SURPRISE, Ariz. – Out with the old. In with the who?
On a sun-splashed March 9 in the desert, the Texas Rangers scored two runs on two homers from Joey Gallo and Nick Solak but were otherwise an atrocity of anonymity in a 9-2 spring training loss to the Cleveland Indians — a bunch of non-production from a herd of players whose names rang absolutely no bells.
Get used to it.
After a forgettable 2020 and mired in the longest, lousiest rebuilding project in franchise history, the Rangers in 2021 just might be the least-familiar, least-successful squad in the team’s 50-year tenure in Arlington.
“I think we have a chance to be a marquee team, I really do. With our market and fan base and ballpark and young players we’re developing, we’re building something here,” new general manager Chris Young said via a Zoom media call during the team’s six-week stint in Arizona. “It just might not immediately show up in wins and losses this year.”
When the Rangers open the season April 1 in Kansas City (the long-awaited home opener at new(ish) Globe Life Field comes April 5), they will commence their 10th season since coming this close to winning the World Series. But Nelson Cruz didn’t catch that fly ball in the 9th inning of Game 6 in St. Louis in 2011, and these days the franchise seems the farthest ever from a championship since its arrival from Washington, D.C., in 1972.
Since winning Game 5 of the 2011 World Series, the Rangers are 2-9 in the postseason. The last four seasons they are a combined 66 games under .500 and have finished 102 games out of first place in the American League’s West division. This season Las Vegas oddsmakers predict another bloodbath, staking the Rangers’ win total at 66.5, meaning they will flirt with 100 losses. Of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams, only the Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies and Pittsburgh Pirates are given a more pathetic projection.
After four years languishing and being noncompetitive in a rebuilding phase that feels as slow as refrigerated honey, the Rangers are, well, still rebuilding.
When the Rangers’ rivals to the south decided to mortgage their present for a brighter future in 2011, the Houston Astros lost 100-plus games for three consecutive seasons but by the fifth season made the playoffs and two years later won a World Series. In this, the Rangers’ fifth season on the relative rebound, they are predicted to end dead last in the AL West.
They have never suffered five consecutive losing seasons.
The Rangers, of course, do things differently. In the wake of a COVID-shortened season in which they went an AL-worst 22-38, the organization hired a general manager, Young, with zero front-office experience, promoted general manager Jon Daniels to president of baseball operations, rewarded manager Chris Woodward with a contract extension, traded away fan favorite and longest-tenured player Elvis Andrus and named as its 2021 opening-day starter Kyle Gibson, a pitcher who last went 2-6 with a 5.35 earned run average.
“My job is to do the best job I can to get this team moving in the right direction,” said Woodward, who is 100-122 during his two seasons in Arlington. “And I think we’ve made a ton of progress. But know this: I’m 100 percent invested in this team. Every ounce of my being is invested in making this team a championship team then sustaining it.”
Said Daniels: “We are all-in on Woody and big believers in what he brings as both a person and as a manager of this team. That’s probably as succinctly as I can say it.”
If any team deserves a mulligan for 2020, it’s the Rangers.
Their free-agent gem, pitcher Corey Kluber, threw one inning (18 pitches) on July 26 before leaving with a season-ending shoulder injury. There was a coronavirus outbreak in the organization and throughout the team’s broadcast booth, forcing radio voice Matt Hicks and TV analyst C.J. Nitkowski to miss games after testing positive. There were 20-percent pay cuts throughout the franchise. Only by winning their final three meaningless games did the Rangers push their winning percentage to .367 and avoid breaking records for futility set in the team’s original seasons of 1972-73.
Perhaps most painful, Globe Life Field became DFW’s Christmas gift that strangers got to open.
Rangers fans saw the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate a World Series in their new Arlington digs before they had a chance to set foot in the $1.2 billion, air-conditioned stadium. The team lost 51 home dates to COVID at the new park, and the 30 games played had a grand attendance of zero because of the pandemic.
