Insider's series on MLB teams that are out of the playoff race continues with the Texas Rangers, who had a nice run this year. But was it a flash in the pan? Our conclusions may surprise you.
Baseball Prospectus' preseason PECOTA projection: 70-92, fourth place
Current record: 83-69, second place
Big D may be about to become a baseball town. Fort Worth and Arlington, too.
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Buster Olney's take
What went wrong: The Rangers just ran out of gas at the end of the season, particularly when veteran Kevin Millwood (3.46 ERA before the All-Star break, 4.61 after the break) and rookie phenom Derek Holland (ERAs of 5.77 in August and 10.20 in September) began to struggle. And the reality is that owner Tom Hicks' financial problems hurt them, because if they had had more financial flexibility at the trade deadline or in August, Texas could've been more aggressive adding some help in the push for the playoffs. But overall, this was a year of growth for the Rangers, who installed Elvis Andrus at shortstop and brought along two guys who could be impact pitchers in Holland and Neftali Feliz. And the Rangers can reasonably assume that their offense -- usually the backbone for this team -- can be better in 2010, after ranking out of the top 10 in runs scored for the first time in almost a decade.
Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: How much will the Rangers' hands be tied by the forthcoming ownership change? You could easily see the avenue to contention -- they could add a veteran starting pitcher, like a John Lackey, and hope that Josh Hamilton recovers from his ailments. But it's unclear exactly how much flexibility GM Jon Daniels will have. Here's one example of how the personnel moves of the Rangers might be impacted: The team is in position to make a pretty money-friendly deal for Milton Bradley, who is going to be dumped by the Cubs. But with a new owner coming on board, would it be a worthwhile risk for Daniels to acquire Bradley -- knowing that there might be some embarrassing incident? Probably not. Daniels will probably have to work deftly and cheaply to improve the team.
Baseball Prospectus' take
As has been obvious for months now, the big story here is the club's dramatic improvement in run prevention. Some of that's being put on Nolan Ryan's no-nonsense thoughts on the subject, but the addition of pitching coach Mike Maddux aided Millwood (.541 SNWP) as well as the development of youngsters Scott Feldman (.586) and Tommy Hunter (.551). Before the season began, the PECOTA-driven suggestion that the Rangers wouldn't score 800 runs on the year for the first time in a full regular season since 1992 was cause for some controversy, but that was one thing that's actually come to pass (they're on a pace to wind up about 20 runs short). Their reliance on their home park to inflate their offensive performance is an issue (slugging .420 on the road against .473 at The Ballpark is just one symptom). Hamilton was a disappointment when he was healthy enough to play, Chris Davis whiffed his way out of a job and had to get reacquainted with making contact, and the last year of the Rangers' relationship with Hank Blalock proved that, once you got past the enigma wrapped in a riddle as to what he'd do if healthy, the answer was "not much." --Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
Key stat: 1.52
That's the Rangers'
Defensive Efficiency, which is good for second in the American League (behind the also-improved Mariners). The Rangers also boast a .702 Defensive Efficiency rating, also second in the league behind the Mariners, making them one of only two teams in the junior circuit converting more than 70 percent of balls in play into outs. As for who might claim victory, as is always the case it has many fathers: the addition of Andrus at short plus the benefit of playing Michael Young at third tightened up the interior defense, certainly, but credit's due to Ron Washington for his extended work with Ian Kinsler, and Davis can pick it at first base. Put it all together, and you've got an infield that has done wonders for converting tough talk about improved pitching into on-field results. --Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
Money: If you want to know what ownership flux can feel like, ask the Cubs. All year that team was handicapped by lack of clarity on its budget because management wasn't sure who would be paying the bills in the end. The Rangers and Daniels -- who has brought rain to a system that used to be a dust bowl -- now face a similar set of circumstances. This week, reports are that between four and six groups are interested in taking over the ownership reins, including one group led by Ryan, whose involvement with the organization most feel has been productive. Also intriguing: Sandy Alderson, former exec for the A's, Padres and MLB, might be in the mix.
Free Agency: You won't hear "Free Bird" played in Arlington over the last week of the season. The Rangers don't want to give Marlon Byrd any ideas. He started the year as a likely platoon with Andruw Jones, but Byrd has locked down center field during a career year in which he's hit .280 with 17 HRs. Problem is he'll be a free agent, and the $3 million he made this year might triple in a two- or three-year deal. Byrd says he wants to stay, and the Rangers want to make it happen.
Click here for more from the MLB rumor mill.
Who 2 Watch 4:
Neftali Feliz, RHP (age: 21)
In the span of two months, Feliz has already established himself as one of the most dominant relievers in the majors, recording three times as many strikeouts as hits allowed. The open question now is, where do we go from here? Brought up as a starter throughout his career, he'd certainly have more value to the Rangers in that role, but at the same time, he's been so incredible in the bullpen, do the Rangers really want to mess with that? It's basically a Joba Chamberlain situation with 1/100th the spotlight, or the drama. --Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
Signed: 25 of 51
Spent: Just more than $3 million
Hit: The Rangers inked RHP Tanner Scheppers (No. 44 overall), and he's a good fit in Texas with his power arsenal. The upside is huge, as Scheppers may have the best stuff of any arm in the draft, non-Strasburg category, but the risk is equally sizable due to the shoulder problems that crept up late in 2008.
Miss: Matt Purke, LHP (No. 14 overall). Taking a player in Round 1 if you aren't able or willing to give him the money that every club knew he was demanding is an unforgiveable mistake. --Jason A. Churchill
The bottom line
The big challenge for the Rangers is going to be figuring out if youngsters Feliz, Holland and Matt Harrison and oft-disappointing, oft-injured Brandon McCarthy will be ready to perform up to anything like the standards set by Hunter and Feldman, thereby creating a particularly nice problem as far as picking a rotation behind Millwood. With this much pitching talent on hand, the chances that the Rangers iron out the issue of picking the right ones for the more important roles are good. Similarly, the lineup's going to need to see improvements from Davis, Hamilton and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. There's a powerhouse a-building with this many former or active blue-chip talents in play, but it'll be up to the organization to pick the right horses and keep them from foundering. If they don't screw it up, a Rangers dynasty is a real possibility. --Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
Tuesday: The Toronto Blue Jays -- kiss 'em goodbye!