You might remember, from back at the beginning of the NFL season, when we previewed each team by having a writer we liked write about their favorite team.
Well, we're less than a week away from the start of baseball — spring training is here! — so it's time to do the same thing in the baseball world. Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.
Today: The Texas Rangers. Your author is Adam J. Morris.
People don't understand ... it's hard out here for a Ranger fan.
The 21st century has been a disaster for us. From 2000 through 2006 (and don't start nitpicking about how Y2K is really in the 20th century), the Rangers have finished last in their division four times and next-to-last three times, with an aggregate record of 535-599 and just one season with a record better than .500.
The Rangers, along with their division-mates, the Oakland A's, have been the poster children for Bud Selig when he says that payroll isn't everything, that small market teams can thrive and big market teams can suck. The yang to Oakland's pluckier, more successful yin, the Rangers play in a nice, shiny new ballpark, are located in the 5th largest media market in the nation and spent much of the 21st century with one of the top payrolls in baseball, with nary a playoff appearance this century to show for it. The Rangers have become a permanent Exhibit "A" (along with Paul Allen's Portland Trail Blazers, Isiah Thomas's New York Knicks and Dan Snyder's Washington Redskins) for the case that money doesn't buy championships.
And it isn't just the lack of success ... the Rangers have spent the decade as the buffoon of MLB, the team that keeps getting a pie in the face and atomic wedgies. The Rangers of the last several years are known as the team that overspent for Alex Rodriguez then paid the Yankees to take him off their hands, the team that gave Chan Ho Park one of the worst contracts in sports history, the team whose $100 million payroll bought them three straight last-place finishes, the team that had a reliever throw a chair into the stands in the middle of a pennant race one year and an All-Star starting pitcher assault a cameraman less than a year later, that traded for John Rocker and Carl Everett, that signed Ruben Rivera and Hideki Irabu, that made headlines in the steroid scandal because of Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Matthews Jr. and Jerry Hairston Jr.
The Rangers have been a team that has constantly been in the public eye for all the wrong reasons. Not lovable losers like the Cubs, not anonymous mediocrities like the Pirates ... the Rangers have cut their own unique path of exceptionally public ignominy through the major leagues the past seven years.
And for Rangers fans, this is made all the more painful because of the team's checkered past ... years of wandering in the second division wilderness after the team's arrival in Arlington in 1972 before finally finishing first in the A.L. West in 1994, an accomplishment made meaningless by both the strike and the fact that the first place Texas Rangers had a record of 52-62 on the season, followed by a stretch of three division titles in four years from 1996 through 1999.
Even that stretch of very goodness, though, was sullied by the team's playoff performances, drawing the Yankees all three years, going 1-9 against New York in the three divisional series, and scoring a total of just two runs in the 1998 and 1999 divisional series combined. The experience of seeing the Rangers stomped in their only playoff appearances has scarred Rangers fans, to the point that some argue that it isn't even worth it for Texas to make the playoffs without a truly dominant team, because they'll just get swept in the first round anyway.
It is against this backdrop, this history, that the Rangers' 2007 season unfolds, with the Rangers trying to shake off the oppression of the John Hart/Buck Showalter era in Texas and the malaise that has been 21st century Rangers baseball. With second-year GM Jon Daniels and new manager Ron Washington, the Ranger organization seems optimistic that this will be the best Ranger season since 1999.
That isn't setting the bar too high, of course, given that Ranger fans still talk about the "miracle" 2004 season (when a team some thought would lose 100 games finished in third place, with 89 victories), and reminisce misty-eyed over the greatest Ranger moment of the decade, a September 23, 2004, home game when David Dellucci broke an 0 for 23 streak by doubling in the tying and winning runs off of Octavio Dotel, bringing the Rangers within two games of first place Oakland and keeping their playoff hopes on life support for a few more days.
But there seems to be reason for hope. Maybe I'm just overly optimistic, as I seem to be every March. Maybe getting rid of Buck Showalter this past offseason - a manager I never wanted here in the first place - has got me so giddy that I'm not thinking rationally.
But I really think that the Rangers can do something significant this year, can break their seven-year playoff drought and get back in the postseason. The rest of the division is unimpressive - Oakland lost their best pitcher and best hitter from 2006 (Barry Zito and Frank Thomas), while Anaheim did nothing to improve an unimposing offense and is having injury issues with their rotation. (We can ignore Seattle, of course).
For the first time in years, the Rangers appear to have put together a rotation that could be pretty damn good. Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla aren't sexy, but are reliable veterans who are going to give you solid performances. Brandon McCarthy is viewed as a potential ace, despite his up-and-down performance last year during his bullpen apprenticeship with the ChiSox, and Robinson Tejeda has terrific stuff that has generated very good numbers in his limited major league rotation stints.
