The Rangers May Be Out But They Are Not Down--Not Come Next April

In the midst of a pennant race into mid-September for only the fifth time in 37 seasons, the Texas Rangers promptly lost 13 of 19 games. Their uncharacteristically punchless offense failed to score at least 800 runs for the first time in 14 years. Star outfielder Josh Hamilton crashed back to Earth in a heap of injuries, alcohol relapse and putrid production. They missed the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. And their cash-strapped owner, Tom Hicks, had to borrow money from Major League Baseball to meet payroll and has stuck a For Sale sign outside Rangers ballpark in Arlington.

Yet there is only one word to describe the Rangers' 2009 season: Successful.

Not because of what they did. But how they did it.

It's one thing to produce your best season since 2004 and second-best in a decade. It's another to do it not with rented veterans, but instead a youthful foundation of players that promises the best is yet to come. Tommy Hunter. Neftali Feliz. Elvis Andrus. Julio Borbon. Scott Feldman. Nelson Cruz. The Rangers' bunch of green bananas is about to ripen.

And remember, all along this wasn't supposed to be the year, but more so the year before the year. This was the foreplay, the prelude to bigger, better results in the immediate future. Despite the bitter end, indeed it was.

"We certainly put our name out there," manager Ron Washington said after last Sunday's season-ending loss in Seattle. "We proved we can pitch in Texas. Now, we just have to get more consistent."

Unless an epidemic of swine flu infects Texas' kiddie clubhouse or Hicks sells to Fred Sanford for salvage, the Rangers will win the American League West Division in 2010. And will be a legit contender for the next decade. That's right, I said decade.

For a franchise that's been so horrible for so long, this is about to get delicious.

Not that 2009 didn't suffer an ugly crash landing.

The Rangers led the AL West at the All-Star break into mid-July and hung around within a couple games of the Anaheim Angels and the Wild Card through September 11. Then—in a franchise that for four decades has watched a surplus of hitting fail to compensate for deficiencies in pitching and/or defense—the offense vanished. Without injured stars Hamilton and Michael Young, Texas was swept at home by the lowly Oakland A's. They went 2-7 on the season's most important homestand, getting shut out four times in five nights.

On September 28, in an 11-0 loss in Anaheim, the Rangers were officially eliminated from the division. The next night they lost again to get booted out of the Wild Card.

Like it or not, the Rangers did in September what the Cowboys usually do in December: Collapse.

"This is not a good feeling," said Young, who has never played in a playoff game during his nine-year Rangers career. "Right now I don't care about the future or how our team shapes up for next year. It's about winning or going home. We did not get it done. And that is really an unpleasant feeling. From our side, we've got to get better. It's as simple as that."

They will. It's as simple as that.

Again, for a club that has won 87-plus games only six times since 1972 and has finished an average of 21 games behind the division champion this millennium, an 87-75 record (fourth-best in the AL) is a significant step in the right direction. And for a team that finished third or fourth in its four-team division for eight consecutive years, back-to-back second-place finishes prove the uptick.

I can't wait until April 5 when the Rangers begin their 2010 season at home against the Toronto Blue Jays. Though patience—not the panic button—is the key this off-season, there are moves to be made.

Mainly, finding an owner who, unlike Hicks, has a passion for baseball as a game, not merely a business. Unfortunately, the new owner of the Texas Rangers won't be named Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban.

Jones, the Dallas Cowboys' Grand Poobah, has repeatedly said he's invested all he can financially and emotionally into his football franchise. And last week the Dallas Mavericks owner basically echoed the sentiment.

"Not interested," Cuban e-mailed when I asked him about the Rangers. "One team's enough for me right now."

Those of you holding out hope for George Dubya Bush or Nolan Ryan will ultimately be disappointed as well. There appear to be three serious bidders: Former sports agent Dennis Gilbert, Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg and Houston businessman Jim Crane. While Greenberg has ties to Ryan, Gilbert is apparently the front-runner. I know, sexy, right?

Ironic, because the Rangers—despite Hicks' tatters—are a good buy.

Washington and his relentless, sometimes irrational optimism will return in 2010, as will pitching coach Mike Maddux. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, in the wake of the worst of his 15 seasons in Arlington, is not re-signed for next season. While Maddux pushed Hunter and Feldman and Brandon McCarthy and Darren O'Day to max out their potential on the mound, Jaramillo's hitters constantly hacked at first pitches and, for the most part, missed.

Oh, the Rangers were still among the league leaders in home runs, but despite an increase in stolen bases were unable to manufacture cheap runs mainly because they led the AL in strikeouts. You can count on one finger the times that the Rangers' bats kept them from the post-season. This one.

With the Rangers' offense deader than Saturn, their margin for error proved too small.

In other words, despite his past and his popularity, Jaramillo must go. And with him, left-handed relieving flop Eddie Guardado and the cranky, under-achieving Hank Blalock.

Without an infusion of money, which might lead to the addition of a right-handed bat via free agency, next year's Rangers are going to look a lot like this year's. And that's good news.

The pitching rotation should include Kevin Millwood, Feldman, Hunter, Derek Holland and Feliz, with McCarthy, O'Day, C.J. Wilson and Frankie Francisco leading a solid bullpen.

Catchers Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden proved adequate, Chris Davis re-discovered his swing, Ian Kinsler had a 30 homers/30 stolen bases season at second base, Andrus will likely be Rookie of the Year at shortstop and Young is the unequivocal team leader at third. In the outfield the Rangers should have David Murphy, Marlon Byrd (who they need to re-sign), Borbon, Cruz and Hamilton.

The key to it all, of course, is Hamilton.

It's amazing the Rangers stayed relevant for so long this year considering their best player contributed only 10 homers and 54 RBI in 89 games because of various injuries. Consider that in 2008 he had 54 RBI by May 27.

The question: Is Josh Hamilton the feel-good, play-great story from '08? Or the injury-riddled disappointment who last January sloughed off his celebrity sobriety for a night of binge drinking in Arizona and on the field made the Rangers' front office seem shrewd for not signing him to a lucrative contract?

For the Rangers to be next year's champion, Hamilton must be as durable as he is dominant. If not, all this teasing will deteriorate into torment.

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt