Rangers focused on retaining free agents Cruz, Nathan
Veteran closer likely seeking multiyear deal, which may prove too costly
ARLINGTON -- Reliever Joe Nathan and outfielder Nelson Cruz are foremost among the Rangers' immediate priorities now that the World Series is over and free agency has begun.
The Rangers have much to do this winter as they try to put together a team that can compete for the American League West Division title and more in 2014. The ultimate goal of winning a World Series has not changed for a team that has averaged over 90 wins in each of the last five seasons and getting a grasp on what's going on with Nathan and Cruz is the first step.
The Rangers have a $9 million option on Nathan for 2014 with a $750,000 buyout. Picking up that option would seem automatic after Nathan was 43-for-46 in save chances last season while finishing with a 1.39 ERA and an opponents batting average of .162.
But Nathan has the right to void the option because he had 55 games finished in 2013 and the Rangers are expecting him to do just that in an attempt to get a multi-year contract even though he turns 39 on Nov. 22. Since the Rangers deem it unwise to sign closers to big contracts, Nathan will likely walk away and the club will be left to sort through several internal options that include Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria and Tanner Scheppers.
Cruz is most prominent among the Rangers' potential free agents. He missed 50 games while serving his suspension for violation of Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Policy, but still hit .266 with 27 home runs, 76 RBIs and a .506 slugging percentage in 109 games. The Rangers have indicated they are willing to tender him a qualifying offer of $14.1 million because their primary mission in the offseason is to upgrade their offense.
The Rangers have several holes to fill, especially left field, catcher and designated hitter. With Alex Rios returning to play right field, the Rangers could try to bring back Cruz as either their left fielder or designated hitter. They will still look at all other possible candidates for either spot, including Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez. Beltran and Morales could be of particular interest to the Rangers.
Catching is also an area of interest for the Rangers with A.J. Pierzynski and Geovany Soto both eligible for free agency. The Rangers are among the teams that are interested in former Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann, who may be the top free agent catcher on the market.
Acquiring McCann would require the Rangers making a major financial commitment that might be beyond their means unless they can clear payroll by dealing second baseman Ian Kinsler. That is something the Rangers could consider.
Free agents: OF Cruz; OF David Murphy ; P Matt Garza ; C Pierzynski; C Soto; P Colby Lewis ; IF Jeff Baker.
Eligible for arbitration: P Feliz; P Alexi Ogando ; 1B Mitch Moreland ; OF Craig Gentry ; P Neal Cotts ; IF Adam Rosales ; P Travis Blackley.
Non-tender candidates: Rosales; Blackley;
Club option: Lance Berkman, $12 million with $1 million buyout.
Mutual options: Nathan: Club option for $9 million or $750,000 buyout. Nathan has right to void option and buyout to become a free agent.
Areas of Need: Catcher: Pierzynski and Soto are both free agents. Jorge Alfaro is the Rangers' top Minor League prospect, but has not played above Class A. They are going to have to find a catcher from outside the organization and McCann is at the top of their list should the Braves not re-sign him, as expected.
Left field: Murphy is a free agent and is not expected to return. Cruz could fit here if the Rangers are able to re-sign him. They do not have an outfield prospect ready to take this spot so it will have to be filled from the outside if Cruz does not return. Beltran, Choo and Ellsbury are among the most attractive free agent candidates.
Designated hitter: Morales has been a player of interest for the Rangers in the past. The Rangers could also use this position as a revolving door so they can keep Jurickson Profar engaged as a utility infielder. This could also be a spot that Adrian Beltre moves into over the next few years.
First base: The Rangers still have Moreland to play the position and there is some sentiment to give him another year to see if he can take his offensive production to the next level. But the Rangers could look to upgrade the position and there may be more discussions about moving Kinsler to first base.
2013 payroll: The Rangers' payroll was at $125 million in 2013. It could go higher if needed in 2014, but probably won't go soaring.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.