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Spending your way to success: can the Royals replicate the Rangers?

In short, not really

Jul 2, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; Texas Rangers shortstop Corey Seager (5) reacts after scoring a run during the first inning against the Houston Astros at Globe Life Field.
Jul 2, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; Texas Rangers shortstop Corey Seager (5) reacts after scoring a run during the first inning against the Houston Astros at Globe Life Field.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Rangers, like much of the rest of the world, hit just about rock bottom in 2020. With a winning percentage of .367, it was the franchise’s third-worst record since the team moved from Washington. Apparently unsatisfied in turning such a meager performance in a shortened season, the Rangers ran it back with a .370 winning percentage in 2021—the fourth-worst Rangers season ever, one that notched 102 losses.

But in the background, things were a-changing. GM Jon Daniels got the boot at the end of the 2020 season. In December, the Rangers selected Chris Young (yes, the same Chris Young who was on the Royals’ 2015 World Series team) to be their next GM. Young waited until his second offseason to make some big splashes.

And make big splashes he did. With a blank check from managing owner Ray Davis, Young and the Rangers baseball operations team promptly spent an eye-watering $580 million in free agency, bumping their payroll from $94 million all the way up to $142 million. The Rangers weren’t done: in this most recent offseason, they spent another $265 million in free agency. On Opening Day, the Rangers payroll exceeded $195 million—over $100 million more than it was two years previous.

At the time of the first spending binge, it seemed somewhat unwise. Indeed, even after a $50 million payroll increase, the Rangers only won eight more games. Fortunately for the Rangers, though, their financial tenacity has paid off, as they stand in first place as arguably the best team in the American League.

How has their free agency spend gone? Quite well. The Rangers signed seven big contracts over the last two years, which I’m defining as A) a deal of at three or more years or B) a deal of at least $15 million guaranteed.

Rangers big free agent signings

Name Contract Years Contract Amount 2022-2023 WAR
Name Contract Years Contract Amount 2022-2023 WAR
Corey Seager 10 $325M 8.1
Jacob deGrom 5 $185M 1.4
Marcus Semien 7 $175M 7.8
Martin Perez 1 $19.65M 3.8
Nathan Eovaldi 2 $34M 2.9
Jon Gray 4 $56M 2.9
Andrew Heaney 2 $25M 0.4
TOTAL 31 $819.65M 27.3

The Rangers spent big on Corey Seager and Jacob deGrom. The latter, predictably, needed surgery, but the Rangers were never going to have a fully healthy deGrom so it is what it is. But Seager has been as advertised, producing 8.1 WAR, per Fangraphs, since the start of last year.

All told, the Rangers’ big free agent acquisitions have been worth a total of 27.3 WAR since the start of last year. It’s been an impressive showing, as they’ve all done more or less exactly what they’ve been paid to do. To these players, they’ve committed a shade under $820 million guaranteed.

This, however, is a Kansas City Royals blog, and so therefore we must talk about what it means for the Royals. Putting aside whether or not the Royals have the money or, more accurately, would be willing to spend the money on a big group of free agents, this option is available to the Royals. Furthermore, the Royals and Rangers shared multiple similarities. The Rangers were coming off a 100-loss season, as the Royals likely will this year. Plus, both teams have payrolls of about $90 million the previous season.

But focusing on the Rangers’ free agent binge is only part of the calculation, because the Rangers weren’t adding free agents to nothing. The reason why the Rangers have won so much this year is because they have added it to the rest of their roster, which is being paid a relative pittance.

Outside of the Big Seven free agent contracts, the Rangers roster has produced 34.1 WAR since the start of last year—7.7 from pitchers and 26.4 from position players. Of those contributors, the Rangers have six players who have been worth at least 2.3 WAR since last year. Those players have been worth 26.7 WAR—nearly as much as their free agent haul. Only, as you can see here, their combined 2023 contract amount totals under $8 million.

Rangers young stars

Name Contract Years Contract Amount 2022-2023 WAR
Name Contract Years Contract Amount 2022-2023 WAR
Adolis Garcia Pre-Arb $747,760 7.3
Jonah Heim Pre-Arb $745,660 6.4
Nathaniel Lowe Arbitration $4,050,000 4.9
Leody Taveras Pre-Arb $733,445 3.3
Josh Jung Pre-Arb $721,485 2.5
Dane Dunning Pre-Arb $742,840 2.3
TOTAL N/A $7,741,190 26.7

Unfortunately for Kansas City, the Royals simply lack the roster depth and talent that the Rangers had as a base on which to add free agent contributions. Since the start of last year, the entire Royals roster has produced 26.8 WAR—the same amount produced by the Rangers’ six best non-free agent players. And as for their own top contributors, well, the Royals’ list is very, very short.

Royals young stars

Name Contract Years Contract Amount 2022-2023 WAR
Name Contract Years Contract Amount 2022-2023 WAR
Bobby Witt Jr. Pre-Arb $745,750 4.9
Brady Singer Arbitration $2,950,000 4.2
TOTAL N/A $3,695,750 9.1

So, there are two ways to answer the question posed by this piece’s title. Can the Royals jumpstart their rebuild by spending like the Rangers? The answer to this is very clearly yes. Part of Kansas City’s problem is that they have played a lot of negative WAR players. Even if you don’t get a superstar, effective free agent signings can make an outsized influence by removing the necessity to play guys who are at or below replacement level.

Like, imagine how different this team would have looked with Brandon Nimmo instead of Edward Olivares. Imagine how different every fifth day would be with Kodai Senga starting in place of, oh, Mike Mayers and Ryan Yarbrough. Imagine how different the end of games would look if Edwin Diaz was around instead of, say, Taylor Clarke and Nick Wittgren. Those three would have sent this year’s Royals payroll past $140 million, but if they could do that in 2017 they can do that in 2023.

That might not be the best question to ask, though. The question might be something along the lines of this: can the Royals become a playoff team by spending like the Rangers? And the answer to that That’s because the Royals don’t have the talent surrounding those free agents.

Let’s be generous and say that the 2023 Royals are about a 100-loss true talent level squad as their second and third order winning percentages suggest. Then, let’s say free agents improve the team by 20 games, which is an unreasonable number but just go with it. Even in this scenario, the Royals barely squeak through with 82 wins, which is just not gonna get you to the playoffs even in a weak AL Central.

Ultimately, the Royals can’t replicate the Rangers’ playoff path because the Royals have too many bad MLB players. No amount of free agent money will fix this. It will make the Royals better, and with the lottery as it is, there’s more incentive to win games at the bottom of the barrel, so that’s nice at least. So until Nick Pratto stops striking out 37% of the time, MJ Melendez learns how to field and hit baseballs at the pro level, and literally any Royals pitcher figures out how to throw strikes, Kansas City will keep on losing.