It has been a terrific four-year run for the Texas Rangers: 90 wins and a trip to the World Series in 2010, 96 wins and one strike away from a World Series title in 2011, 93 wins and a wild-card spot in 2012 and 91 wins in 2013. The Rangers and Rays are the only two teams to win at least 90 games each of the past four seasons. Attendance has increased from 2.16 million in 2009 to as high as 3.46 million in 2012 (down slightly last season to 3.18 million). A lucrative local cable TV deal kicks off in 2015.
The Rangers have become one of baseball’s crown jewel franchises.
While 2013 proved to be a major disappointment, the challenge for Jon Daniels and the rest of the front office now is sustaining this excellence. Building a winning team is one thing; maintaining one is maybe even tougher.
You often hear people say, "You have to keep a winning team together." Or, in a more critical take, "It’s hard to keep a winning team together these days." That's meant to disparage the modern game of free agency and big-money contracts, as if baseball were better in the 1950s when the same few clubs -- primarily the Yankees -- won all the time.
With the trade of Ian Kinsler, loss of free agent David Murphy and the presumed departure of Nelson Cruz as a free agent, the Rangers have essentially turned over their roster from that 2010 club: Only shortstop Elvis Andrus and first baseman/DH Mitch Moreland remain among position players from the 2010 World Series lineup, and none of the pitchers who started in that World Series (Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Tommy Hunter) are around. (Lewis did sign a minor league deal in November, although his health remains a question mark.)
The 2011 team added Adrian Beltre, and Derek Holland and Matt Harrison joined the rotation. All three are expected to be a prominent part of the 2014 team (although Holland is out until at least the All-Star break after hurting his knee). Still, that’s a large turnover in just three years. The big additions this offseason have been Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, acquired to help bolster an offense that scored 125 fewer runs than in 2011.
What Daniels has done is what a modern general manager has to do: be nimble and flexible. The truth is most players have short peaks; you have to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em, to quote former Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers. It looks like Daniels punted at the right time on Josh Hamilton. He's letting Cruz walk away right when his decline phase should begin.
Critics will point out that he also let Mike Napoli leave last year and Napoli would have provided better production at first base or DH than the Rangers received from Moreland or Lance Berkman. True, but the money not spent on Napoli also left more on the table this year for Fielder and Choo, and Napoli's hip issues meant he could no longer catch.
Plus, the whole idea of keeping a team together doesn’t always make sense. The Giants won World Series in 2010 and 2012 -- the only positional starters on both teams were Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval and they had a different closer.
More impressively, look at the small-market Rays. Economic reasons force the Rays to constantly churn over their roster to acquire inexpensive players. But look at their 2008 team that first broke through. What if they’d been able to afford to keep that team together? Well, it would have been a pretty bad team in 2013: Dioner Navarro, Carlos Pena, Akinori Iwamura, Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Gabe Gross and Cliff Floyd were the position regulars; James Shields, Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir, Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson filled out the rotation. Only three players from that team were still with Tampa Bay in 2013: Longoria, then-utility guy Ben Zobrist and September call-up David Price.
The Rays have remained successful because they understand that talent can be fleeting -- and replaced. Economic circumstances have forced them to become a smarter front office.
The risk for a deeper-pocket team such as the Rangers is that you can become lazy, assuming you can just buy talent whenever you need it. Yes, that has worked for the Yankees for a long time, but we're seeing fewer premium free agents hitting the market (Clayton Kershaw being the latest example), so buying success is also becoming a more difficult proposition.
So Daniels is trying to be nimble. It’s time for Jurickson Profar to play, so turn Kinsler into something while he still has value. You lose Cruz but sign (yes, for a lot of money) a better hitter in Choo. Joe Nathan opts out of his deal? Fine, let him go, use that money elsewhere and move somebody else into the closer role.
The Rangers have won 90 games the past four years. Thanks to a front office willing to make changes, I think they'll make it five in a row.