The Rangers got their first order of off-season business done Thursday when they signed manager Ron Washington to a two-year contract extension after he led them to the first American League pennant in the franchise's 49-year history. Now comes the hard part for Jon Daniels: The general manager must find a way to re-sign Cliff Lee.
When the Rangers traded with the Mariners for the left-hander on July 9, it was clearly a move for the present. While Lee contributed just 1.9 SNLVAR in the regular season, he played a major role in the Rangers beating the Rays in the American League Division Series and the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Though Lee lost both his starts to the Giants in the Rangers' World Series loss, the team want to enter into a long-term relationship with the 32-year-old.
"I think we've made it pretty clear we'd love to have him back," Daniels said. "I know we're not the only club that would like to have him. It's a competitive market, as it should be, and we'll see what happens."
The Yankees are expected to be the Rangers' chief competition for Lee, though the Nationals are also considering making a strong bid as they did on Mark Teixeira two winters ago. Lee said he is looking for stability after pitching for four teams in the last two seasons, so that could work in the Rangers' favor.
Designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero tops the rest of the Rangers' free-agent list that also includes catchers Bengie Molina and Matt Treanor, right-handed reliever Frank Francisco, and infielders Jorge Cantu and Cristian Guzman. The Rangers declined Guerrero's $9 million mutual option for next season but say they will try to re-sign him. They also want to sign either Molina, if he doesn't retire, or Treanor along with Francisco.
Daniels is expected to have considerably more money to work with after Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan bought the team out of bankruptcy court from Tom Hicks in August. The Rangers opened last season with a $55 million payroll and Daniels said it will be "north of that" in 2011.
The Rangers should have the bulk of their pennant-winning team back next season. However, they also had the worst regular-season record of any of the eight teams that qualified for the postseason this season with a 90-72 mark. Daniels doesn't think record will cut it in 2011.
"We've accomplished certain goals, but there are definitely some areas we can do better," Daniels said. "I mean, the way I look at it is the previous two years Anaheim won 197 games and we won the division this year with 90. I think we're going to have to be better to win the division next year, better than we were this year. So there's certainly a challenge there."
The Rangers' farm system has been ranked among the best in baseball in recent years and rookies such as right-hander Tommy Hunter, reliever Alexi Ogando, and first baseman Mitch Moreland played significant roles this year. However, the Rangers won't be able to count on as many internal reinforcements next season.
"A lot of our upper-level better young players have graduated to the big leagues, so I think that next wave coming behind them is a little bit younger," Daniels said. "So I think some of the internal improvement will come from full years from guys that played a good role for us this year but weren't here the whole year. And then obviously we'll sit down and look at other opportunities to get better."
Losing Lee would obviously create the biggest hole. He became the clear top starter in a rotation that included left-hander C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, and Hunter but also saw Rich Harden. One solution for replacing Lee would be to move rookie closer Neftali Feliz into the rotation. Feliz was third in the AL with 4.6 WXRL, trailing only the Royals' Joakim Soria (6.5) and Rays' Rafael Soriano (4.6). Because Feliz had so much successful in relief, the Rangers are hesitant to change his role.
"I would expect he'll be our closer," Daniels said. "Some guys at different points in their career go into the rotation, like C.J. did for us, like the (Ryan) Dempsters and (Derek) Lowes of the world and Kenny Rogers. A million other guys have done it. So I would never close that door, but I'm expecting him to be our closer. We looked at him when he was coming up as a guy who just had a special arm, a special talent, and did everything exceptionally easy. Probably the two questions were can he close and can he start. I think we've definitively answered one of them. There's no doubt in anybody's mind he can close. We don't know whether he can start and I don't know that we're going to find out. We've talked about it at some point that we might. We're not going to close that door, but we're also not going to speculate on it any more than is necessary."
Teams always say they are going in a different direction when they change managers but don't always follow through. In the Brewers' case, though, they really seem to mean it.
The Brewers hired Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke to replace Ken Macha. Roenicke says he plans to communicate with his players and play a more aggressive brand on baseball, two areas in which Macha drew criticism during his two seasons. The Brewers were 22nd in the major leagues in stolen-base attempts last season and Macha admitted after being fired that he had next to no communication with stars Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun in 2010.
