In 2009 the Rangers opened the season with a $55 million payroll, fourth lowest in baseball. They added some salary along the way, but it amounted to little over $5 million. A bankruptcy proceeding, an ownership change, a new TV deal, and a World Series appearance later and the team finds itself in a bit more favorable financial position. According to Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi of Fox Sports, that could mean a 2011 payroll that exceeds $90 million. That will help the Rangers as they pursue another AL pennant.
What helps the Rangers is a lack of financial commitments in the future. The only player weighing down the payroll is Michael Young, who will make $16 million per season through 2013. But after him the Rangers owe more than $1 million to just four other players: Ian Kinsler ($6.2 million), Scott Feldman ($4.4 million), Darren Oliver ($3.25 million) and Colby Lewis ($3 million). All told, including option buy-outs, the Rangers are committed to about $35 million in 2010.
Arbitration raises will push that number close to, if not over, $50 million. The Rangers have a couple of tough arbitration cases ahead of them with Josh Hamilton (second year) and C.J. Wilson (third year). Both could at least double their 2010 salaries — $3.25 million for Hamilton, $3.1 million for Wilson — and could perhaps go even higher. After those two the Rangers have a pair of second-year arbitration cases, Mark Lowe and Dustin Nippert, and a trio of first years: Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, and Darren O’Day.
Since the article suggests that the Rangers will have a payroll of more than $90 milion, let’s assume that they have $40 million to work with this winter. That should help them buy improvements. The club has made known its intentions to retain Cliff Lee, a proposition that could cost them up to $25 million per season. Rosenthal and Morosi also mention the team’s strong interest in Victor Martinez, who will likely receive several offers and make perhaps $12 million per season. That would account for almost all of the team’s available payroll. They might not need a whole lot more — most positions are already accounted for. But is this the best move for the team long term?
The Rangers did have the third worst offensive catching crew in the majors, combining for a .273 wOBA. Martinez would obviously provide an enormous upgrade. His defense is suspect, which means he could take reps at DH and first base. There might not be many at-bats at DH should Vladimir Guerrero return, but the Rangers could certainly create a platoon situation between Martinez and Mitch Moreland at first base — which works especially well considering Martinez’s numbers against left-handed pitching.
Beyond that, the Rangers will return everyone from the 2010 club. They’ll have another chance to see if Julio Borbon can man center field full-time, leaving Hamilton and Cruz to the corners and Murphy to the fourth outfield role. The team also has a relatively full pitching staff, especially if they retain Lee, and a bullpen with upside. So while spending around $37 million on two players might not sound like a great idea in general, it is workable given the Rangers situation.
The only issues the Rangers might find is in the future, when their current players get more expensive. If Hamilton agrees to a long-term deal it will be rather expensive. Wilson becomes a free agent after 2011 and therefore must be replaced. Cruz could get expensive fast. Elvis Andrus hits arbitration next season and Neftali Feliz isn’t far behind. Colby Lewis’s contract expires after 2011. That could create unfavorable positions in 2012 and 2013. If they continue winning they might be able to expand payroll to a point where they can accommodate some of these players. The farm, one of the tops in the league, can perhaps fill out the rest.
Given the way the Rangers are currently positioned, they could probably afford to retain Cliff Lee and sign Victor Martinez without destroying their future. The caveat, of course, is that they need to continue winning in order to keep attendance high. That should make more cash available in the future. An expanded payroll means that Lee and Martinez would take up a lesser portion of it. If they didn’t have a number of cost-controlled players and a good farm it might be a different situation. But for these Rangers, spending big on two players could pay off big.