MLB Spring Training 2011: Analyzing What We've Learned About the Texas Rangers
Following the most successful season in franchise history, the Texas Rangers have had an eventful off-season as they prepare to defend their 2010 American League Championship.
From feuds with rival franchises to dramatic encounters with their own players, the winter months have been anything but boring as the Rangers have thrust themselves into baseball's spotlight with on-field success as well as off-field controversies.
With a brighter spotlight than ever before shone upon them, the Rangers will look to build on the success they experienced last season, in hopes of achieving baseball's greatest glory, a World Series Championship.
As Spring Training action is now in full swing, and Opening Day is only a month away, let's take a look at some of the key things that we have learned about the Texas Rangers over the last few months.
They Have Money to Spend
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No longer content to be a lower to mid-market franchise in terms of player payroll, the Texas Rangers have suddenly become aggressive in player negotiations, and will look to play with the big boys for the foreseeable future.
Lingering for the last several years in the $55 million to $70 million range, the Rangers have received an influx of cash due to their new television deal signed with Fox Sports Southwest following last season.
In renewing their deal with Fox for the next 20 years, the Rangers will bring in an estimated $1.5 billion over the course of that contract, making it the richest deal for any Major League team that doesn't own their own station.
Of course, that dollar amount doesn't all get thrown into player salaries, but it is safe to assume that it allows the franchise a new-found financial flexibility that they have never experienced.
With this deal signed at the conclusion of the 2010 season, the Rangers were rumored to have held discussions with several of the marquee attractions on the free agent market, but were ultimately spurned by all but Adrian Beltre.
Although they may have only held cursory discussions with others, the Rangers were all in on the Cliff Lee negotiations, reportedly offering the left-hander a 6-year, $138 million contract with a potential vesting option for a seventh year.
Ultimately, the Rangers failed in that pursuit, but secured the services of slugging third baseman Adrian Beltre on a 5-year, $80 million deal with a vesting option for a sixth year.
They have since signed outfielder Josh Hamilton to a 2-year, $24 million deal, as well as given contracts to some of their other arbitration-eligible players.
With an exciting core of players and a sudden ability to spend money when necessary, the Rangers have to feel good about the immediate future of their franchise.
They're Not Overly Sentimental
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Depending upon whose side you believe, the Rangers are either disloyal liars who misled the face of their franchise, Michael Young, when considering his future with the team, or they are simply a club imbued with a new sense of hunger trying to make their team better in any way possible.
Whichever direction your loyalty leans, one thing appears certain. The Rangers won't let sentimentality stand in the way of achieving the success they so crave after the small taste they enjoyed in 2010.
Occasionally teams impede their own success by bogging themselves down with fan-favorite players beyond their prime in fear of alienating a loyal fan base.
Now, the Rangers didn't jettison Young, the longest-tenured player currently on the roster. They simply changed his position, for the third time in the last seven years, trying to make him a first baseman and designated hitter after the signing of Adrian Beltre.
Some see that as an egregious affront to Young, a man always considered the consummate team player. Many fans struggled to understand the move, especially after the Rangers experienced tremendous success with him as their second baseman.
The Rangers however, saw an opportunity to improve their club by signing Beltre, one of the best defensive third basemen currently in baseball. Though his offensive inconsistency has yet to impress Ranger fans curious about the move, there is little doubt that he is a significant upgrade defensively at the hot corner.
Though Young initially accepted the move, then later retracted his approval and demanded to be traded, the furor seems to have died down for now as the season rapidly approaches.
Texas brass continually proclaims their respect for Young while stating that he remains an important piece in their plans for 2011. They have reportedly explored trade scenarios in hopes of appeasing their star infielder, but have also stated that they would only make such a move if it helped to improve their chances of winning. No move would be made simply for the sake of shipping Michael Young out of town.
After signing Beltre, the Rangers also traded for Mike Napoli, a player that would seem to cut into Young's chances of playing everyday. Though he never specifically mentioned that move, it seemed obvious that Napoli's acquisition was not viewed extremely favorably by Young. He was classy and was careful not to say anything that could be construed as negative toward his new teammate, but there was much to be read between the lines.
