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May 30, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Decline and Fall of the Texas Rangers

by Sam Miller

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Some day, the Rangers are going to be terrible.

It is not going to be this day. The rest of this paragraph is about how good the Rangers are, which isn’t news to you, so skip ahead if you’re not interested in factoids. The Rangers are doing things right now that are difficult to cope with: until yesterday, they had the best Pythagorean winning percentage since the 1939 Yankees. They’ve scored the most runs in the American League and allowed the second-fewest. They’ve got a great farm system, and they have one of the half-dozen best prospects in baseball. They have the lucrative newish cable contract, and the only unmovable contract on their books expires after 2013.

 It takes a bit of stinginess to identify any clearly bad moves their front office has made in the past three years: maybe signing Arthur Rhodes? Probably trading Jarrod Saltalamacchia? Just one of the four other teams in their division (including the Astros next year) has won even 90 games in a season over the past five seasons, and no other team in the division is currently more than a game over .500. With the caveat that our playoff odds have been being refined for much of May, the Rangers have danced with 100 percent playoff odds throughout the month, first hitting 100 percent (or, at least something that rounds up to 100 percent) for the first time on May 1. Roy Oswalt, just because. Probably can’t even crack their postseason rotation, but whatever. Good team! Very good team.

But nobody lives forever, and eventually even the Roman Empire falls. Texas will fall. How will it fall? Lets see what history tells us.

1. Overpopulation/drought
Precedent: The Maya, 900 CE. “In a way the Maya were victims of their success. The Maya region, according to Michael D. Coe's estimate, may have supported a population of some ten million people during the height of the classic period of the southern region, or about a third again as many as inhabit the area today. Such a large population was probably insupportable in the long run because of the difficulties of ensuring a steady water supply and because of the limits of the region's agricultural capacity.”

The Rangers are not the Yankees—even the Yankees are no longer the Yankees—and they’re not really even the Angels, who can carry a Vernon Wells or two and still have more payroll flexibility than the rest of the division. If the Rangers were to sign Josh Hamilton for $25 million per year, they would have four players under contract for at least $15 million in 2015 (if we prorate the cost of Yu Darvish’s posting fee). That quartet would comprise an All-Star middle infielder (Ian Kinsler), and All-Star third baseman (Adrian Beltre), an MVP center fielder (Hamilton), and a starting pitcher in his 20s with 10 strikeouts per nine as a big leaguer (Darvish). That’s one way to say it. Another way to say it is that that quartet would comprise a 33-year-old second baseman, a 36-year-old third baseman with leg problems, a 34-year-old corner outfielder who would jump in front of a bus for one point of win expectancy, and a starting pitcher in his 20s with 5.2 walks per nine as a big leaguer. Those four could lead a dynasty, or they could go four directions of wrong.

2. Collapse of essential trading partners
Precedent: Henderson Island, 1500 CE. “Those disappearances of Henderson’s population must have resulted somehow from the severing of the Mangarevan umbilical cord. Did everyone die simultaneously in a mass calamity, or did the populations gradually dwindle down to a single survivor, who lived on alone with his or her memories for many years? Did the last Henderson Islanders spend much time on the beaches, for generation after generation, staring out to sea in the hopes of sighting the canoes that had stopped coming, until even the memory of what a canoe looked like grew dim?”

While the Rangers have been successful in every method of roster building, they have been especially profitable collecting value in trade. In exchange for Mark Teixeira, Edinson Volquez, Eric Gagne, and Frank Francisco, they acquired Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, Josh Hamilton, David Murphy, and Mike Napoli, who have already produced more than 5 WARP this year. At the trade deadline last year, they traded for Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, turning the team’s lone weakness into a ridiculous strength. It’s not likely that teams are going to stop trading with the Rangers if they think a trade makes sense—such claims about Billy Beane, post-Moneyball, all seemed like hype and legend more than fact. But fleecing another team is a difficult skill to repeat, one that requires luck, opportunity, exceptional scouting, and the other team making a mistake. The league is overrun with smart front offices, and finding somebody willing to sell his Jackson Pollack painting for $5 is just getting harder.

