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How Much Would Things Have Changed If Nolan Ryan Had Bolted from Texas Rangers?

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How Much Would Things Have Changed If Nolan Ryan Had Bolted from Texas Rangers?
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

What would have become of the Texas Rangers had Nolan Ryan decided to walk away from the club?

We came pretty close to finding out for sure, but then Wednesday's news broke. Now all we can do is play the guessing game. 

If you missed it, the Rangers announced on Wednesday that Ryan is going to be sticking around a while longer. The March promotions of Jon Daniels to president of baseball operations and Rick George to president of business operations left Ryan feeling disgruntled, but the Rangers have quelled the unrest between them and their much-beloved minority owner/CEO/larger-than-life legend.

Said Ryan in a statement:

After productive discussions the last several weeks with [majority owners] Ray Davis and Bob Simpson about the structure of our organization, together we are moving forward. In my role as CEO, I am focused on working closely with ownership and with Jon Daniels and Rick George to build on the success of the past five years and to bring a championship to Arlington.

In the public relations department, this is a "crisis averted" situation. Nobody wanted to see Ryan leave the Rangers. They would have been losing their face and their credibility guy, and the general perception of the club would have changed accordingly.

The locals would not have been happy to see Ryan go, and understandably so given his stature in Texas and the correlation between his presence and the Rangers' rise to superpower status. Had Ryan left, the perception would have been that he had been needlessly forced out in a totally-not-cool way.

Knowing that, would Ryan's departure have impacted the turnstiles in a significant way?

Here's where the guessing game begins. There's the first question, and here's the first answer: Most likely not. 

Baseball-Reference.com's records show that attendance at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington has risen significantly since Ryan was first brought aboard in 2008. The club set a new attendance record in 2011 and then surpassed that by attracting over three million fans for the first time in 2012.

But the fans haven't been coming out to the yard to watch Ryan sit in his customary seat near the home dugout. The fans have been coming to out to watch good baseball. Ever since 2009, there's been plenty of that to go around.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Always a baseball town? No. But definitely a baseball town now.

But what about that good baseball? Would Rangers baseball have taken a turn for the worse had Ryan chosen to leave the organization?

I doubt that too.

There's one thing we know about the influence Ryan has had on the Rangers in his tenure, and that's that he modified the organization's approach to pitching for the better. As Tyler Kepner of The New York Times noted in 2009, it was Ryan who hired Mike Maddux and it was Ryan who placed an emphasis on the team's starters pitching deeper into games.

It was an "easier said than done" mission, but the turnaround of Rangers starters since Ryan's arrival on the scene in 2008 is astounding. Via FanGraphs, here's a look at the where Rangers starting pitchers have ranked in MLB in innings pitched over the last decade:

  • 2003: 30
  • 2004: 29
  • 2005: 29
  • 2006: 27
  • 2007: 30
  • 2008: 30
  • 2009: 17
  • 2010: 22
  • 2011: 9
  • 2012: 9

Ryan's plans didn't pan out right away in 2008, but things changed in 2009 and have been better ever since. That there's a trend worthy of a hat-tip in Ryan's direction. He put his foot down and got results.

But while it's possible that the reliability of Rangers starters would have evaporated the moment Ryan decided to leave town, it's foolish to assume that it would have. It's not as if a switch would have been flipped from "on" to "off."

The pitchers themselves wouldn't have gone anywhere, and the Rangers have some darn good ones locked up for the long haul. Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison are signed through 2017, and Harrison has an option for 2018. Derek Holland is signed through 2016 with options for 2017 and 2018.

Leon Halip/Getty Images
Maddux is one of the best in the business.

Maybe Maddux wouldn't have wanted to stick around if the guy who hired him was no longer in place, but him leaving is always going to be a real concern no matter who's upstairs.

Maddux said last October that he's "very happy" at his current post (via Dallas Morning News), but this is a guy who has been considered for big-time managerial jobs in the past and will presumably be linked to more big-time managerial jobs again in the future. The smart money is on him taking one eventually.

As for how the front office would have gone about its business without Ryan, it's true that it would have suddenly found itself lacking a unique perspective on things. Richard Durrett of ESPNDallas.com wrote on Wednesday that the Rangers have benefited greatly from Ryan's experience and keen eye for pitching mixed with Daniels' shrewdness in the years they've worked together. 

Daniels didn't have the best winter with what was supposedly final say on all baseball decisions, according to Randy Galloway of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. That doesn't reflect well on him, and that poor reflection suggests that Daniels is much better off with Ryan's perspective than without it.

Better off, yes. But not totally hopeless.

Kevin Sherrington of The Dallas Morning News said in March that Daniels is the guy who's mostly responsible for the Rangers' rise to prominence; that Ryan has gotten the credit, but Daniels and his underlings have done the heavy lifting.

And if you look at Daniels' track record, that adds up.

Daniels was the guy who traded Mark Teixeira for Harrison, Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz. Daniels was the guy who dealt Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton. Both of those deals went down before Ryan entered the fold in February of 2008.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
He's a villain in Texas now, but the Josh Hamilton trade was a huge success for the Rangers.

Deals like these are proof that Daniels is perfectly capable of making brilliant decisions without Ryan's input, and it's worth noting that signing Darvish was supposedly an effort that Daniels spear-headed, not Ryan. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com noted that back in March.

Then there's the Rangers' farm system. It's the No. 3 system in baseball by Baseball America's reckoning, and it features arguably the best prospect in baseball in shortstop Jurickson Profar. He's either going to find himself playing alongside Elvis Andrus in the near future, or he's going to find himself being traded for an established superstar (i.e. Giancarlo Stanton).

It's not just Daniels, mind you. He has a darn good staff working under him, and many have been quick to point out that the decisions to promote him and Rick George were made to keep the line of succession intact. The Rangers are set up to be in the hands of very smart people for, by baseball standards, a very long time.

Making it so nearly cost the Rangers Ryan's unique perspective and easy credibility, which definitely would have been missed. Even if his contributions to the Rangers' success have in fact been overstated, there's no denying he had a role to play in it all. Likewise, there's no denying that the Rangers would not have been able to replace what Ryan brought to the table.

But would absolute disaster have fallen on the franchise?

That I don't see. The Rangers would have found themselves dealing with a nasty PR mess, and presumably would have been kicking themselves for not handling the situation more delicately. But the team itself would not have fallen apart at the seams, and the organization still would have been in darn good hands.

The Rangers certainly look better with Ryan in the mix, and they certainly appear to run better with him in the mix. But had he removed himself from the mix, the Rangers would not have become a rudderless ship.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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