddux will apparently stay put as the Rangers’ pitching coach.

Follow on Twitter @rangerrap.

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