The ongoing power shift and multiple holes to fill have the Texas Rangers’ brass working extra innings
By John H. Martin and Richard W. Humphrey
The Rangers are having meetings this week in Arizona to design next year’s team. General Manager Jon Daniels, his lead assistants, scouts and manager Ron Washington are participating hoping to come up with answers for the questionable areas that are obvious after the team failed to make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
Last week in Arlington, Daniels and Washington met with media members to discuss the season and the team’s plans for 2014. First, it was spin control at its finest as the media firestorm was still raging over the firing of bench coach Jackie Moore. Washington was there as a show of solidarity. He had said after the last game that he hoped all of his coaches would return. Less than two days later, two including first base and infield coach Dave Anderson, were given their walking papers. Washington was obviously there to show support for Daniels’ decision to axe two of his coaches.
The firing of Moore caused the firestorm, as he was a Nolan Ryan hire. The bottom line is that it was instantly known that Ryan as CEO of the team no longer has the authority to stop the axing of his friend from the Rangers’ payroll. The power shift that Daniels engineered last winter was in full evidence with the firing of Moore. Actually, the first hint of what was in store came during the Rangers’ final home stand when Tim Purpura, a well-regarded front office man in baseball and another Nolan Ryan hire, was moved out of the baseball operation and into the business operation. Grabbing the reigns of power last winter apparently was not enough for Daniels. He seems intent on erasing any traces of Ryan’s additions to the team, and it makes you wonder if Nolan himself is in Daniels’ sights.
As for next year, the Rangers have as many as nine players that can choose to become free agents after Jeff Baker was designated for assignment this week. Among the most significant names, the Rangers will try to re-sign Nelson Cruz, and it is doubtful whether they will exercise their team option for Joe Nathan at $9.25 million. It is reported that earlier this year, Cruz offered the Rangers a deal to sign for four years at $56 million ($14 million per year), and that the Rangers did not respond. Already Hunter Pence, an outfielder very comparable to Cruz, has re-signed with the Giants for five years at $90 million, so Cruz’s offer looks even more attractive now. Cruz says he wants to stay, and the Rangers certainly need his power bat in their lineup, the lineup that scored the fewest runs in a full season, since moving into the Ballpark in Arlington in 1994. Cruz will obviously take less money from the Rangers to stay if it’s close, but if the differential is $20 million or more, he will likely go. The Rangers though are likely to make a qualifying offer to Cruz, which would be in the neighborhood of $14 million for 2014. The offer will qualify the Rangers to receive draft pick compensation if he signs with another team and may serve as a disincentive for other teams to sign him as they will forfeit their first round draft pick if they do.
Nathan is a different story. His results were astounding – 6-2, with a 1.39 ERA and 43 saves in 46 opportunities. However, his fastball now clocks in at around 93, down from 97 in his heyday. He’ll be 39 next month, and quite frankly, he simply didn’t look as good on the mound this year as his numbers suggest. Nathan earned the right to nullify the team option and become a free agent by virtue of finishing 55 games this year. He is campaigning for a two year contract. There is probably a team that will give him one, but the Rangers seem reluctant to even exercise the option for a one year deal. Texas has solid closer candidates in Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz, both of whom have made an All-Star team as a closer, and Tanner Scheppers. With a number of holes to fill, committing $9.5 million to Nathan may not be the most prudent use of their money. Ranger announcer Steve Busby appeared on Norm Hitzges’s radio show this week and said if he were in charge, he would not exercise Nathan’s option and would give Scheppers the first shot at the closer’s job.
Interesting note about the four teams remaining in the playoffs. All four have a different closer now than they did when the season began. Perhaps being set with a proven closer is not all that essential to putting together a winning team.
Other key personnel decisions revolve around catcher, where A. J. Pierzynski and Geovany Soto are eligible for free agency, and what to do about the middle infield situation, where Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler are locked up with long-term prospects and Jurickson Profar is one of the top prospects in baseball.
The team is always on the lookout for pitching, but has the basis for a decent starting rotation with Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Martin Perez. Alexi Ogando had an injury plagued season, but was really good in September. The Rangers seem committed at this point to keeping him in the rotation. Matt Harrison is expected back from the back surgeries that side tracked his 2013 season. Colby Lewis could be an option too.
Daniels indicated that he expected the payroll to be about the same or perhaps even a bit less in 2014, which set off another media firestorm. Norm Hitzges was irate on the TICKET that with attendance exceeding three million, second most in the American League, that the Rangers should reduce their payroll. Well first of all, it is doubtful the drop in home attendance from almost 3.5 million to slightly under 3.2 million caused a drop in revenues. Once a team reaches the three million range in attendance, the best and most expensive tickets have been sold. The least desirable and thus cheapest tickets are involved in this year’s drop, and the price increase for the better seats between 2012 and 2013 more than made up for the attendance drop.
Second, the Daniels regime has been masters of disinformation. Announcing a payroll increase really serves no positive purpose for the team. Indeed such an announcement is essentially an invitation to agents to come fleece the team. There has been no instances since Ray Davis and Bob Simpson took over as majority owners where finances have precluded the Rangers from making a roster move for the good of the team. The likelihood is that if a good opportunity presents itself this winter, the team will take on additional payroll to make it happen.
It was mentioned numerous times that the Rangers were pleased to have won 91 games this season. Certainly, that’s a good accomplishment under any circumstances. However, this season the Astros shifted into the American League, joining the A. L. West. Texas beat the Astros 17 times in 19 games. They were just 74-70 against the rest of the league. Oakland received an equal benefit from having the Astros in the AL and won the division by 5.5 games. The “Astros benefit” however, kept the Rangers competitive in the Wild Card race, against teams that faced the Astros just six or seven times this summer. In actuality, Texas was probably a pedestrian 85-86 win team if Houston had stayed in the National League.
The bottom line is that the Rangers have a lot of holes to address and are not all that close to being a team that can return to the World Series soon. The farm system that was ranked as the best in baseball just a few years ago is still very good, but offers virtually no short-term help for the big club. First, there are a number of players that have graduated to the Majors with Texas and a number of other prospects traded for help at the Major League level. There has been an emphasis on drafting and developing pitching, such that there is little offensive talent at the top two levels. There are some very good offensive players in the system, such as Ronald Guzman, Jairo Beras, Joey Gallo and Lewis Brinson, but they won’t see the light of day in Arlington until 2016 at the earliest.
The long and the short of the story is that the Rangers have a lot of work to do to become a World Series contender again. The emphasis this winter will be on offense. The pitching base is very good, with three solid starters and a host of strong bullpen arms with Robbie Ross and Neal Cotts joining Scheppers, Feliz and Soria. It should be an interesting winter.
COCKTAIL CONVERSATION: The Los Angeles Dodgers have two Park Cities residents on their post season roster. Highland Park graduate Clayton Kershaw, the likely National League Cy Young Award winner for the second year in a row, blew away the Braves in games one and four of their division series to lead L. A. to the LCS against St. Louis. Former Ranger Michael Young is also on the Dodgers’ playoff roster and still makes his home in University Park.
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