First, the Rangers are trying to win a World Series after falling short of that achievement during the past two seasons. But after losing the AL West to the Oakland Athletics on the final day of the regular season, Texas became a wild-card team and thus has to play in a one-game playoff on Friday (Oct. 5).
Yes, the New York Yankees are always expected to win, and pressure comes with that. If the Yanks were to lose in the ALDS, the plan to get payroll under the $189 million luxury tax threshold in 2014 might get trashed and the front office could go on a free-agent spending spree as they did in 2008. But that's different from a team that could see its championship window close.
After spending most of the season with the best record in the American League and competing for the top seed in the AL playoffs, the Rangers face the prospect of losing the wild-card game to the Baltimore Orioles and being eliminated from the postseason before the divisional series round.
Not only would that obviously mean the Rangers wouldn't have a third chance to win the World Series, but their defeat would come much earlier in the playoffs, giving the appearance of a significant regression. No division title and a playoff exit before the ALDS? That would be an embarrassing letdown for a team expected to do much more.
What if the Rangers do lose? Can general manager Jon Daniels and team president Nolan Ryan really come back with the same team next year and expect better results? That seems unlikely. Changes would be made. Here are a few possibilities.
Bye-Bye, Josh Hamilton
Re-signing with the Rangers is probably Josh Hamilton's best option on the open market. He may not receive a better offer—in terms of contract length or money—than from the team that considers him a franchise player and wants to keep him.
Of course, Hamilton is going to test free agency to see if that's the case.
But with the Rangers and Hamilton not agreeing to a new contract, the team could end up deciding that it wasn't able to win a championship with him, and could allocate the money that would have been used to re-sign him throughout the rest of the roster.
Maybe Mike Olt plays left field with Leonys Martin or Julio Borbon taking over in center. Or the Rangers could go after a less expensive free agent like Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton or Shane Victorino.
Letting Hamilton go wouldn't be a popular move with Rangers fans. But the late-season collapse may convince the Rangers front office that investing big money in a 32-year-old outfielder with injury problems isn't the best decision.
Find a Stud Pitcher
Yu Darvish developed into the Rangers' best starting pitcher toward the end of the season. But prior to the July 31 trade deadline, Daniels was trying to get an ace-level starter to put at the top of his rotation.
Cole Hamels was eliminated as an option when he signed a contract extension with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Los Angeles Angels beat out their AL West rivals to nab Zack Greinke from the Milwaukee Brewers. The Tampa Bay Rays decided to keep James Shields since they were still in playoff contention. And the Miami Marlins presumably asked for too much in return for Josh Johnson.
That left the Rangers to settle for Ryan Dempster. Dempster wasn't a bad option, and he filled the need for a starting pitcher. But his 5.09 ERA in 12 starts showed that pitching against AL hitters—and in Rangers Ballpark—doesn't suit him very well.
Texas will have the makings of a very good rotation next season with Darvish, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland. But adding another top pitcher that can be at least a No. 2 starter will likely be a priority.
Perhaps the Rangers will go hard after Greinke or revisit trade talks for Shields or Johnson. A very good rotation isn't going to be enough in a division with the A's and Angels. Texas needs a great rotation and have to bring in someone to help the team get there.
Shake Up the Mix
Texas has done an excellent job of adding pieces to a talented core of players, signing Adrian Beltre and trading for Mike Napoli. But a playoff failure could motivate the front office to shake up the roster a bit and deal away some of those core pieces.
Elvis Andrus is a top candidate to be traded with top prospect Jurickson Profar ready to take over at shortstop.
Mitch Moreland is the sort of cost-controlled player that teams covet nowadays. While the Rangers should hold onto some players like that, Moreland is under club control for four more seasons, which could make him very appealing to a team looking for a left-handed bat at first base or the outfield.
Alexi Ogando and Martin Perez are two young arms that would probably have to be included in any deal for an outfielder or starting pitcher.
Perhaps Daniels can also find a trade partner willing to take on Michael Young in the last year of his contract, though Texas would probably have to pay some of his $16 million salary for next season.
Hot Seat Gets Hotter
One of the first questions that will come up if the Rangers suffer an early playoff exit is whether or not manager Ron Washington should be fired.
Washington has been the main man in the Texas dugout for six years now, but has often been criticized and scrutinized for his strategy (or lack thereof). While three straight playoff appearances could arguably earn him a reprieve, Rangers fans will probably be calling for his dismissal while Daniels and Ryan could decide that Washington has taken this team as far as he can.
A manager of Terry Francona's caliber being available could compel the Rangers to make a change. (That is, if Francona doesn't inexplicably take the Cleveland Indians job.)
Other candidates would come from the list of usual suspects, such as the Tampa Bay Rays' Dave Martinez, Sandy Alomar Jr. of the Cleveland Indians (if Francona is hired) or the Miami Marlins' Joey Cora. Would Manny Acta, freshly fired by the Tribe, also be a possibility?
The Rangers aren't going to blow up the roster. Why would they? There's far too much talent on hand. As mentioned, this is a team that finished one loss away from a division title and the best record in the AL.
But a little bit of new blood on the player and coaching side will keep the clubhouse from getting stale and lethargic. Some tough decisions would have to be made if the Rangers don't fulfill expectations this season, but freshening up the roster could yield results next year and in the future.
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