After nine seasons, 1,326 innings, and 1,607 strikeouts in a New York Mets uniform, Jacob deGrom hit free agency for the first time in his career. Although they offered him a three-year $120 million contract to stay in Queens, deGrom never gave the Mets an opportunity to counter the Texas Rangers’ five-year $185 million offer that he signed (per Mike Puma).
At his best, deGrom is among the most talented pitchers in Major League Baseball history. In 2018, deGrom won his first Cy Young award after pitching to a 1.70 ERA over 217.0 innings. Additionally, deGrom posted 9.0 Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs), the most a pitcher has ever accumulated in a single season in the Statcast Era, and only Randy Johnson (3x), Pedro Martinez, and Curt Schilling have had a higher fWAR in a single season since 2000.
However, deGrom has struggled to stay on the field the last couple of seasons. Coming off Cy Young campaigns in 2018 and 2019 followed by a Cy Young-worthy campaign in the shortened 2020 season, expectations were as high as ever for deGrom entering 2021. Somehow, deGrom was able to shatter every expectation. Across 92 innings, deGrom had a remarkable 1.08 ERA and 45.1 K%. deGrom was placed on the Injured List for the second time (his first stint only held him out of two starts in May) on July 18th with an inflamed right elbow and his season ended a month later when he was transferred to the 60-day IL a month later.
Going into 2022, deGrom hoped to remain healthy and help the Mets compete for a World Series. deGrom took the mound for the Mets in Spring Training but at the end of March, he was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his right scapula, causing him to miss the first four months of the regular season. Although deGrom had a 3.08 ERA (the second worst of his career), he looked as dominant as ever with a 1.54 xFIP, 1.59 SIERA, with some unlucky homerun variance (17.5 HR/FB%) in his 64.1 innings of work.
Combined with his recent injury history, it made sense that the Mets were only willing to offer deGrom a three-year contract because he is heading into his age 35 season. While a five-year investment to deGrom is a huge risk for the Mets, and frankly most teams in Major League Baseball, it’s a gamble that makes sense for the Rangers.
The last time the Rangers made the postseason was in 2016, but it looks like times are changing. Despite losing more than 100 games in 2021, the Rangers splurged that offseason signing Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Jon Gray for a combined $556 million. While the Rangers were still well under .500 in 2022, it was clear that the team’s Major and Minor League talent was evolving.
With a solid core of Seager, Semien, Adolis Garcia, Nathaniel Lowe, Jonah Heim, and top prospect Josh Jung, the Rangers were likely very happy with their position player core entering the offseason.
However, the Rangers starting pitching staff likely had the complete opposite outlook. Heading into free agency, the only two pitchers penciled into their rotation were Gray and Dane Dunning. Before signing deGrom, the Rangers were able to bring back 2022 All Star Martin Perez and brought in Jake Odorizzi from the Braves. However, a rotation of Gray, Perez, Odorizzi, and Dunning likely isn’t good enough to pitch the Rangers into postseason contention.
With their willingness to spend, the ability to spend, the desire to win now, and the need for an ace, deGrom made all the sense in the world for the Rangers to sign. But this begs the question: how good is the Rangers’ rotation?
On an Instagram poll run by me on @mlbzone_, 5% of voters (32 people) said the Rangers had a top five rotation, 28% of voters (178 people) said top ten, 52% of voters (336 people) said top 15, and 15% of voters (95 people) said top 30.
When healthy, deGrom is the best starting pitcher in baseball. However, how many starts can he be counted on to not only give the Rangers in 2023 but throughout the entirety of his contract?
Jon Gray is a fine pitcher, but he has never had an ERA below 3.50 in any season of his career, and realistically his ceiling is that of an ok number two starter.
Martin Perez had a career-best 2.89 ERA and 3.8 fWAR in 2022, but his underlying numbers suggest he likely won’t be able to sustain this production going forward. Perez’s 6.5 HR/FB% was significantly lower than the 2022 league average of 11.4% and his career average of 11.9%, his 3.80 xFIP and 4.08 SIERA were significantly higher than his ERA, and he was just average generating strikes with a 27.2 CSW%. Steamer projects Perez to finish with a 4.13 ERA in 2023, and frankly, that might be close to the best scenario as the only time Perez finished the season with an ERA that low besides 2022 was back in 2013 when he had a 3.62 ERA.
At this point in his career, Jake Odorizzi is back of the rotation innings eater whose ERA will likely hover around 4.50. At his ceiling, Odorizzi pitches 170 innings and his ERA hovers around 4.
As for Dane Dunning, he profiles as a number three starter at best. The soft-throwing Dunning has average swing-and-miss stuff at best, has a poor walk rate, and is susceptible to giving up the long ball.
In essence, the Rangers rotation consists of deGrom and a collection of 3-5 starters who will need to pitch at or near their ceilings to make the Rangers a competitive team. However, the good news is that the Rangers have top prospects Jack Leiter, Owen White, and Cole Winn on the doorstep of making their Major League debuts. While there are legitimate concerns about all three of the pitchers, they all have great stuff and a far higher ceiling than anyone on the Rangers’ pitching staff by deGrom.
If all goes well, deGrom stays healthy, Gray has a career-best season, Perez is able to somewhat replicate his 2022 season, and 2/3 of Leiter, White, and Winn are able to effectively pitch at the Major League level. If this were to happen, there’s a legit argument the Rangers could have a top-five rotation.
However, that is likely the absolute ceiling of the Rangers’ rotation. The most realistic assumption is that deGrom is himself but only pitches around 150 innings, Gray is able to have a fine 2.5∼ fWAR season, Perez pitches to a 4∼ ERA, Dunning is able to pitch to his ceiling of a 4∼ ERA, and one of Leiter, White, or Winn is able to step into the rotation and throw quality innings as soon as the All Star break.
In this scenario, the Rangers are likely a top 15 rotation and give the organization a chance to attain success in 2023. However, there are definitely ways in which they can perform around the 10th best rotation, but also the 25th best. A lot of the Rangers’ success will come down to whether or not deGrom can pitch every fifth day, and then it’s a matter of if any of their other starters are able to pitch around their ceilings.