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March 29, 2007

Hope and Faith

How the Texas Rangers Can Win the World Series

by Jamey Newberg

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Will talks with Jamey about the Rangers' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

How can the Texas Rangers win the World Series in 2007? That's sort of a silly question, isn't it? I don't work for Baseball Prospectus, or else I'd have gently suggested they were wasting valuable space, not to mention the time and energy of the small platoon of writers they've charged with writing these pieces for each club, because of course it's sort of ordained that Bud is going to put the hardware in Tom Hicks's hands seven months from now. I mean, that's the rule, right? Chuck Buck, get a ring.

The Yankees understood their opportunity when, after Buck Showalter led them in 1995 to their first playoff appearance in 14 years, they forced him out and grabbed placeholder Joe Torre to take over. New York won it all in 1996. Arizona was wired in when, following the 2000 campaign, they fired their architect, that same Buck Showalter, after he'd won 185 games in the franchise's second and third seasons. They promptly won the World Series in 2001.

Believe all you want about the supposed clubhouse disconnect in Texas, or about the sense that (until a couple weeks ago) the Rangers had an upcoming two-year window of opportunity that they needed to capitalize on before their two best players could leave, or about the reality that Showalter was 10 games under .500 in four seasons in Arlington. Surely this was nothing more on Jon Daniels' part than a keen understanding of history, a determination that it was time for Texas to make the personnel decision that was guaranteed to secure a title.

There, I think I've done my job. If those three paragraphs don't constitute the ultimate in Hope and Faith, then I've got no shot as a prophet. But I still owe these guys about a thousand words. So, here are four reasons why Texas can do in 2007 something that they've never come close to doing before:

1. A manager really is worth something, isn't he? General managers will tell you that even John Mabry and Mike Myers are worth a couple or few games in the standings, right? What about the manager? In a game where the grind is like no other, the skipper has much more to do than orchestrate bullpen usage and pick his spots for the backup outfielder to get a cameo start. He's got to have a knack for getting his guys to play, to get the most out of them when they're slumping or when they're a little out of sync or when it's August. Big league managers don't make an average of $1.4 million a year for nothing.

Texas won 80 games last year. Is removing Showalter worth a game a month? Is adding Ron Washington, a noted energetic, positive-minded, no-frills motivator of multi-millionaires, good for a few extra wins? Is it possible that the combination of those two moves get the Rangers closer to 90 victories, all other things being equal? Seven months is a long time to live with someone. It can't hurt that these guys actually enjoy being around their manager for the first time in a long time.

Is taking Washington out of Oakland as important as stripping them of Barry Zito? No, but does it cost that club a couple extra games over 162? Spend enough time around Wash, or listen to the players who spend every day with him, and you won't summarily dismiss that possibility. A's players were happy for Wash to get a team to run, but many thought it should have been their own. Does all this--and yeah, those Zito and Frank Thomas departures figure in--at least conceivably bring that 93-win Oakland team back to the pack enough to give the rest of the West some confidence? Hope and faith.

And lemme shoehorn this in right here: Michael Young's declaration earlier this month that he signed with Texas long-term because he's "100 percent convinced" that the Rangers will win, and the effect that will have on the psyche of his younger core teammates, is worth two more wins. Go ahead, prove me wrong, you unhope-y faith-deprived naysayer.

2. The Rangers are trying something new: Rotation stability.

There may not be a classic ace in Texas, but that's OK. This franchise won three years out of four in the late Nineties with starting fives dominated by 15-win types like Ken Hill, Rick Helling, Aaron Sele, and Bobby Witt. What they had in common was an ability to withstand the Texas climate and give the club 210 innings, letting a deep bullpen and an equally deep lineup do their jobs.

But what the organization has never had is a situation like the one it's created this spring: a competition for one rotation spot, rather than two or three or even four like Rangers fans are more accustomed to being treated to. And it's not just a one-year thing.

Kevin Millwood is under contract through 2009, with a club option in 2010. Same with Vicente Padilla. Brandon McCarthy and Robinson Tejeda are under club control through 2011. I'm not here to tell you that Texas (after having won the World Series in 2007) will be trotting those same four righthanders out over the next 648 games--one or more will falter, other pitchers will be acquired, Eric Hurley and Fabio Castillo and others will arrive--but the point is that, as Daniels blueprints this thing beyond his own contract, he can at least envision a situation in which Gerald Laird could be catching the same rotation core for a few years, with only one spot to foreseeably have to throw open each year.

The Texas bullpen, headed by the Eric Gagne Project and the ultra-dependable Akinori Otsuka, has a chance to be really good in 2007, especially if the upside that C.J. Wilson and Frankie Francisco and Wes Littleton have shown in stretches starts to show up more consistently. Joaquin Benoit, a Drew Henson-esque tease for years, is having a miraculous camp, not only saving himself from the waiver wire but earning an opportunity to pitch in high-leverage situations. If Millwood and Padilla get to 200 frames again then nobody else has to; there is depth in the pen, not to mention the potential for a really strong eighth and ninth, that can effectively shorten games for Texas and give Washington the option to make things work even on nights that McCarthy and Tejeda don't have it.

3. Texas always scores runs-err, Texas has a chance to score some runs.

Here's the anomaly for the glass-half-empty set: the Rangers lineup may not be very good. Gary Matthews Jr. and Mark DeRosa's career years paid their ways out of town. Brad Wilkerson is having a troublesome spring after a troublesome 2006 season. The Rangers are actually counting on Sammy Sosa to hit fifth.

But there are things onto which the hopeful and faithful can latch. Everyone knows that Mark Teixeira is last year's second-half player (.291/.394/.604), not the first-half player (.275/.353/.445) who had a disjointed spring getting sporadic World Baseball Classic work behind Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee. He'll be better in 2007 than he was in 2006 (when he was pretty damn good). Young, an ultra-durable (not to mention begloved) version of Paul Molitor, will rack up another 200 hits and, pushed down to the three hole with perennial base-reachers Kenny Lofton and Frank Catalanotto ahead of him, he should eclipse last year's career-best 103 runs driven in. Nelson Cruz has more raw power than anyone on the club--more than Teixeira, more than Sosa--and it's not out of the question that he could put it all together in 2007. He'll certainly be given that chance.

There's talent with more up-side than might be generally appreciated ready to step up. Ian Kinsler and Gerald Laird have legitimate chances to move into the upper echelon of their positions offensively. Right now. I'm serious about that, and especially Kinsler. There's a dependability about him, a suspicion that you should never doubt or underestimate his ability to be better than either the scouts or metrics crowd believe he can be, much like a young Young. Should Sosa falter, the Rangers will reach down to Triple-A Oklahoma, where switch-hitting behemoth Jason Botts will be busy tearing PCL pitching a new one for the third straight year.

However, the real key to the Rangers' offensive resurgence is a return to health and return to form by left-handed hitters Wilkerson and Hank Blalock, both of whom are coming off surgeries to repair right shoulders that clearly hampered them in 2006. Washington openly made Blalock his pet project before his first press conference was finished; the third baseman has seen his slugging percentage drop every year since his first full season in 2003. Wilkerson brought a lifetime .256/.365/.452 line to a hitters' park that favors left-handed batters, and proceeded to hit an Adam Everett-esque .222/.306/.422. If those two hit like they can, it changes everything as far as the Rangers' offensive attack is concerned.

4. Cf., Detroit Tigers, 2006.

Hey, they did it without even firing Buck Showalter.

--

Will talks with Jamey about the Rangers' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.


Click to download mp3

Jamey Newberg is the author of The Newberg Report. You can buy a bound edition of The Newberg Report here.

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