The Texas Rangers’ resilience through Jacob deGrom’s injury traces back to their offseason list of free-agent pitchers

The lesson from Texas GM Chris Young? When it looks like you have enough pitchers, sign one more — he just might become your ace

Jacob deGrom, the greatest pitcher of this generation, choked back emotion.

“I knew it was likely going to come,” Texas Rangers general manager Chris Young said, “and when I saw it, it just broke my heart, honestly.”

At that point, deGrom had thrown just about 30 innings to a 2.67 ERA for the first team he’d played for after leaving the New York Mets organization. But also, it had been more than a month since he’d taken the mound for the Rangers, who signed him to a five-year, $185 million deal early this past offseason.

In recent years, deGrom’s dominance has come to be seen as inexorably linked to his lack of durability. Injury concerns clouded his time with Texas from his first spring training workout, and then he was forced to announce that elbow surgery would sideline him for at least the rest of the 2023 season. The Rangers — who have been unsubtle in their efforts to contend two years after they lost 100 games and just a year after they finished fourth, 38 games back of the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros — had lost their ace.

And yet, already in his relative absence, the Rangers had ascended to the top of their division, 20 games over .500 and the second-best record in Major League Baseball by the time deGrom spoke to reporters June 6. As of Tuesday, they’re still rolling along with the fourth-best record in baseball, sitting five games up in the AL West.

“He was emotional because he really wants to be part of this,” Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said.

A long list of free agents turns into a deep Rangers rotation

Going into 2022, the Rangers famously spent “over half a billion dollars” on pricey free agents, primarily two shortstop-caliber infielders in Marcus Semien and Corey Seager. The team ended up with a league-average $150 million payroll and a far below league-average finish that cost the manager and the president of baseball operations their jobs.

Seager and Semien both got off to disappointingly slow starts in 2022, but it was the rotation that really sunk the Rangers’ season. They finished with the sixth-highest starting pitcher ERA in the sport.

Even before this past offseason had officially begun, Young — a former pitcher who retired from playing just six years ago — set about turning a team that still had low statistical expectations into a contender, starting with respectability. First, he brought three-time World Series-winning manager Bruce Bochy out of retirement. Then, to oversee what would be an overhauled pitching staff, he brought in Mike Maddux, who was coming off five years coaching for the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I was pretty well gonna stop doing it,” Maddux said of his mindset at the time. But he found Young’s former player perspective refreshing, and what ultimately sold him on coming back to Texas, where he coached in the early 2010s, was “the vision, more than anything.”

“[Young] talked about this list of free agents we were gonna sign,” Maddux said.

DeGrom was first. And even though the Rangers will play the rest of this season — and however far into October they go — without him, his influence will still be felt on the mound.

“What people on the outside can’t understand is that when we signed Jacob deGrom, it changed the perception of our franchise,” Young said. “Every free-agent pitcher was calling and asking about being a Texas Ranger, every agent. The phone didn't stop. This was a destination. It just changed the external perception of the organization, where we were headed.

“That's not the reason that we signed him — we wanted the best pitcher in the world — but that was something that had an impact on the rest of our free agency, no doubt about it. And I think it also elevated the mentality of everybody in here, everybody in our organization, and the expectations: This team can win.”

Beyond deGrom, the Rangers brought back Martín Pérez on a qualifying offer. They acquired Jake Odorizzi via trade. They inked Andrew Heaney shortly after deGrom and added them all on top of holdovers Jon Gray and Dane Dunning, plus less proven options such as Glenn Otto.

By mid-December 2022, veteran right-hander Nathan Eovaldi thought early conversations with the Rangers might be for naught.

“I felt like they were going to be the team I was going to sign with,” Eovaldi said last weekend in New York, “and then they ended up signing deGrom. And it was like, talks died down pretty much to nothing, and then they signed Andrew Heaney, and I was like, ‘Man, they just added two huge pieces to the rotation, spent a lot of money. There's no way I'm gonna go over there.’”

Except Young returned to the attitude that reeled in both Semien and Seager — the more, the merrier — and kept working on his list. Soon Eovaldi, too, was joining the Rangers.

“I was ecstatic about that,” Heaney said of the signing, “because I played with him in Miami and knew what kind of guy he was — as a teammate, obviously, as a player.”

At that point, the Rangers had eight pitchers who started MLB games in late 2022. That abundance beyond deGrom might just be what pushed the Rangers over the edge to winning.

