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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

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