“For our fans,” said Executive Vice President Chuck Morgan, “we’ll treat the 2021 home opener like the first game ever played at Globe Life Field. It’ll be opening day of our home season and our new ballpark.”
The team announced it would allow a capacity crowd of 40,518 for the first game then immediately scale back attendance and ratchet up safety measures in ensuing games, which is like lighting a fire and slamming the barn door after the horses gallop into the sunset. It will be the first North American sports team to play before a full house since COVID stopped our world in its tracks a year ago.
“We’re very confident we won’t be a super-spreader event,” Rangers’ CEO Neil Leibman said. “With all the protocols that we’re following, we’ll be extremely responsible and provide a very comfortable environment for somebody to enjoy the game without worrying we’re going to be a spreader event.”
Myriad ballpark bells and whistles are there to entertain — or distract — fans during play by what likely will be an unsuccessful, mostly unrecognizable product on the field.
Gone are Andrus (a 12-year veteran and the team’s last link to the consecutive World Series appearances in 2010-11) and Lance Lynn (the club’s winningest pitcher over the last three seasons). Sending both packing via trades, the Rangers delivered a loud, clear offseason message that they were turning the page on the past. Perhaps even their present.
More than this year’s players, the future belongs to 41-year-old Young, a Highland Park product who pitched for the Rangers in 2005 before being traded away by none other than his boss, Daniels. After Young’s three years working in the commissioner’s office, Daniels hired him to help a struggling development department that aside from Gallo in 2012 has whiffed on numerous draft picks.
“I expect Chris to be a huge asset to our baseball operations,” Daniels said. “I look forward to working closely with him, as our structure is now similar to that of many successful organizations.”
In 2021, the players will be as unfamiliar as the new park.
While the Dallas Mavericks boast of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Cowboys are banking on Dak Prescott, the Rangers have Gallo and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Both won Gold Gloves in 2020, Gallo matching his light-tower power with a cannon arm in right field and Kiner-Falefa producing a year so promising he booted Andrus out of his shortstop position and out of town.
After that, the roster gets murky. Jose Trevino will gobble most of the innings at catcher. First base belongs to Nate Lowe after he beat out incumbent Ronald Guzman. Solak won the job at second base, moving Rougned Odor to third and — as of Monday afternoon — off the roster.
If there was any doubt the Rangers were serious about ridding themselves of relics and rebuilding, discarding of Odor and swallowing of his hefty contract confirm their intentions. The 27-year-old has long been the worst bang-for-buck in all of DFW sports, making $12.3 million per season for striking out in 30% of his plate appearances.
Without Odor, the rebuilding Rangers are younger, cheaper and, with any luck, better.
Joining Gallo in the outfield will be Leody Taveras (center) and David Dahl (left). Khris Davis, acquired from the A’s for Andrus, will likely be the everyday designated hitter. If last year was any indication, the batting order is extremely fluid. In 60 games, Woodward trotted out 58 different lineups.
The Rangers’ minimal shot at success will come via run prevention rather than run production.
But even that seems dicey given that Gibson will throw the season’s first pitch for a franchise that has handed the ball on opening-day to pitchers such as Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Bert Blyleven, Charlie Hough, Nolan Ryan, Kenny Rogers, Yu Darvish and Cole Hammels. The rest of the rotation will be a conglomeration including Japanese newcomer Kohei Arihara, Mike Foltynewicz, Taylor Hearn, Dane Dunning, John King, Wes Benjamin and Jordan Lyles.
The back end of the staff was rocked late in spring when veteran closer Jose Leclerc and promising reliever Jonathan Hernandez suffered elbow injuries, leaving the closer’s job to a combination of Matt Bush (who has undergone two elbow surgeries since his last big-league appearance in 2018) and 36-year-old journeyman Ian Kennedy.
There are hints of promising signs. The Rangers went 14-10 in Arizona and tied their franchise record by scoring 17 runs in a game. They stole eight bases in another win. Gallo will launch jaw-dropping homers. Kiner-Falefa will be a vacuum at shortstop.
But for the most part, 2021 will prove another stepping-stone of suffering en route someday, maybe, to success.
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