Since tasting success in 2010, the Rangers have a renewed hunger for victory that will apparently override any lingering sentimentality toward any specific player. Though we likely haven't heard the entire story, the storm has abated for now and the team and Young have put on a happy face as they prepare for Opening Day.
Please check out my previous pieces on the Young saga:
Neftali Feliz May Move to the Rotation After Historic Season as the Closer
Sabermetricians will tell you that it is abundantly clear that a top-flight starting pitcher offers significantly more value to a team than a dominant closer. Influencing games over 200 innings seems obviously more valuable than pitching 60 or 70 innings at the end of games, many of which are already decided, or very close to it.
However, teams and their fans know that their is little in the game more demoralizing than failing to finish off games in which your team leads heading into the ninth inning. Surely a dominant force in the ninth, emerging to ensure those leads turn into victories is an invaluable commodity to possess.
Team have run into this dilemma in recent years, occasionally unable to decide where a specific pitcher offers his team the best chance to succeed.
The Rangers face this same same question this spring, as they are considering returning record-setting Rookie of the Year closer, Neftali Feliz, to the rotation where he was developed throughout his minor league career.
Following a year in which he converted 40 of his 43 save opportunities, with a 2.73 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP, and struck out 71 batters in 69.1 innings, it may seem as if Feliz is exactly where he is supposed to be. He set the MLB rookie record for saves in a season, earning top rookie honors for the American League, and helped propel Texas toward their first World Series in franchise history.
Though Feliz has never yet started a game in the Major Leagues, his minor league pedigree as a starter is rather impressive. In four seasons, ranging from rookie ball to AAA he made 79 appearances, 53 of them starts. Over 276 innings, he struck out 325, with a 3.03 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP. Though a significant portion of those outings were against lower minor league competition, he was laying a solid foundation for a future as a top-flight starter before a necessity propelled him into the Texas big league bullpen.
Fortunately for the Rangers, they already have experience with this type of transition, as Opening Day starter C.J. Wilson was previously a successful reliever for the majority of the five seasons prior to 2010. Wilson made six starts in his 2004 rookie campaign, but other than those, his other 252 appearances were as a late-game reliever. Following his full-time return to the rotation, C.J. hurled 204 innings and earned 15 wins as he established himself as one of the tougher left-hander in baseball in 2010.
Texas will hope for a reprise of that same same successful pattern as they ponder whether Feliz best serves the team as a closer or as a potential top of the rotation starter.
Some critics feel that his overall stuff translates best as a closer, considering his blazing fastball and slightly unrefined secondary pitches. The secondary pitches may have just received less focus over the last year or two once Feliz knew he was ticketed for a relief role, where a deep arsenal is not necessarily imperative.
For now, the Rangers intend to stretch Feliz out in Spring Training, preparing him to start, but reserving the option to slot him back into the closer role. It will also be dependent upon Brandon Webb's progress in spring, and whether Alexi Ogando, Mark Lowe or another reliever step up to show they are capable of handling the closing duties.
The Rivalry with the New York Yankees Is Alive and Well
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Though the on-field rivalry with the dreaded "Evil Empire" may have appeared dormant over the last decade or so, things have ratcheted up a notch over the last year.
After meeting in the American League Division Series three times in four seasons from 1996-1999, the Yankees and Rangers took a break from meaningful games between the two franchises for over ten years. With the Rangers failing to make the playoffs again until 2010, the opportunity for such clashes were limited to regular season clashes.
That all changed once the two teams faced off in the 2010 American League Championship Series. New York's previous dominance in the match-up was finally overturned as Texas overwhelmed the Yankees with shut-down starting pitching and a dynamic offensive attack en route to the first World Series appearance in franchise history.
Shorty after that post-season clash, Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg made critical comments regarding Yankee fans after reports of abusive treatment towards Texas family members at Yankee Stadium. The statements by Greenberg drew a harsh response from Yankee brass, and Greenberg subsequently apologized.
Over the off-season, the two AL powerhouses clashed again, this time over the services of free-agent ace, Cliff Lee. Seen as the primary suitors for the highly-coveted left-hander, Texas and New York fought valiantly, yet both came up empty as Lee ultimately opted to return to Philadelphia, to ply his trade in the National League.
