Vlad's resurgence vaults Rangers
Ron Washington had the slugger atop his list of offseason acquisitions all along
The Rangers wanted a big hitter to bolster a lineup that didn't put up the usually prolific offensive numbers in the Texas heat in 2009. And despite Guerrero's health issues with the Angels last season, the Rangers felt like there was still something left in the 35-year-old that had terrorized them in the division for years.
"He was the guy we wanted," Washington said. "We felt he could make us a lot better."
It was a critical meeting and one that would eventually lure Guerrero to Texas, where his limp has disappeared and his monster batting average and game-changing production have reappeared.
Guerrero's play has earned him an All-Star Game spot for the first time since 2007. He'll get to start at DH in his old home at Angel Stadium after he crushed his competition on the ballot, including Hideki Matsui, his replacement in Anaheim. Teammate Josh Hamilton joins him in the starting lineup along with reserves Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, Neftali Feliz and now Cliff Lee.
Guerrero is batting .319 with 20 homers and 75 RBIs. The RBI total is second in the AL to Miguel Cabrera. He's come up with numerous big hits and at times this season when the Rangers' offense hasn't produced, Guerrero has picked up the slack. He walks around the clubhouse wearing a Superman T-Shirt and then morphs into the Man of Steel once he's on the diamond. He still swings at everything -- making contact most of the time -- and has hit some towering shots to the delight of his teammates.
"He's a big reason why we are where we are at this point of the season," said Washington, whose team is on top of the AL West at the unofficial halfway mark of 2010. "It's not just because he's driving in runs. He relaxed everybody in that lineup. That's what superstars do. Superstars make everyone else in the lineup play up to their potential. No one has to press. He's made everyone better."
Washington felt that Guerrero could produce like this. He flew to Anaheim in January in an effort to persuade him to sign with the Rangers. Washington's personality isn't one of a salesman. He doesn't use fancy words or sugarcoat things. He's a down-to-earth, straight shooter who speaks his mind and values honesty, no matter how difficult it is to hear. Guerrero had already heard that about his prospective new manager and wanted to see for himself.
"I wanted to hear what he thought I'd be doing," Guerrero said through a translator earlier this season.
Washington made it clear how much he desired Guerrero's presence in the lineup and the impact he felt he could have on the team.
"We're gaining ground on Anaheim and you've seen that happen the past three years," Washington told Guerrero. "We're looking for a guy that can help what we have, not a guy that has to be the savior."
Jose Vazquez, the Rangers' strength and conditioning coach, was in Guerrero's living room with general manager Jon Daniels and Guerrero's agent, listening to the exchange and translating when needed.
"I got the impression that he was looking for a place where he was going to feel comfortable, a place where he could be relaxed and still be competitive," Vazquez said. "He was very appreciative of his time with the Angels, but he was disappointed they didn't offer him the contract he wanted."
Guerrero didn't look his best in 2009. He had knee surgery and wasn't moving as well. Stints on the disabled list cut down on his at-bats and productivity. The Angels decided it was best to explore other options and they settled on Matsui, the reigning World Series MVP.
It wasn't a large market for Guerrero in the offseason. But Daniels saw an opportunity. He's shown in his 4½-year tenure with the Rangers that he isn't afraid to take a risk on players coming off injuries or tough seasons in an otherwise solid career. He's had more success than failure with that approach, finding some major bargains.
"There's never certainty in those situations," Daniels said. "There's always some level of question involved. Our scouts had seen him and talked to people that had been around him and felt he could still hit. The time that had elapsed since the knee surgery made us think he could stay healthy and play better."
Vazquez watched as Guerrero walked around his home during that January meeting.
"I was eyeballing him to see if he was walking straight," Vazquez said. "He looked like he was hurting part of that last season. So I watched how he sat down and walked around. I can tell by looking at people if they are hurting and he looked good to me."
Washington wasn't worried about any of that. He'd seen Guerrero play well enough near the end of 2009 to know that he wanted that bat in his lineup. Washington made it clear to anyone that would listen that Guerrero was his top choice. Now, sitting across from him in California, Washington answered Guerrero's questions and posed some of his own.
"He told me that he wanted to play the outfield some," Washington said. "I said, 'I can't sit here and tell you that I can get you regular play in the outfield. But what I can tell you is that every day you're healthy, you'll be able to perform.' I told him I wouldn't sit on him totally as a DH, but that I needed to protect him and make sure he was healthy."
Washington then asked Guerrero where he preferred to hit in the lineup. Guerrero told him he batted cleanup mostly, but would hit anywhere he was penciled in that day. Washington nodded, already planning lineups in his head with Guerrero batting fourth.
"There was a mutual respect and I got the sense that is what Vlad wanted," Daniels said. "Vlad wanted to see that the club felt he could still be an impact player and not the one that was working through injuries in 2009."
Washington made sure Guerrero understood that.
"I told him, 'We need you. You've been there, done that,'" Washington said. "We've got people that can play. We just need some help. We need a guy in our lineup that when times get tough, can pull us through and help everybody else to relax."
Washington left to catch the last flight home. Daniels stayed for dinner and worked out the contract details.
"You could see Ron and Vlad really connected," Daniels said. "I didn't want to leave until I knew we had a deal."
Several of Guerrero's new teammates attended his introductory news conference a few days later. Hamilton and Michael Young both sounded like they wanted to start the season a few months early, energized by Guerrero's arrival. For Young and others, it was a chance to see Guerrero produce for the Rangers instead of against them.
"He killed us in Anaheim," Young said. "We talk about it in here all the time, at least the guys that have been here for a while. To be in a situation now where he's wearing our uniform and he's one of us and we get to pull for him when he comes to the plate is a pretty sweet feeling."
Guerrero did what he needed to in spring training and was ready once the season started.
"He let everybody know how he felt the second that the bell rang," Young said. "He came out banging. He's been a stabilizing force in the middle of our lineup. I think his production speaks for itself, but more importantly, he's been a winning piece in our clubhouse. He comes to play every day, he comes to win every day and the guys love him. Across the board, he's been just an incredible teammate."
More Texas Rangers coverage
For more news, notes and analysis of the Rangers, check out ESPN Dallas' Rangers Report. Blog
Guerrero will be making his second trip to Angel Stadium since he signed with the Rangers. The first time was just a few weeks ago, when he went 6-for-11 with three homers and eight RBIs in a three-game series. He received a loud ovation from the crowd the first night, but he heard some boos a few days later after hitting so well against his former team.
"He left a huge footprint here on the field, with our fans and with our organization," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "I think we're all happy Vlad's having a rebound year. We're not real happy it's with a team in our division."
Guerrero said he was thankful for all the great times and support in Anaheim, but he's happy to be on the Rangers and winning games.
"My job is to help this team now," Guerrero said through a translator recently. "That's my focus. We have a good team and we're trying to reach our goals."
Those include a division title and a postseason run. Guerrero is helping the Rangers believe they can achieve them.