By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Though the Rangers last season finished 87-75 (fourth-best in the AL) and haven't topped 90 wins since 1999—Las Vegas oddsmakers set the over/under for their wins this season at 84—there are authentic reasons for enthusiasm. Coming off as many as 87 wins for only the sixth time in franchise history and with consecutive second-place finishes, they don't have to be a dramatic one-hit wonder. Rather, they merely must sustain and enhance their gradual rise from worst to first.
Tired, old retreads are gone from the pitching rotation (Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla) and the lineup (Hank Blalock and Frank Catalanotto), replaced with a cramped cupboard stocked by savvy trades and clever drafting by Daniels. Pitcher Thomas Diamond, not long ago part of the team's supposedly prized DVD pitching nucleus of the future along with Edinson Volquez and John Danks, is now not among the club's top 86 prospects according to Baseball America. While Feliz dazzled opponents with his velocity and variety last year, he is suddenly being pushed by blue-chip prospects such as Martin Perez, Tanner Scheppers and Kasey Kiker.
"With prospects, you never know until you know," says Daniels, whose trade-deadline deal in 2007 netted Texas its starting catcher (Jarrod Saltalamacchia), starting shortstop (Andrus), bullpen stalwart (Feliz) and starting pitcher (Matt Harrison) in exchange for a player (Mark Teixeira) who almost assuredly would have left via free agency with zero compensation. "But I'm excited that we've got some guys ready to perform and perform at a pretty high level up here with the big club."
Says Washington in his office in Surprise, "Our young guys are growing up faster than we expected. That's a good thing."
The Rangers made two significant signings in the off-season, adding the oft-injured Harden to anchor the pitching staff and the 35-year-old Guerrero as a veteran bat that will produce runs while also protecting and rebooting Josh Hamilton.
Texas is counting on a healthy Harden, a strikeout pitcher who has never won more than 11 games in a season, backed up by bullpen convert C.J. Wilson, 17-game winner Scott Feldman, Harrison and Colby Lewis. The latter last pitched in Texas in 2004 but dominated in Japan the last two years, prompting the Rangers to give him another shot.
The Rangers' bullpen should again be a strength, bolstered by 2009 starters Tommy Hunter. Feliz, Darren O'Day and veteran lefty Darren Oliver will set up the late innings for consistent closer Frankie Francisco.
Last year, for basically the first time since arriving from Washington, D.C., the Rangers found that pitching wasn't their problem. In a pennant race into mid-September for only the fifth time, the Rangers lost 13 of 19 games because its vaunted hitting vanished. For the first time in 14 seasons, they failed to score 800 runs and were shut out four times in five nights—at home, no less—during a crippling 2-7 homestand late in the season.
The drought cost longtime hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo his job, replaced by former Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle. While Jaramillo was popular and productive, his message was lost on the franchise's younger players.
First baseman Chris Davis was sent down to the minors after starting the season on a MLB-record pace for strikeouts. Despite a 30-homer/30-stolen-base season, second baseman Ian Kinsler developed an obvious upper-cut and led all of baseball with 257 flyouts. And Hamilton, after a dazzling 2008 in which he had 54 RBI by May 27, tinkered with his swing and managed only 10 homers and 57 RBI the entire season.
While Jaramillo preached mechanics, Hurdle is attempting to reshape the Rangers' mental approach in the batter's box. It won't be easy. Drilled by the mash-or-miss philosophy of Jaramillo, the Rangers last season finished second to the Yankees in homers, but also led the majors with 2,633 swings-and-misses and hacked at more first pitches than any team in baseball.
The template for Hurdle's extreme makeover is the PTPA—productive team plate appearance. It calls for productive at-bats, in the form of hits, walks, advancing runners with outs or eight-pitch battles that wear down opposing pitchers. Ideally, Hurdle wants 16 PTPAs per game.
"The Angels are our model," Hurdle says. "They're selfless at the plate and aggressive on the base paths. We've got to be better in all areas with our offense."
Admits Kinsler, "It's different than Rudy for sure. This is more of a mind-set with Clint. But his message is refreshing. Sometimes players need a different point of view."
Washington's desired lineup has the speedy Borbon (center field) leading off, followed by Young, Hamilton (left field), Guerrero (designated hitter), Kinsler, Cruz (right field), Davis, Saltalamacchia and Andrus.
"Boy, I really get excited by this lineup," says Hamilton, healthy again after a 2008 ravaged by hip and rib injuries. "We've got speed and power all the way through. We can be really good. Scary good."
Greenberg agrees. Buying the Rangers on the rise, he sees no reason why the team's most special year can't be his first year.
"Most times the longer you wait for something, the sweeter it is when you finally get it," Greenberg says to the last stragglers at Sherlock's. "I can't wait to share some Champagne with you fans. It's been on ice for way too long."
It is April 1, and his Texas Rangers haven't yet recorded their first victory.
But Chuck Greenberg has already won you over.