"I'm going to be honest with the players," Roenicke said. "I'm going to take care of these guys. I care about the players. Obviously, I want to win for me, but I care about the players. I want them to succeed. That's what my focus is going to be. At times, you're going to say why are you running so much? That's the style I like to play. I've seen it win a lot of games over the years. At times we're going to get thrown out. But over the course of the season we're going to score more runs by being aggressive. There will be a connection with the player. I'm going to make an effort to make sure it is. Players today are a little different. We have to adjust to that."
Brewers GM Doug Melvin didn't know Roenicke before the interview process began, deciding to talk with him on mutual acquaintances. However, Melvin was quickly impressed.
"He's a hard worker," Melvin said. "He's intelligent. He's well thought-out. He's a good listener. He endorses an attacking type of game. He sees things that other people don't see. He's been through a lot of jobs, which helps him. We made a lot of phone calls on him. When I offered him the job, he took about 2 ½ minutes to accept. I'm very excited about it. We just felt he was the right guy."
"Over the last week, my wife has been on the Internet a lot. I have two new nicknames—'Dark horse,' and 'No. 4,'" Roenicke cracked.
The Marlins spent a month mulling over what to do with their manager's position. In the end, they never interviewed anyone and instead gave the job to Edwin Rodriguez, who finished last season as the interim manager after Fredi Gonzalez was fired in June.
"We spent a lot of time, a lot of internal discussions on the phone with Jeffrey talking about different possibilities and what might be best for this ballclub in 2011," Marlins vice president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest said, referring to team owner Jeffrey Loria. "We entertained several names, spoke about them, several qualified people, and as we went through that process we kept coming back to Edwin and talking about the merits of Edwin, the job he did and the job he can do for us. We just thought the way Edwin handled the mid-year transition, the way he garnered the respect of our players immediately, the way they played for him at a very high level and hustled all the time we thought was important."
The Marlins were 34-36 when Rodriguez took over in June then went 46-46 the rest of the way. However, the perception was the Marlins would look outside the organization for a permanent replacement once the season ended. That did not bother Rodriguez, who received a one-year contract.
"I was very confident that with the help of the staff I did the job I was asked to do," Rodriguez said. "It was a matter of them making a decision. Everything else was out of my control. Now they're giving me the chance to prove what I can do in a full season. I'm very comfortable with that. From a business standpoint, I understand their decision and I'm good with that. The ball is in my hands."
New Diamondbacks hitting coach Don Baylor does not have any performance bonuses in his contract that kick in if his team strikes out less than 1,500 times in 2011. It might not have been a bad idea if Baylor would have asked.
The Diamondbacks set the major-league record for strikeouts last season with 1,523. That was 124 more than the 2001 Brewers.
"He understands strikeouts are a part of the game," Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers said. "Hopefully we'll have a better plan of attack. Hitting coaches are hard to find. I would have grabbed him in a minute in San Diego, but he was never available."
Baylor is part of an interesting coaching staff for manager Kirk Gibson. Joining Baylor on the staff are bench coach Alan Trammell, pitching coach Charles Nagy, first-base coach Eric Young, third-base coach Matt Williams and bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock. Baylor was the 1979 American League Most Valuable Player and Gibson was the 1988 National League MVP while Trammell, Nagy, Young, and Williams were All-Stars.
"I think they are difference-makers," Towers said.
MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The starting pitcher the Rays appear most willing to trade is right-hander James Shields, though they will also listen on right-hander Matt Garza. … The Rockies have interest in free-agent pitchers Javier Vazquez and Jake Westbrook. … The Rangers will make a play for free-agent catcher A.J. Pierzynski if Molina retires. … The Yankees and free-agent shortstop Derek Jeter are expected to meet in the middle and agree on a contract in the neighborhood of four years and $80 million. … The Diamondbacks don't plan on re-signing right-hander Brandon Webb. … Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff is willing to return to the Giants on a contract similar to the one year, $3 million deal he signed last winter. … The Pirates have narrowed their manager search to bench coach Jeff Banister and Rangers hitting coach Clint Hurdle. … The Mets also have interest in Hurdle and Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin but will first interview in-house candidates in Bob Melvin, third-base coach Chip Hale, short-season manager Wally Backman, bench coach Dave Jauss and minor-league field coordinator Terry Collins.