We continue our look at the seven offseason questions (in no particular order) as the Rangers head into this offseason.
Today's question: Who is in the core and how do the Rangers plan to re-sign them?
It may not be a direct 2012 issue, but the long-term health of the club could depend on how many of the team's core players can be re-signed in the coming years.
So there are two parts to that equation. The first is identifying the core players and the second is figuring out when and for how long to sign them.
General manager Jon Daniels said last week that re-signing that group of players is a high priority for the club. And though he'll have a larger budget in 2012, he knows he must allocate finances for the increase in salaries of players like Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, Mike Napoli and Josh Hamilton (just to name a few).
"In the next two, three, four years, our core guys have a chance to reach free agency," Daniels said. "That’s a priority. It might not happen right away. But we want to make sure we can retain the core, the guys that got us here. We're not going to do anything that will jeopardize that."
In other words, the club will watch how it spends its money the next few years to be sure it can pay the players coming up.
So who are those players? Here are some that are likely to be considered "core" and their contract situations:
* Ron Washington. No, he's not a player. But without a doubt, he's part of the core. The manager has helped changed the culture in Texas to one that stresses defense, pitching and a versatile offense. His players compete hard for him and he's improved each season with his in-game strategy and putting the club in the best position to win. He's signed through 2012, but an extension for the manager should be on the offseason to-do list.
* Josh Hamilton. The 2010 AL MVP signed a two-year contract last offseason that takes him through his arbitration years. But after 2012 (he'll make $13.75 million), he's a free agent. Hamilton is one of the top all-around players in the game. Not only can he hit for power, but can run the bases, cover a ton of ground in center field and has a solid arm. The question with Hamilton: Can he stay healthy? He has a history of injuries and is now 30 years old. Judging how long that Hamilton contract should be based on his health and production is a challenge. But having him in the lineup long-term is important.
* Nelson Cruz. The 31-year-old has blossomed into a feared power hitter who can get on ridiculously hot streaks (see the 2011 ALCS). Hamstrings have been Cruz's biggest issue as he's been on the DL with that problem five times in the last two years. Because Cruz was such a late bloomer, he's still arbitration eligible for two more years, making him a free agent after the 2013 season. But now is the time to try to get some of these deals done.
* Elvis Andrus. He's 23 years old yet has played three full seasons now in the big leagues. Andrus is still learning, but he has considerable skills at shortstop and should only benefit more each year he's able to work with Adrian Beltre standing beside him at third base. Andrus is arbitration eligible starting this offseason, which means his $452,180 contract is going to get a lot bigger the next three years. The team would like to get him locked up sooner rather than later to a long-term deal. But Andrus and his agent, Scott Boras, may prefer to test that free-agent market when it comes (after the 2014 season).
* Ian Kinsler. The second baseman signed a five-year, $22 million deal prior to the 2008 season that includes a club option for 2013. So after that, just like Cruz, Kinsler will be a free agent. (He'll make $7 million in 2012 and the club option is for $10 million in 2013). Kinsler has improved defensively each season, becoming one of the best second baseman in the league. He turns double plays quickly, has excellent range at second and is a versatile leadoff hitter.
* Mike Napoli. It's amazing to consider that he's part of the "core" after joining the club just last spring, but after his 2011 season he falls into that category. He is arbitration eligible this offseason (he made $3.60 million last year and will no doubt make more now) and then is a free agent after 2012. Napoli not only made a huge impact on the field, but fits in perfectly with the clubhouse culture of the Rangers. He knows how to have fun but also works hard and is fully prepared each game.
* Homegrown core. Besides Andrus, the Rangers have a few other players that they'd like to keep long-term that came up through their system. So many teams with long winning windows have done that (the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves immediately come to mind). Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz are two names near the top of that list. Both will be arbitration eligible in 2013. Maybe the club can get something worked out where they get contracts that include a year or two of their free-agent years so they aren't waving goodbye to some of their future.
* C.J. Wilson. The left-handed starter could fall into this group as well. But that's going to depend on what kind of offers he gets this offseason and whether the team can get a suitable deal done and still be able to re-sign others whose contracts are coming up soon. Wilson is an example of what can happen when someone gets to free agency. It's an unknown and the team risks losing them. So we'll see.
While some of these players aren't free agents for a few years, the time to act on long-term deals is now. The club doesn't want to risk losing them or allowing their value to increase to the point where they simply can't afford them. That's why it's one of the offseason questions right now. Daniels and his staff understand that and will start to try to address some of that in the next few months.
Which players are the highest priority to re-sign?