3. Poor recruitment and development of young replacements
Precedent: American Mafia, late 20th century. “At the same time, Mafia membership declined as insular Italian-American neighborhoods, once a traditional recruiting ground for mobsters, underwent demographic shifts and became more assimilated into society at large. By the start of the 21st century, the American Mafia was a shadow of its former self.”

In Kevin Goldstein’s organizational rankings this year, the Rangers were sixth. (Baseball America, which included Yu Darvish as a prospect, had Texas first.) Next, they just need those prospects to matriculate, which is no guarantee. The Phillies, for instance, had plenty of good prospects over the past five years: Domonic Brown, Brody Colvin, Jonathan Singleton, Phillippe Aumont, Carlos Carrasco, Michael Taylor, Kyle Drabek, Joe Savery, Jarred Cosart, Lou Marson, Jason Donald, and Adrian Cardenas were all on Goldstein’s or Baseball America’s top 100s since 2007. Only Drabek is likely to contribute anything to a big-league club this year, and that just barely; the Phillies, meanwhile, may be collapsing under the weight of age this year. The Phillies got plenty of value from these prospects in trade, but the point remains: prospects go bad, and any team not busy being born is busy dyyyyyyyin’.

4. Hostile neighbors
Precedent: Carthage, 149 BCE. “The Carthaginians manned the walls and defied the Romans, a situation which lasted for two years due to poor Roman commanders. In this period, the 500,000 Carthaginians inside the wall transformed the town into a huge arsenal. They produced about 300 swords, 500 spears, 140 shields and 1,000 projectiles for catapults daily. In the spring of 146 BC the Romans broke through the city wall but they were hard–pressed to take the city. Every building, house and temple had been turned into a stronghold and every Carthaginian had taken up a weapon. The Romans were forced to move slowly, capturing the city house by house, street by street and fighting each Carthaginian soldier who fought with courage born of despair. Eventually after hours upon hours of house-to-house fighting, the Carthaginians surrendered. An estimated 50,000 surviving inhabitants were sold into slavery. The city was then leveled.”

The AL West is making it easy for Texas, but the AL West won’t continue to make it easy for Texas forever. There’s a window from 2013 to 2015 when Mike Trout should be an MVP contender at the same time that Albert Pujols should be an MVP contender, and before the actuarial tables on Weaver, Wilson, and Haren start to look worrisome. The Mariners have spent the past three seasons with payrolls under $90 million, after spending $117 million in 2008. What if they’re just saving a bunch of extra money and investing it in gold? What if they have a 2014 rotation of Felix Hernandez, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker, and they suddenly start spending like a drunken Jeffrey Loria? What if the Astros, with some history of outdrawing the Rangers, move to the AL and have Mike Fast create an algorithm that tells them the precisely perfect way to spend every penny of, say, a $140 million payroll? What if the A’s hahaha.

5. Demographic Trap
Precedent: Easter Islands, late 19th century. “Food shortages became more common as the native flora and fauna species dwindled and eventually died out. Steadman’s excavations show that gradually, the variety of bones in midden heaps was reduced to chicken and rats, as well as fewer and fewer deep-sea fish because of the reduced number of canoes available. Increasingly, ‘less productive areas of the island, with poorer soils became occupied as the population ruthlessly increased.’ Land needed for agriculture by the growing population contributed to the clearing of tree cover, feeding the vicious cycle.”

This is related to but, in some ways, the inverse of the first threat. In that instance, the danger was that the Rangers’ success would increase the cost of its players, and rather than maintain a conservative approach to salary distribution the team might pay the premium prices based on past performance. In this case, though, the threat is really that the demands of a pennant race will incentivize the Rangers to serially make decisions based on the short-term needs of the team. If, each July, the Rangers feel they must overpay for the final piece of a playoff roster, they could gradually expend their natural resources for the speculative improvement of odds in one short series. The Rangers haven’t done that, yet. In 2010, they picked up spare parts Cristian Guzman, Jeff Francoeur, and Bengie Molina at virtually zero cost to gain depth. In 2011, they gave up more value for Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, but both players were controlled beyond that season, and neither cost as much as “proven closers” have cost in mid-season. Roy Oswalt will cost only money. But it’s a looming threat to any team in a winning cycle.

