Rangers' new guard refuses to settle
GM Jon Daniels has assembled a team that can again contend for the AL crown
The Texas Rangers could have headed into 2011 with essentially the same team as they had in 2010, minus the elite pitcher that helped them advance to the World Series.
Texas likely would have won the AL West in 2010 without Cliff Lee. So the Rangers could have made the argument that simply adding a few secondary pieces and flying out to Surprise, Ariz., with a strong nucleus made them favorites to win the AL West in 2011.
But that wouldn't have been the prudent approach. General manager Jon Daniels knew that.
Even in the midst of the World Series, Daniels said that 90 wins probably wouldn't be enough to win the division in 2011. The Oakland Athletics' young talent was gaining experience. The Los Angeles Angels were always willing to spend money. And a new manager could help light a fire under the Seattle Mariners.
So Daniels got aggressive.
First, he and the new ownership group went as far as they could trying to lure Lee back to Arlington. They couldn't compete with Philly cheesesteaks and didn't want to commit to seven guaranteed years. When that fell through -- and the team didn't want to pay the high price in prospects the Kansas City Royals wanted in return for Zack Greinke -- the Rangers turned their attention to Adrian Beltre.
"We felt like if we sat back and did nothing, other teams would pass us by," Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine said. "We have the utmost respect for the other top teams in the American League and we had to try to get better overall. We feel like this helps us do that."
This isn't a simple case of doing something this offseason after missing out on some of the top pitchers. This was about trying to improve the team. And sometimes, if you can't get the high-level arms, you can help your existing staff by upgrading defensively.
The easy choice might have been to avoid asking Michael Young, the face of the franchise, to change positions for a second time in three years. But if moving Young to DH and making him a super utility player meant improving the team, how could the Rangers not consider it?
Young said Monday that he would move if it meant getting Beltre, a two-time Gold Glove winner at third base.
"You have to tip your hat to Michael," Rangers president Nolan Ryan said. "He's been a team player ever since he's gotten here. He showed that again with being willing to do whatever we need him to do. I think, obviously, he'd rather stay at third and be our third baseman, but also he wants to win just as Adrian does. He showed that."
The Rangers spent big bucks to get Beltre here, negotiating a five-year deal with a vesting option for a sixth year with Beltre's agent, Scott Boras, that could cost $96 million total -- $80 million guaranteed.
It's the largest contract that the Rangers have given a free agent since Tom Hicks and Boras shook hands on Alex Rodriguez's monstrous $252 million, 10-year deal at the winter meetings in Dallas in 2000.
Young, like Daniels, understands that the window for this team is just opening, but you never know how long you can prop up that window before it slams shut.
"Our job is to keep that window open as long as we can," Daniels said. "As a staff, we have to look at every avenue to do that. Things change every year, and when you have a club that can win, which we do, you don't want to take that for granted."
Young said he was addicted to the postseason run as much as anyone last season. He wants to make it an annual rite.
Signing Beltre gives the Rangers a better shot to do that.
Beltre, who turns 32 the first week of the season, is considered by many scouts as one of the best defensive third basemen in the league. Pick a defensive metric -- UZR, WAR, DSR, whatever -- and he's at or near the top at his position. Without swinging a bat, he makes the pitching staff better.
He's coming off one of his best seasons at the plate, hitting .321 with 28 homers and 102 RBIs with the Boston Red Sox to earn the long-term deal from Texas. By adding his bat and glove to the lineup and keeping Young's bat at the DH spot, the Rangers improved all the way around.
But it comes at a high price. Did the Rangers spend too much? The answer to that question may be a few years away.
Ownership has repeatedly said that they won't enter into a deal that would keep them from signing some key players that have helped the Rangers' resurgence -- Josh Hamilton, Elvis Andrus, Nelson Cruz, C.J. Wilson and others whose contracts will be up in a few years.
If the Rangers felt they could commit to Lee at a price much higher than Beltre and still keep the young players, we have to assume this deal won't handcuff them in a few years, either.
"Each player we have to address on an individual basis, but signing Adrian does not change our plans or impair our plans in any way," managing general partner and CEO Chuck Greenberg said.
Beltre's best statistical seasons on offense came in contract years. He hit .334 and a career-high 48 homers and 121 RBIs with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004, landing him a lucrative five-year deal with Seattle. Last year, Beltre opted to take a one-year deal from the Red Sox in hopes of increasing his value. It worked.
But it's fair to note that Beltre played much of his last contract at Safeco Field, not exactly a great place for right-handed pull-hitters. He hit more than 20 points better on the road than at home during his five years with the Mariners.
Fenway Park was a better spot for him, as should be Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Beltre has a .306 average with nine homers and 34 RBIs in 219 at-bats at the Ballpark. And he will join what already is a strong lineup, perhaps hitting cleanup behind Hamilton, the AL MVP, and ahead of Cruz.
Texas again believes it can contend for the AL crown. The Rangers opened up the checkbook for Beltre -- their biggest offseason signing -- to bolster the offense and defense.
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But the club has done some other things in an effort to get better in 2011.
The Rangers signed Brandon Webb, who is rehabbing from shoulder surgery but has a Cy Young Award pedigree, to a $3 million deal with an additional $5 million in incentives. If he's healthy and has the sinker working, he could prove an important addition as the season rolls along.
Daniels also added veteran left-hander Arthur Rhodes and re-signed Mark Lowe -- part of the Lee trade -- to bolster the bullpen. He also brought in a few other players on minor league deals to see if they pan out in spring training.
And Daniels always has that top-notch minor league system he can draw from should he decide to make another big trade deadline move to bring in reinforcements for the stretch drive.
"We wanted Cliff and were disappointed not to get him," Daniels said. "And we looked into the other impact starting pitchers, but didn't feel it was in our best interest to give up what we needed to in order to get them. So we looked at other ways to improve the club.
"We are better defensively, have more options in the bullpen and a deeper lineup. So we held onto our young arms, and we hope to support them by saving runs, scoring runs and holding up leads late. That's the model of our team."
There's a little more than a month before pitchers and catchers report for spring training. Lee won't be there. But by staying aggressive in the offseason, Daniels and his staff have assembled a team good enough to win the division without last year's playoff ace.
They plan on Beltre being a big reason why.
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