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Thursday, December 8, 2011
Rangers stand ready for challenge

By Richard Durrett
ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- A handful of Texas Rangers staff members were gathered in the club's suite on the eighth floor of the Hilton Anatole on Thursday morning when iPhones and Blackberrys started buzzing with reports that Albert Pujols had signed with the Los Angeles Angels.

Albert Pujols
World Series foes C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols will join forces in Anaheim. The two-time AL champion Rangers will counter with higher expectations.
There were two footballs in the suite -- part of an attempt to lighten the mood during nearly four days of grinding talks at baseball's winter meetings -- and neither was fired against a wall. There was no yelling or screaming. But there was surprise and an understanding that the Angels -- in one wild morning -- had elevated their team and signaled their intentions to try to seize a division they had owned before the Rangers came along with consecutive World Series appearances.

The bottom line: The gap in the AL West shrunk a bit as the winter meetings ended.

"I think one of the best players in Major League Baseball just landed in our division," Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine said. "I think the road to garnering our third American League West championship just got much, much more difficult."

And that was before Texas found out that C.J. Wilson had decided to join Pujols in Anaheim.

That part didn't shock anyone associated with the Rangers. They knew before Wilson made his final decision that he wasn't going to be the club's Opening Day starter. And they figured he'd end up back home.

Wilson said he turned down considerable money -- a source said at least $100 million over six guaranteed years -- from the Miami Marlins to go to the Angels. He also said the Rangers weren't even close. Texas wasn't willing to give the left-handed pitcher a five-year deal, effectively removing it from consideration the past few days. Wilson said the club's "parameters" were half of the Marlins' offer.

So the Rangers move on. They do so knowing the competition has stiffened considerably in the AL West after the Angels invested $331.5 million in Pujols and Wilson.

But Texas remains the favorite. The Rangers have one of the deepest lineups in the big leagues, a bullpen bolstered by the signing of Joe Nathan and a young rotation with arms the club feels haven't found their ceiling.

They will not panic and don't feel as though they've got to make a move in response to what the Angels did, although there's little doubt it wasn't the kind of Thursday morning the Rangers had in mind.

"They got two very good players," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "I don't see this as a punch, counterpunch thing. Our goal is to be as good as we can be within the parameters we have to work with. We feel good about our club and where we're at, but clearly the division got a little tougher."

Yu Darvish
The Rangers are comfortable with their rotation but are keeping an eye on Yu Darvish.
That doesn't mean the Rangers will simply sit back and watch others make all the deals. They are not involved in talks with other free-agent starting pitchers, so a trade seems like the best avenue to upgrade the rotation. They've discussed Gio Gonzalez, Matt Garza and John Danks. If James Shields is on the market, they probably would check in on him as well.

The Rangers are comfortable heading into spring training with the rotation they have if the right deal isn't there. Then, they could make a trade at the deadline, something they've had success doing in the past.

Yu Darvish is also on the market and expected to be posted Thursday. That means teams have four business days to get in a blind bid. Darvish, though, is a major investment, and the club must decide whether it wants to allocate those kinds of funds to him with current players coming up for contract talks. That list includes Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz and then a host of young players who will enter their arbitration years soon. (See Elvis Andrus, Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz, for instance.)

"Our goal is to win, but to win with a responsible business model," Daniels said. "Let's face facts: As an organization, we're just coming off a spot where we got away from that. It's not healthy. That's not an excuse. That's not giving ourselves a position to fall back on. Our expectation, our standard is to win regardless of payroll. My challenge to our group is we have to figure out a way to do that. We've done it the last couple of years, and I expect we'll continue to do so."

Daniels said the Angels' moves actually made sense for where they are as an organization. They wanted to speed up their competitive timetable, had the money to spend (they have some bigger contracts coming off the books after the 2012 season and a new TV deal) and don't have the same pipeline of young players the Rangers do at this point.

The Rangers also have money to spend. But because of how well the team has done the past few seasons, they have a large group of players getting raises and increasing the payroll. That's their focus.

This is also one of the most creative front-office groups in the country. It has many more options at its disposal to improve the club, and Rangers fans need to trust that it will explore those options and do something if it feels it's necessary.

The front office will continue to focus on the farm system and restocking the organization with players who can have an impact at the big league level.

"We've got to develop those players," Daniels said. "That's the next wave of great Rangers players. We have to develop them, whatever it takes -- a 24-7, 365 mentality. That's our approach."

For now, Texas must figure out how to deal with Pujols for 18 games and formulate a game plan to beat Wilson a few times, too. Looking for dates to circle on the calendar? Try May 11. That's the first time the Angels face the Rangers, and it will be in Arlington.

Better get your tickets now.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.