Imagine a playoff contender team as a poker player who is pot-committed. Even if winning a World Series isn’t likely, it is realistic enough that spending more money to stay in the pot is rational. Lose enough of those pots, though, and the bankroll is gone. If the Rangers continue to go deep into October and not win a World Series, it could exaggerate the problem by creating a sense of disappointment around any season that doesn’t end in a dogpile on the mound. Tilt, basically.

6. Introduction of diseases.
Precedent: Worldwide, The Walking Dead, 2003 CE

This is a pretty simple one. Diseases are unpredictable, they are disruptive, they can be fatal. The Rangers, like every team, depends on pitchers to throw baseballs to opposing hitters. If one of those pitchers catches a labrum tear, and another comes down with a sprained elbow ligament, and one somehow loses a very important finger, the Rangers will be starting Scott Feldman on short rest in the playoffs. Any team with pitchers is just a series of not-all-that-unlikely events away from trying to talk Paul Byrd out of retirement.

7. Environmental problems
Precedent: Indus Valley Civilization, 1700 BCE. “The new study suggests that the decline in monsoon rains led to weakened river dynamics, and played a critical role both in the development and the collapse of the Harappan culture, which relied on river floods to fuel their agricultural surpluses.”

Basically, luck. If the Rangers somehow underperform their run differential by 10 games—it happens—they could miss the playoffs. “It all evens out over the course of a season,” they say, but of course it doesn’t. The 2006 Braves, the first Atlanta team to miss the postseason since 1991, won 79 games. Their run differential suggested they should have won 85. Had they had a bit of good luck and won 88, they’d have been in the playoffs. The difference between 79 and 88 wins doesn’t always have anything to do with talent.

It’s really, really hard to imagine the Rangers not winning loads of games, now and well into the future. But it’s not hard to imagine small missteps, bad breaks, and unexpected obstacles, and it’s not impossible to imagine them all at the same time. Some of these things are out of the Rangers’ control. Some—trading a lot of talent in a deadline deal, or signing an expensive free agent—might actually be the right move in the moment. But misfortune falls on even the good, and this won’t last forever. It might last darned near forever. But it won’t last forever.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Texas Rangers,  Rangers

27 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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tannerg

The Rangers actually enjoy a bigger metro area than the Astros: http://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/on-numbers/scott-thomas/2012/04/houston-pushes-higher-in-metro.html

May 30, 2012 04:51 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff

Thank you

May 30, 2012 05:27 AM
 
bhalpern

And DFW also has a higher median income. OTOH the Rangers have more competition for each sports dollar spent. And while the Rangers' extended geographic fanbase covers a larger geographic area, it looks to me like the Astros' has a population density advantage. Either way it's a complex situation.

May 30, 2012 07:56 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff

This seems like a topic much better suited for a full piece than a stupid throwaway line. Thanks for adding context, both of ya.

May 30, 2012 08:29 AM
 
azynkewl

love the way you present the arguments.

May 30, 2012 04:52 AM
rating: 1
 
amazin_mess

Outstanding

May 30, 2012 06:24 AM
rating: 1
 
jhardman

I've waited since 1972 for a writer to describe the team I've followed since the beginning like this.

Now I just hope they can close the deal.

May 30, 2012 06:48 AM
rating: 1
 
basejaw

Fantastic piece Sam!

May 30, 2012 07:51 AM
rating: 2
 
Eric C. Johnson

Don't let Jason Parks hear about this.

May 30, 2012 08:41 AM
rating: 0
 
marctacoma

Sam Miller's a god damned treasure.

#4 was particularly good.