A backup ace emerges in Texas

Eovaldi, now 33, was coming off a five-year stint with the Boston Red Sox during which he won a World Series ring and established himself as a reliable veteran capable of slotting in near the top of a winning rotation. He knew Pérez from Boston and Heaney from a stint in Miami. And he knew the burgeoning young hitters on the Rangers from having squared off against them.

“I knew facing Rangers in the past that they have a good lineup,” Eovaldi said, noting that Pérez also passed along rave reviews. “They have the speed, they have the power, they’ve got threats up and down. And you know, that's what they still have. And then last year, it seemed to be the pitching.”

Indeed, the pitching was the problem for Texas in 2022. Thus Young’s decision to make upgrades on multiple levels. And it’s that commitment that has kept the Rangers from stumbling without deGrom to this point.

In the ace’s absence, Eovaldi has stepped to the forefront. Through 16 starts, he is cruising with a 2.82 ERA, threatening to match or exceed his career-best 2021 season, when he finished fourth in AL Cy Young voting. He sits 10th in park-adjusted ERA-, just ahead of Gray and his 2.89 ERA.

Eovaldi has worked with a wide variety of pitches in his career, but now free of Fenway Park’s hitter-boosting effects, he has particularly benefited from mixing in his cutter and his splitter more in 2023 — ideas he credited to catcher Sandy León, a former Red Sox teammate who was in the Rangers organization this season. Both pitches have given Eovaldi options to shift dependence away from his four-seam fastball, which is down a tick or two from his earlier career speeds to 95.7 mph, while allowing him to continue his relentless assault of the strike zone.

“I think when my mechanics are right, I'm able to execute all my pitches,” Eovaldi said. “At times, when I get a little too quick, that's when the splitter becomes inconsistent. But I feel like the games that I've had the best results in this year are when I'm using the splitter and the cutter.”

Right now, Eovaldi is running a 19.2 K-BB% mark, top-20 among MLB starters, and allowing only 0.68 home runs per nine innings, which would be his best showing since 2015. Perhaps most importantly for the Rangers, he is tied for the MLB lead in workload, having already racked up 105 1/3 innings. He is the only pitcher in baseball who has worked eight or more innings in four games already this season.

Depth matters on the road ahead

If not for the fact that one of the pitchers the Rangers have lost is literally Jacob deGrom, the best pitch-for-pitch arm currently on the planet, you’d have to say that they have been relatively lucky with pitcher health.

Odorizzi and Otto are also out, but the Rangers have gotten to this point in the season using only seven starting pitchers (the unmentioned one being Cody Bradford, who has made three spot starts). Only six teams in the majors have used fewer than eight starters so far, and just two have used fewer than the Rangers.

Dunning, the 28-year-old who came over from the Chicago White Sox ahead of the 2021 season, has been the most notable revelation. He wouldn’t have had a regular rotation spot without the injuries, but with them, he has stepped in with aplomb. In nine starts since taking a slot in early May, he is 4-1 with a 3.16 ERA.

The Rangers will almost certainly need more success stories such as that.

“Dunning has seized the moment, seized the opportunity,” Maddux said. “We miss Jake, but what Dane has done has been a blessing to us and a blessing to him. And I think everybody sleeps easier. We just gotta show depth in the organization.”

At this point, the Rangers are virtual locks to add bullpen help ahead of the trade deadline to boost the group between the starters and closer Will Smith, who pitched for the past two World Series champions. Whomever Texas adds will be welcomed into a pitching staff that has embraced its mix of veterans and youth.

“It's just a good group to be a part of,” Heaney said. “I think everybody genuinely pulls for each other, genuinely cares about each other, wants to help each other out.”

Eovaldi pointed out that for many of the Rangers’ younger players, 2023 marks a transition — from the learning environment that playing for a rebuilding team can foster to the constant pressure of targeting October. He sees his teammates adjusting well to that and hopes that he and Smith and Semien and Seager, along with Bochy, can continue to lead the way.

“The young guys we have, they listen,” Eovaldi said. “I think that's one of the biggest things as well. They're handling the struggles as everybody does, but they're able to kind of turn the page, and it's nice when we have the starters who already know how to do that.”

Turn the page. It’s what every baseball team has to do, even when the page features the high expectations of employing deGrom. This Texas team has done it — building a lot of character, resolve and resilience along the way, according to Young — and found that they have the arms not only to compete but also to win.