The Ranger bullpen is young and deep, the strength of the team right now, coming off a season where the Rangers finished 6th in the majors in bullpen ERA and brought most of their relievers back. Newcomer Eric Gagne is the big name, of course, and the early reports out of Arizona indicate that, while he isn't the Gagne of old, he still looks like he should be good enough to be a top notch closer. But the Rangers' real bullpen strength is the gaggle of arms ahead of Gagne, guys like Akinori Otsuka and Wes Littleton and C.J. Wilson, guys that Ron Washington will be relying upon to shut down the opposition in the 7th and 8th innings. The troops ahead of Gagne are, for the most part, not household names, but the organization is counting on them to help turn games into six-inning affairs, and a repeat of last season's performance from the no-name guys would go a long way towards ensuring that the Rangers are playing in October.
The offense, for once, seems to be the biggest area of concern. The Rangers have a pretty good idea what they can expect from certain folks - greatness from Mark Teixeira, very goodness from Michael Young and Ian Kinsler, 120 games worth of decent production from Kenny Lofton, Frank Catalanotto, and Gerald Laird - while other areas are a complete mystery. If Hank Blalock and Brad Wilkerson hit the way they did in 2004, and Nelson Cruz's potential turns into performance, this could be a very, very good offense. If Blalock and Wilkerson perform like they did last year, and breaking balls continue to turn Cruz into Pedro Cerrano, then the offense is going to be a problem.
And of course, there is that Sammy guy out there, as well...you may have heard something about him this spring...
Looking on the positive side, if the Ranger offense does struggle, is short a bat come July and August and needs to make a deal, well, Jon Daniels has had balls of steel when it comes to pulling the trigger on huge trades, the most recent being parting with lefty John Danks, who was anointed the savoir of the pitching staff from the time he was drafted in 2003, in the deal to acquire Brandon McCarthy. On the negative side, those trades haven't always worked out ... the Alfonso Soriano trade (which I supported) backfired when Brad Wilkerson turned out to need shoulder surgery while Soriano posted the best year of his career, and the Adam Eaton/Chris Young trade (which I condemned) has been a disaster of Hindenburgian (or Hafnerian) proportions. Even the Carlos Lee trade, which garnered Daniels praise and worked out from a production standpoint, ended up being rendered moot by the Rangers' falling out of contention after Lee's arrival in Arlington.
Still, unlike his predecessor, Daniels has shown a willingness to be creative in making trades (such as dealing Ricardo Rodriguez to the Phillies for Vicente Padilla, to keep the Phillies from simply non-tendering Padilla and letting him become a free agent, and working a three-way deal with the Cubs and Oakland last season that netted the Rangers John Koronka and John Rheinecker), so you have to believe that, if the Rangers are in contention and need another piece, Daniels is going to find a way to get something done.
(This is where I am obligated to mention that Daniels is the youngest GM in baseball history. Apparently, you aren't allowed to write anything for any publication about the Rangers and/or Daniels without mentioning that fact).
Overall, I've got a good vibe about the Rangers this year. Yes, the rotation has question marks, but I like the answers to those questions a lot more than I have in years past ... I feel better about relying on Brandon McCarthy and Robinson Tejeda and Kam Loe to step up and perform than I have in the past about, say, Ryan Glynn and Aaron Myette and Mike Judd doing so. The Michael Young contract extension is going to hurt the Rangers in 2012 and 2013, as they've given him too much money for too many years, but in the short-term, this can only help the Rangers, restoring some credibility with the fans and the rest of the players by locking up long-term the guy considered by his teammates to be the leader of the team, and considered by the fans and ownership to be the face of the franchise, and eliminating a distraction that would otherwise be hanging over the team.
And there is the addition of Washington, a self-professed "player's manager," a guy who seems to be the exact opposite of the micro-managing, passive-aggressive Showalter, whose style had reportedly alienated much of the clubhouse. Washington, whose departure from the A's has been lamented by A's fans and players alike, has announced that he's turning the clubhouse over to the players, vowed to communicate clearly with his charges, and has injected an atmosphere of positivity into the team that has been lacking in recent years.
At the end of the day, I think this team is going to rise or fall based on the performance of four key players - Brandon McCarthy, Robinson Tejeda, Hank Blalock, and Brad Wilkerson. If those four players perform up to their capabilities, this is a division winning team. If they all flop, this is a sub-.500 team.
But it is March, and I'm feeling optimistic. Heck, even that Sooser guy that I've bitched about all spring is hammering the ball in Arizona. Plus, we've got the post-Showalter track record, with the last two teams he's left winning the World Series the following year.
I'm feeling so good, in fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and make a prediction...the Rangers go to the World Series in 2007.
And if I'm wrong? Well, I'm a Ranger fan...I'm used to disappointment...