May 30, 2012 09:11 AM
rating: 2
 
Peter Ellwood

I'm going to fold my Rangers fan feathers, and say that I enjoyed this article...even if I think #2 and #3 are a stretch.

Any thoughts on expanding this as a series on maybe the top 10 franchises in baseball today?

May 30, 2012 09:31 AM
rating: 0
 
misterjohnny
(925)

#3 happens to all teams. Developing prospects is always somewhat of a crapshoot. Trade the wrong ones (Paul Konerko - Dodgers) while keeping the wrong ones (Sean Burroughs - Padres) and suddenly your depth is awfully thin.

May 30, 2012 09:50 AM
rating: 2
 
AJ

"What if the A's hahaha." I lol'd.

May 30, 2012 09:54 AM
rating: 3
 
evancon

God, this is a great article. What an amazing framing. Brings to mind Jared Diamond's brilliant 'Collapse', have you read it?

Would've been fun to find an example of a society collapsing due to the failures of its inspiring but fatally misguided leadership (Ron Washington).

Again and again this site demonstrates, with articles like this, why it's the standard bearer for smart baseball analysis, and worth every red cent. Great work, Mr. Miller.

May 30, 2012 10:23 AM
rating: 1
 
brokeslowly

Very nice, Sam. My biggest worry as a Rangers' diehard, however, is the loss of great leader. No, I'm not referring to Nolan Ryan; I think that by far and away the most underrated GM in baseball today is Jon Daniels. If he goes bye-bye, looking for more fame, glory, or riches, our civilization is doomed.

May 30, 2012 11:09 AM
rating: 0
 
greensox

I would suggest that the word "Great" be spared until they actually win a World Series.
BTW, savvy trades are how a lot of teams get good. And a lot of these "smart organizations" don't win a thing with their eternal prospects (Ahem Indians) and clownish investments are ignored (Kerry Wood for 10 Million when they never sign big money contracts).
And the organization that the Rangers fleeced for Andrus et al, was one of the smartest in baseball for years (and a smart one that actually won).

May 30, 2012 11:13 AM
rating: 0
 
greensox

And let me add, prospects are a currency, but they have a short shelf life. The real "smart" organizations include the ones that actually put them to use, instead of letting them wallow in the minors. Some of those Phillies prospects may be duds, but they turned a lot of them into viable major league players. Heck, they tried like the devil to foist Dominic Brown on the Astros, but the Stros wisely avoided that.

May 30, 2012 11:16 AM
rating: 0
 
whatzitmather

Jared Diamond, anyone? Loved this article, and not just the historical parts. It's an interesting concept (sort of like the Professor's "What could go wrong" series) to look at a team that is going so well and imagine what their undoing will be...

May 30, 2012 12:20 PM
rating: 0
 
whatzitmather

Whooops, didn't see Evancon's reply, but yes
"Collapse" is well worth the read.

May 30, 2012 12:21 PM
rating: 1
 
AadikShekar

Sam, this is awesome. Why do I feel like I recognize your style from McCoveyChronicles?

May 30, 2012 12:57 PM
rating: 0
 
AadikShekar

Ie, I know you're not Grant... ;)

May 30, 2012 12:57 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff

Thank you. Because I shamelessly rip off Grant

May 30, 2012 13:30 PM
 
John Carter

Applause.

May 30, 2012 14:24 PM
rating: 0
 
MrPops

"Some day the Rangers are going to be terrible. It is not going to be this day." - Rather ironic words given that the Rangers currently trail the woeful Mariners 17-0 "this day". :)

May 30, 2012 18:55 PM
rating: 4
 
NoHRTyner

I have read every article on this website and this one took longer to read than any other due to the fascinating links. I love all the collateral learning I got from this.

May 30, 2012 19:23 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

"I hate you for making me spend who knows how long reading about Henderson Island and the HMS Bounty and a bunch of other things those things led me to on Wikipedia."--Me in an email to Sam in the middle of last night

May 30, 2012 19:50 PM
 
eaccenti

Great article!

May 30, 2012 20:10 PM
rating: 0
 
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