At Rangers Fan Fest in January, Greenberg spoke of the hard-fought battle over Lee, claiming that the Rangers at least helped to keep the pitcher from the Yankees. Speaking to his loyal constituency, Greenberg angered the Yankees once again with these proclamations, prompting an overly-angry response from Yankee president Randy Levine.
Levine, another strong-willed personality, similar to Greenberg, lashed out in response, criticizing the lack of experience of the Rangers front office, and the financial standing of the franchise at the time. Apparently angered by the suggestion that the Rangers somehow influenced the negotiations, Levine called Greenberg "delusional" and told the Texas businessman to keep his nose out of Yankee affairs.
There has been little interaction since, but with all the personalities involved on both sides, one can be sure that another flareup remains a distinct possibility in the near future. When the Rangers and Yankees meet up at Yankee Stadium in April, it'll be interesting to see if the battle between front offices carries over onto the field.
Please check out my previous piece on the subject:
They're Not Afraid to Take a Risk
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Some franchises are ultra-conservative in their approach to running their ball-clubs, while others have a more freewheeling, loose feeling about them.
Depending upon your specific group of players and the coaching staff you have in place, there are ways to make either approach work for your team as you strive toward a winning season.
Over the last few seasons, the Rangers have proved willing to take calculated risks in order to ensure success for their ball-club. Whether that means supporting a troubled player, standing by an embattled manager, or evaluating and taking a risk on a player returning from injury, the current Texas Rangers regime has shown that they are not a timid bunch, and that in order to win in baseball, you have to make it happen, rather than waiting for success to knock on your door.
Prior to the 2008 season, the Rangers opted to trade highly-touted hurler Edinson Volquez, to the Reds in exchange for extremely talented, yet a recovering addict, Josh Hamilton. Though Hamilton has long been considered one of the most talented prospects in recent history, he had derailed his baseball career with a significant battle with drug and alcohol abuse. With that kind of track record, many team would have shied away from Hamilton, but the Rangers were willing to take the gamble on his sobriety and he has rewarded their faith handsomely with two stellar seasons out of the three he has played in Arlington.
When Hamilton had a much-publicized slip in his recovery during 2009, the Rangers once again supported their star. Early in the season, the married Ranger was photographed partying with numerous women in a Tempe, Arizona bar. He was forthright about the incident, admitted that it was an unfortunate lapse, but rededicated himself to his wife, his sobriety, and his baseball career. The Rangers offered continuous support throughout the ordeal.
Prior to the 2010 season, Sports Illustrated broke a story that manager Ron Washington had earlier tested positive for cocaine. Such a revelation might have caused the immediate dismissal of a manager in many franchises, but again, the Rangers showed their willingness to trust the person behind the mistake, and offered unwavering support for their skipper. Of course, the team took appropriate measures, along with Major League Baseball, to ensure such an incident would not happen again, and Washington rewarded the franchises support by leading his players to the 2010 World Series.
The Michael Young situation displays another manner in which the Rangers are not timid. By opting to move Young for the third time in seven seasons, the Rangers have shown that winning comes first, and they are completely willing to risk hurting a player's feelings if management feels a move can improve the club's chances of victory. Though the move hasn't always been popular, Texas management has proved that winning is their greatest interest of all, even if it involves particular risks.
Over the last couple years, they have also taken calculated risks and signed oft-injured players to a deal in hopes of catching the proverbial "lightning in a bottle." Last season's experiment with Rich Harden didn't work out as well as they hoped, but that didn't prevent them from making another gamble, this time on the health of former Cy Young winner Brandon Webb. If Webb can return from his serious shoulder injuries and approximate the pitcher he was a few years prior, then the Rangers will have done well to replace some of the production Cliff Lee provided in the second half of last season.
Another potentially risky endeavor is the rumored transition of closer Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation. Many would rather not risk disrupting the structure of one of the AL's best bullpens from last season, but the Rangers think they have an option to turn Feliz into an ace, and are willing to take the chance necessary to find out.
It remains to be seen how well some of these recent gambles pan out for the Rangers, but so far, this ownership group's track record has proved largely successful. I certainly wouldn't want to be the man to bet against Nolan Ryan.