The season seemed ready to implode on first-year manager Ron Washington in the first half, with hints of player dissatisfaction as the Rangers fell 19 games under .500 in mid-June. But after a soul-searching team meeting in Orlando in mid-May, the team began to jell.
Texas' pitching, on pace to be historically bad over the first two months, improved in the second half, and the Rangers went 52-45 after June 13 but still couldn't avoid last place. Perhaps the most significant achievement for the Rangers, moving forward, was acquiring nine elite prospects in three separate trade deadline deals (for Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne and Kenny Lofton).
1. The Rangers absolutely must improve their starting pitching. They ranked last in the American League in ERA (5.49) and quality starts (55) and 13th in walks (398), while becoming (along with Washington and Florida) the first team in history to finish an entire season without a complete game.
2. With top outfield prospects Julio Borbon and Engel Beltre still several years away from the majors, the Rangers will look to acquire an impact center fielder, either through free agency or a trade. They will likely target Torii Hunter or possibly Aaron Rowand.
3. The Rangers must decide what to do about first base in the post-Teixeira era. Last season, after Teixeira was traded to Atlanta in July, they used Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Brad Wilkerson at first, but with Saltalamacchia slated to spend most of his time behind the plate, and Wilkerson eligible for free agency, they will likely need to explore free agency or the trade market for a first baseman. Frank Catalanotto is an in-house option.
Besides taking a look at center fielders like Torii Hunter, Aaron Rowand and possibly Mike Cameron, the Rangers can't be ruled out as a landing spot for Barry Bonds. They took a chance on Sammy Sosa, after all, and got a nice comeback year (21 homers, 92 RBIs in 114 games). Sosa could return as DH, or Jason Botts could get the job full time. The Rangers might go after an arm to stabilize their rotation, though GM Jon Daniels seems inclined to stick with the young pitchers who struggled last year, hoping for growth. And don't be too surprised if Eric Gagne, a flop in Boston after the Red Sox sent three prospects to Texas for the reliever, winds up back in the Rangers' bullpen. There has been inevitable speculation of an Alex Rodriguez return to Texas, but despite owner Tom Hicks' adoration of A-Rod, it's an extreme long shot.
Catcher Gerald Laird is a prime candidate to be dealt with the arrival of Saltalamacchia. The Rangers would no doubt love to dump Vicente Padilla, who signed a three-year, $33.75 million contract and promptly went 6-10 with a 5.76 ERA. Kameron Loe could also be had, but a 9-17 mark the past two years dims his trade value.
With five draft picks among the top 60 picks last June, plus the influx in talent from the July trades, the Rangers believe their farm system is well-stocked. The plums -- at least for immediate help -- are Saltalamacchia, who has star potential, and lefty Kason Gabbard, who came over in the Gagne deal and was 6-1 with a 4.65 ERA in 15 starts between Boston and Texas. Don't overlook David Murphy, another Gagne acquisition, who hit .340 in 43 games with Texas and could win a starting outfield job next spring. Other rookies who could be heard from include pitchers Eric Hurley, Luis Mendoza and Armando Galarraga.
The Rangers got an early Christmas present when Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract, a move that will save Texas an estimated $21.3 million in money it was sending the Yankees to offset A-Rod's salary. That, in turn, could increase Texas' payroll by as much as $7 million. Daniels, however, vows that the Rangers are done throwing big money at mediocre, stopgap veterans. They will either go after impact players (such as Hunter) or let their young players play, with visions of a Colorado Rockies-style breakout. But for that to happen, their rotation -- penciled in as Kevin Millwood, Padilla, Brandon McCarthy, Gabbard and Edinson Volquez, with C.J. Wilson as closer -- would have to take major steps forward. The Rangers began to take off this past year when they finally grasped Washington's offensive MO, which centers around patience at the plate and aggressiveness on the base paths. Washington is an able defensive instructor and should loosen up in his second full year in command.
Larry Stone is the national baseball writer for The Seattle Times. Click here to visit the Times' Web site.