How Losing Nolan Ryan Would Hurt the Rangers More Than Losing Josh Hamilton
The Texas Rangers made themselves into a baseball monument with back-to-back trips to the World Series in 2010 and 2011. But over the last few months, the monument has been slowly chipped away.
So much so, in fact, that it now feels like only the face remains. And now that may be going too.
Yes, now. The Rangers lost their superstar when Josh Hamilton left town, but his departure didn't leave the franchise without a face.
Nolan Ryan is the face of the Rangers. Ever since he was first brought aboard by former owner Tom Hicks in 2008, Ryan has spearheaded the Rangers' transformation from a decidedly "meh" organization into one of the most enviable organizations in baseball.
Now the Rangers seem to have decided Ryan's done enough.
The Rangers announced on Friday that they had made Jon Daniels their president of baseball operations in addition to their general manager, and that chief operating officer Rick George had been promoted to president of business operations.
These decisions leave Ryan in a tricky spot. He's still the club's CEO, but Randy Galloway of the Fort Worth Star Telegram has it from sources that Daniels now has final say on baseball matters and that George has final say on business matters. That makes Ryan's role going forward...something...
This is assuming Ryan wants to do this something role, of course. And he may not. Galloway's sources say that Ryan could leave the team, and that it will be sooner rather than later if he does. He could be gone by the end of spring training.
The Rangers don't want that to happen. The club was dealt a blow when Hamilton bolted Arlington for Anaheim in December, by far the biggest personnel loss in an offseason that also saw the Rangers wave goodbye to Michael Young and Mike Napoli. Losing Ryan would be an even bigger blow.
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The players can be replaced. That's true even of Hamilton. Pitching and defense can help teams win games just as much as power. That's the direction the Rangers are going in, and it's possible they'll be good enough at pitching and catching the ball that they won't miss Hamilton's 40-homer power.
Ryan, however, is irreplaceable. Guys like him don't grow on trees in Texas (or anywhere else).
Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com argued that Ryan "might be the most famous Texan of all time," and Rangers fans have all the reasons in the world to be grateful for what he's done for the franchise both as a player and as an owner/operator.
The greatest gift Ryan has given the Rangers is the gift of superior pitching. As Tyler Kepner of The New York Times noted a few years back, it was Ryan who hired Mike Maddux to be the team's pitching coach, and it was Ryan who made it an organizational goal to develop tough pitchers who could eat innings and withstand the Texas heat.
That meant hard work was in order, and lots of it. Several years later, we know it was all worth it.
The Rangers had a 5.37 ERA in 2008. Since then, the club's ERAs have gone: 4.38 in 2009, 3.93 in 2010, 3.79 in 2011 and 3.99 in 2012 (see Baseball-Reference.com). All this has gone on while Rangers Ballpark in Arlington has remained a very good place to hit. Most impressive.
Ryan's pitching wisdom is something that other CEOs and front-office types can't match. He also has the advantage of having played the game. He understands players and player politics more than most.
Case in point, Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News wrote that Ryan's voice and perspective came in handy when tension had to be eased between the front office and Michael Young in 2011. Young went from requesting a trade to hitting .338 and finishing eighth in the AL MVP voting.
So don't think that Ryan hasn't impacted the Rangers' fortunes on the field, because he has. And indeed, the locals have been enjoying the Rangers' fortunes in greater and greater numbers, as Baseball-Reference.com's records show that attendance at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington has been on the rise since 2008.
Would Ryan's departure lead to disappointing turnouts at the gate? Probably not. Here's Maury Brown of BizofBaseball.com:
Got asked this question: How would Nolan Ryan's departure from the Rangers impact attendance? Answer: Minimally— Maury Brown (@BizballMaury) March 5, 2013
I'd have to agree with Brown here. Fans don't show up to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington to watch Ryan, and his departure isn't going to make the team on the field any worse in the short term.
But would Ryan's departure foster ill will among the Rangers' fanbase that could become a problem down the road? It certainly could. Galloway had the right of it when he wrote that losing Ryan would be a "local PR disaster," and that's something the Rangers don't need.
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The Rangers are already asking fans to take their word for it that they know what they're doing after such an unspectacular offseason. Specifically, it's now clear that they're looking for fans to trust Jon Daniels, who Galloway wrote has been in "total charge" of baseball operations ever since November.
Daniels is not a bad GM—he's had a hand in building two AL champions and has done wonders with the Rangers' farm system—but he didn't have a good winter. Beyond signing A.J. Pierzynski, Daniels did little to make up for the power the Rangers lost with Hamilton and Napoli both leaving as free agents. Similarly, Daniels failed to land Zack Greinke, and he has yet to come up with a consolation prize. The foundations of Texas' pitching and defense direction are not as strong as they otherwise could have been.
Mind you, the Rangers are still a good team. They still have one of baseball's best infields, which could get even better if top prospect Jurickson Profar makes his presence felt in 2013. Their starting pitching staff isn't elite, but there are far worse trios than Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland.
But have the Rangers taken a step back with Daniels calling the shots since November? They have indeed, and that doesn't reflect well on Daniels. Albeit retroactively, his credibility has taken a hit.
And that's the thing with Ryan: Credibility is something he has in spades. He oozes the stuff.
Granted, indications are that Ryan's not entirely deserving of the credibility he's accumulated as one of the Rangers' key bosses. The Morning News' Kevin Sherrington has said that Daniels and his people have always done the heavy lifting while most of the credit has tended to go to Ryan.
But that doesn't look like a bad thing right now, as the Rangers should be thinking that it's better to have a figurehead with undeserved credibility than a figurehead (i.e. Daniels) with considerably less credibility. They should want to hold on to Ryan as long as his credibility is still good.
Holding on to Ryan didn't have to be complicated, but that's what the Rangers have chosen to make it by rearranging their hierarchy. They had their reasons to throw Daniels and George a bone, but in doing so they effectively sent a message to Ryan that they've outgrown him.
Do you think Nolan Ryan gets too much credit for the Rangers' success in recent years?
It doesn't look like the Rangers have outgrown Ryan. They were a powerhouse team under the previous status quo in which Ryan was the main figurehead and a key cog in the organization. They don't look much like a powerhouse now under this now-official status quo.
This is not to say that the Rangers need to reverse course and make things as they were just to appease Ryan. What's done is done. The Rangers just need to make sure they don't lose him, and that means giving him a clearly defined role going forward and reassuring him that, yes, both his presence and his input are still prized assets within the organization.
If the Rangers do nothing and Ryan decides to leave, a man with a keen baseball mind and loads of easy credibility will be walking out that door. Good luck replacing those things.
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