Like many of the Rangers' first 36 years in Arlington, this offseason began all too soon. 25 players all had dreams of playing in the Fall Classic and being crowned champions of the baseball world.
Those dreams were squashed way back in August. Which begs the question that has been asked all but three times in the history of the Texas Rangers: What needs to be done this offseason to produce a Rays-like season in 2009 and make a run in the playoffs?
The Rangers have a handful of "good problems" to take care of this offseason. Their farm system is rich in talent. They have a number of good, young players who finished the season on the big-league roster. Their depth behind the plate is superior to every team in the league. So, with so many young "phenoms" in the system, what does the team need to be a legitimate contender?
The Rangers had a countless number of injuries to key contributors throughout the 2008 campaign. Vicente Padilla, Kevin Millwood, Gerald Laird, Hank Blalock, Ian Kinsler, and David Murphy (to name a few) all lost a substantial number of games due to injury. The four position players mentioned were all everyday players in the lineup. The two pitchers mentioned are advertised to be the No. 1 and 2 starters, respectively.
If the Rangers can stay healthy in 2009, even with the team they had in 2008, they should win 10 more games. That would give the Rangers a record of 89-73; more than good enough to be mentioned as at least a wild-card contender.
Molding of Youth
No, not THAT kind of mold. The kind of mold that you can actually see when nine individual players on the field begin playing as one cohesive unit. With so many injuries last season, the fans in Arlington were treated to a premature talent show. Many prospects in the farm system went from a "slowly but surely" ascent to a "rapid fire" ascent into "The Show."
Their talents were displayed and the future suddenly seemed bright in Arlington. The most notable of players: Chris "Crush" Davis, Matt Harrison, and Taylor Teagarden provided a spark on both sides of the ball near the end of the season.
Davis joined the lineup and looked as though he was a five-year veteran, knocking the cover off the ball almost every at-bat. Harrison struggled in his early starts but quickly got on track, posting impressive wins over playoff-bound teams such as the Angels and White Sox. Teagarden is solid behind the plate with a quick, powerful bat.
If the youth of this team can mold into the framework provided by players like Young, Kinsler, Byrd, and Hamilton—combine Harrison with another successful year from Millwood and Padilla—then I don't think it's a stretch to add another seven games in the win column.
Take the record stated earlier from keeping players healthy, add the seven extra wins, and you suddenly have a team that is 30 games over .500 with a 96-66 record and is a legitimate title contender. The mighty Angels were favorites to win the World Series this season and finished with 100 wins.
Keeping the Tank Full
It's no secret that the Rangers have a history of slowing down after the All Star break. It was again evident last season. Josh Hamilton had a historic offensive showing in the first half of the season. During the second half, he produced only slightly higher numbers than a pinch-hitter for the Royals (Royals fans: I know, my complaint box from you is full).
With less offensive production, the pitching staff is required to take more of the work. Again, it's no secret either that the Rangers have pitching trouble (for more on this, refer to my first article).
Millwood was fairly strong down the stretch, but he also missed several starts during the middle of the season due to injury. Padilla began to struggle late in the season. The bullpen was horrid at the end of the season. Hence, the Rangers were being mentioned as a possible contended up until August.
When the calendars changed to September, the Rangers were an afterthought. They sank down the standings in August to all but crush their postseason dreams. Good clubs make the playoffs by finishing strong—perfect examples are the Rockies and Phillies in 2007 and the White Sox last season.
In order for this club to finish strong, they have to learn to maintain their level of play throughout the hot Texas summer and into the cooler weather of October.
It's easy to write down answers to problems plaguing the team. It's a little more difficult to justify how the team will accomplish those answers. So, how do the Rangers achieve the three answers listed above that will return them to the postseason?
The first step is addressing the Rangers' "good problem" behind the plate. The Rangers have more depth behind the plate than any other team in the league. Gerald Laird is solid behind the plate, both defensively AND offensively (don't forget that Laird led the team in sacrifice hits two years ago).
Other players capable of being the everyday catcher include Max Ramirez, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Taylor Teagarden. With so much depth, look for the Rangers to include one or two of these players in a deal that could provide some help to the pitching staff.
Next you have to deal with the slew of offensive hitters on the roster. Will Milton Bradley stay healthy next season? Will he even be a Ranger next season? Will Blalock stay healthy? Will Davis continue his torrid rookie season? This is a time when you wish you could play with nine players in the field but 13 in your batting lineup.
All of the following could and should deserve spots on the everyday lineup card next season: Young, Kinsler, Murphy, Hamilton, Bradley, Byrd, Davis, Laird, Blalock, Vazquez, Cruz, Boggs, and (possibly) Catalanotto. A set, nine-man roster needs to be established as the everyday roster so those core players can "gel," gain confidence in one another, and mold into the aforementioned cohesive unit.
A dream lineup for next season would be as follows (in order): Kinsler, Young, Byrd, Hamilton, Bradley, Davis, Blalock, Boggs, and Laird. With that lineup, the Rangers should score no less than five runs per game, and with a pitching staff with an overall ERA of over five, the more runs the better.
Another question is whether the current coaches can help this team come together as one. Matt Walbeck learned quickly last season as third base coach, and, across the diamond, Gary Pettis knows the game as good as anyone. Ron Washington knows how to "rally the troops," and the team responds to his enthusiasm of the game. Look for the same staff to return next season.
Did we forget one tiny problem area for the Rangers? How could we forget that the legendary Nolan Ryan himself is stirring the pitching pot by taking control of the pitching staff from the ground up.
Don't forget that Ryan promoted long-time Rangers catcher and Hall of Fame member, Jim Sundberg, into a Vice President role. A pitcher/catcher combination now at the top of the Rangers organization? Coincidence? I think not. Look for the Rangers to have different pitching and bullpen coaches by opening day.
With all the youth and change going on at the big-league level, what is left in system for the future? The answer? Plenty. Baseball America ranks Texas as one of the top teams in the league among talent throughout all levels of their farm system. There it is, straight from the horse's mouth (no, not Rangers Captain).
The Rangers' prospects are, without a doubt, raising eyebrows around the league. This is yet another "good problem" the Rangers have that should lift them and return them to October baseball, possibly as early as next season.