BY: Richard W. Humphrey

ARLINGTON. Texas – This off season has been a slow moving free agent market. incredibly, with training camps set to open in less than 30 days, Lorenzo Cain is the only free agent that has signed a contract for more than three years in length, and that just happened. That means all the big names are still out there available for one and all to sign.

There have been a plethora of reasons why the market has been so sluggish. (A). This is perceived as a weak class of free agents. (B) Next year’s class could be perhaps the best free agent class of all time with players such as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and maybe even Clayton Kershaw coming available; so teams are hanging on to the purse strings to be able to take advantage next year. (C) The big spending Yankees and Dodgers have put together their teams with a total payroll near the luxury tax level, which they don’t want to exceed. (D) A number of the big name free agents in this class are represented by Scott Boras, and he often strings out the process attempting to wring the last dollar out of teams.

There are other reasons thought to be at work here too, but it’s still mystifying that the market has so many top names still available – still more than 100.. It is getting close to the time that the players involved start considering “pillow deals”. Pillow deals are one year contracts that get a player signed and gives him a chance to come back and try free agency again next year.

It is obvious that there will still be a large number of unsigned free agents when training camps open. That has led to speculation that agents may sponsor spring training camps for the unsigned to get them ready for the regular season.

The 2018 Rangers are taking shape. GM Jon Daniels said from the beginning of the off season that pitching was his priority. He began the off season with just two rotation spots secured – Cole Hamels and Martin Perez. The team indicated they would look at Matt Bush as a starter and gave Bush an off season plan to prepare. They have also signed Doug Fister and Mike Minor and traded for Matt Moore.

The picture is clouded by an off season injury to Perez, who broke a bone in his non-throwing hand. He vows to be ready by opening day, but the likelihood is that he misses at least the first month.

The team definitely made a Herculean effort to sign Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani. He projects to some day be a top of the rotation starting pitcher akin to Yu Darvish. He also can hit and wants to the opportunitly. The Rangers have had their eye on Ohtani since he was in high school. Adding him would have been a big splash, but it was not to be. Worse, he signed with the Angels; so will be seen often with a divisional opponent.

There are some reclamation projects signed to minor league contracts that could crack the rotation, but at this point, there appears there will not be any big splash names added to the starting rotation. If there is a big splash, it will be Darvish, still unsigned. There are rumors of offers such as one from the Brewers that came to light last weekend, and perhaps some serious discussions with the Yankees. He has most recently been linked to the Cubs and Twins. There is speculation that he may have to settle for a contract with a total value of $60 – $80 million. If that becomes a reality, the Rangers could be in the picture, but it’s doubtful.

There are no major additions to the bullpen. Jake Diekman is expected to be healthy from day one. Keone Kela is back. Bush or Minor could be part of the pen if they don’t crack the rotation. Tony Barnette was re-signed. Alex Claudio waa the most dependable reliever last year, and he returns, probably getting first shot at being the closer. Jose LeClerc is alsoo in the mix.

As for the rest of the team, very little has happened. Texas has not clarified which direction it will go at first base. Joey Gallo, the author of 41 home runs last year and the team leader in OPS, looks promising defensively. Certainly, he would likely prosper if he settled in at one position. Ronald Guzman was very good at AAA last year and is apparently Major League ready. He too is a first baseman.

There has been no center field addition and no trade of Jurickson Profar. Both were rumored to be on the Rangers’ radar.

So that leaves the rest of the position player roster pretty much the same as last year. Robinson Chirinos is catching with Brett Nicholas as his backup. Rougned Odor, Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre fill out the infield at second, short and third. Willie Calhoun, the most highly regarded prospect received in the Darvish trade to the Dodgers will get a long look in left field. Delino DeShields gets the first look in center field. Nomar Mazara is slotted for right field and Shin-Soo Choo will be the main designated hitter.

As last season wound to a close, Daniels said he expected the Rangers to contend in 2018. That looks less likely now. The Astros are the reigning World Series champions. They have their core four offensive players back – Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman. They added Justin Verlander to the rotation last August and Gerritt Cole this winter. It was a pretty good rotation before those additions. They look hard to catch.

But then again a year ago, the World Series champion Cubs looked to be hard to catch, and they ended up scrambling to even make the playoffs in 2017. They play the games on the field and not on paper.

The Angels may have the best chance to challenge Houston in the West. They are relieved of paying salaries to Josh Hamilton and C. J. Wilson, so found themselves with payroll flexibility. They have traded for Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart to fill out a very good looking infield. They already had Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. Trout is considered to be the best player in the Majors by many. Pujols is not the super star he once was, but he still drove in 100 runs last year.

Los Angeles has added Ohtani to the rotation and will give him a chance to hit. The Angels are considereing a six-man rotation

The Angels on paper look to be the best bet to overtake Houston for the West Division championship.

Seattle has made some nice moves to beef up their offense. They haven’t done anything of note to beef up the pitching staff, but they look better than the Rangers on paper.

The bottom line is that the Rangers may be fighting it out with an improving Oakland team to stay out of last place.

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