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MLB free agency: For Rangers, Mike Minor signing brings great flexibility and great risk

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers made the biggest move on the free-agent market thus far on Monday night, reportedly agreeing to terms with lefty Mike Minor on a multi-year deal. While the exact terms are still unknown, one intriguing bit of info leaked out: Texas is planning, at least a bit surprisingly, to use Minor as a starter.

It’s still early in an extremely slow off-season, but Texas’ current plan appears to have 60 percent of its rotation consist of a group that logged a combined 84 innings as a starter in 2017-- Minor, Doug Fister and converted reliever Matt Bush. Fister, who signed a one-year deal with the Rangers just after Thanksgiving, owns all 84 of those innings after making 15 starts with the Red Sox.

The Rangers entered the winter badly needing to add rotation innings, arguably more than any club in baseball. Out of the 10 pitchers who made 10 or more starts for the club in 2017, only two (Martin Perez and Cole Hamels) remain on the roster while Andrew Cashner, Yu Darvish, Nick Martinez, A.J. Griffin and Tyson Ross are free agents. The combined 56 returning starts from Perez and Hamels mean Texas must find a way to replace over 65 percent of its starts from 2017, a tall task even if Perez and Hamels stay fully healthy and hit the 200-inning plateau.

Their strategy so far has been to do that in a cost-effective way, signing Fister to just a $4 million guarantee while Bush once again makes a pre-arbitration salary next season. Minor is expected to earn $7-8 million on his deal, meaning the Rangers will have three starters penciled in for the cost of $11-12 million.

Minor, who will turn 30 this month, has not started in the majors since 2014, missing two full seasons with shoulder troubles before a fantastic year as a reliever for Kansas City in 2017. He was a versatile option for the Royals, appearing for multiple innings in 21 of his 65 appearances and pitching two or more full innings on 10 occasions.

Minor’s performance as a reliever (2.55 ERA and 2.62 FIP in 77.2 innings) was solid enough for a clubs (namely the Cubs, Astros and Mets, among others) to consider him in a variety of roles as a free-agent signee. In addition to looking like a potential starter to some clubs, Minor was considered by some to be a candidate to close in 2018, providing a cheaper alternative to expensive options like free agents Wade Davis and Greg Holland or trade candidates Zach Britton and Raisel Iglesias.

Minor’s advanced stats suggest improvement as well, with career-bests in WHIP (1.017), K/9 (10.2) and HR/9 (0.6). This, of course, comes with a lesser workload than during his time with the Braves, when he logged over 145 innings in three straight season before going down with the shoulder issues.

Relying on two converted relievers and Fister (who began the year as a reliever with Boston) looks to be a huge risk for a Rangers club that saw great success from Yu Darvish before his trade to Los Angeles and Andrew Cashner before he hit free agency. While prospect Yohander Mendez and depth options like Chi Chi Gonzalez and Ronald Herrera could make an impact at some point, the Rangers current rotation is one full of question marks.

This gives me the sense that the Rangers are far from done, and that their activity to this point has given them enough flexibility to be very creative as they move forward this winter. They’re known as one of seven finalists (and a potential favorite) for Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani and pursued righty Miles Mikolas before he signed with the Cardinals. They’ve also being linked to big-name starters Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb and could make a big strike on that market if Ohtani goes elsewhere.

This suggests the risky five-man mix of Hamels, Perez, Minor, Fister and Bush is unlikely to open the season as Texas’ actual rotation and lends credence to the idea that more moves may be coming. Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reported that the Rangers may consider the idea of a six-man rotation, especially if they sign Ohtani. This type of system would allow the aging Hamels and converted relievers Minor and Bush to have their innings monitored closely, giving the club some breathing room in their experiment.

If Ohtani ends up in Arlington, the six-man rotation might just be the best option as he transitions into the unprecedented role of a two-way player in the majors. If he goes elsewhere, it’s on the Rangers to add a proven starter like Cobb or Lynn to anchor a rotation that now looks questionable at best.

With Minor signed, the Rangers’ pitching staff may have more flexibility than it did a year ago. But the risk— which can’t be ignored— must soon be minimized by another move.