Texas Rangers season preview: Five years ago, the Texas Rangers were about to kick off a campaign centered around redemption. After coming one strike away from winning the 2011 World Series — not once, but twice -- only to ultimately fall short, the Rangers of a half-decade ago were coming off a pair of division titles, and with aspirations to finish the job.
Flash forward to today and...well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The 2017 Rangers are coming off a pair of division titles, and while they haven’t made it to the World Series, they are positioning themselves to try to get over the hump and finish the job this time.
Interestingly, while a lot of the faces on the field have changed, the organizational culture and philosophy has largely stayed the same. Jon Daniels is still the general manager. Ray Davis and Bob Simpson are still the owners. Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre are still anchoring the infield. Yu Darvish, who was a rookie in 2012, is still the most talented pitcher on the staff. And a handful of young players who got brief looks in 2012 — Tanner Scheppers, Martin Perez, Jurickson Profar — are still in the mix today.
Even some of the guys who departed in the intervening period have returned. Josh Hamilton, the prodigal son, left for Anaheim after the 2012 season, and now is back on a minor league deal. Mike Napoli has returned for 2017, his third stint with the organization. Michael Young is back in Arlington, in the Rangers’ front office. And who knows...Colby Lewis, whose elbow injury midway through the 2012 completely changed the complexion of the campaign, could end up back in Texas this year before it is all said and done.
Ron Washington is gone, of course, as is Nolan Ryan. Thad Levine is now in Minnesota, A.J. Preller is in San Diego. Ian Kinsler, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Nelson Cruz...guys who were key cogs with that 2012, as well as the World Series teams, are no longer here.
The 2017 team feels different, in part because there’s more youth -- the 2012 team had just two starting position players under age 30, Elvis Andrus and Mitch Moreland, while Rougned Odor, Nomar Mazara, and some combination of Ryan Rua, Delino DeShields and Jurickson Profar in left field are all in their 20s, as is, of course, Elvis. The pitching staff has more uncertainty than the 2012 staff did.
But what feels similar is a sense of urgency. The 2012 team had Mike Napoli and Josh Hamilton heading to free agency, had the weight of that epic Game Six on its shoulders, had the pressure of being the front-runner. The 2012 team started fast, was talked about as the best team in baseball, and then faded down the stretch, with the loss of Colby Lewis prompting Daniels to deal Christian Villanueva and a soft-throwing righthander out of Dartmouth for Ryan Dempster. Dempster didn’t pitch well down the stretch, was awful in the game that ended up costing Texas the division title...and that soft-throwing righty, Kyle Hendricks, won a ring for the Cubs last year while finishing third in the Cy Young balloting.
This year? Yu Darvish is in his walk year. Jonathan Lucroy, acquired for Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz and Ryan Cordell last summer, is in his walk year. Adrian Beltre turns 38 in a few weeks. Cole Hamels is 33. The Rangers defied expectations in 2015 and 2016 by winning the West, but in doing so, they depleted their farm system for reinforcements, and find themselves at a crossroads. Texas opted not to spend big in free agency, not to raid their farm system for more trades, but instead went with one year deals -- Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, Carlos Gomez, Mike Napoli. That may be a matter of keeping their powder dry to try to extend Jonathan Lucroy and Yu Darvish beyond 2017. Or it may be the realization that, if the Rangers don’t win this year, they may be looking at retrenching for 2018.
It may be Texas realizes this is their last, best chance to win with this group.
What’s interesting, though, is that five years later, this feels like much the same team, the same organization, that we had in 2012. Many of the faces are different, but the culture, the success, the organizational philosophy, has largely been continuous. Beginning in 2009, the Rangers have put together an organization that has been one of the most successful franchises in baseball during that time, and it is a credit to the folks in charge that 2017 seems, in a good way, so similar to where things were five years ago.
And the hope is that this will continue to be the case for the next half-decade. Jon Daniels has spoken about wanting to model the organization after the Cardinals, in the sense of being a winning team, year-in and year-out, building from within and maintaining success. The Rangers have quite a few veterans, but they also have a quality group of young players who can provide the core of successful teams going forward.
And I’m going to cross my fingers and hope that the next five years are as good as the last five have been.