Friday, November 4, 2011

Baseball’s Buffalo Bills: Where Do The Rangers Go From Here?

Over the last two seasons, the Texas Rangers have proven to be the cream of the crop in the AL West, winning the division twice. They’ve taken advantage of their resulting playoff berths to emerge as the victors of the American League both times. However, on each occasion, the team’s season ended on a sour note, as they watched a National League club celebrate the World Championship glory that Texas has yet to taste in its 51-year history. Like the Bills, who lost four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 90s, Texas is developing a nasty habit of bringing their ultimate goal within reach and then falling just short.

Complicating matters is the fact that ace CJ Wilson hits the free agent market this offseason. With CC Sabathia agreeing to terms with the Yankees on the day of his opt-out decision, Wilson is now firmly situated as the best starter on the market with MLB experience, and probably the best overall starter (depending on how you feel about Japanese sensation Yu Darvish). With a number of deep-pocketed teams looking for rotation help, Wilson’s price tag probably won’t appeal to Jon Daniels and the rest of the Rangers’ brass. Even if Wilson does fit into the Rangers’ plans for 2012, they’ll have to think long and hard about how giving out a big contract to their ace might limit their ability to hang on to other core players as the team’s young studs mature. With an arbitration class projected by Matt Swartz’s model to cost the team an imposing $30M, Texas will have some tough decisions to make.

I believe that they’ll probably decide to let Wilson walk, as there’s been talk that they don’t want to give him more than 5 years and $75M. Wilson might be a candidate for a nine-figure deal, so if those are really the Rangers’ budget constraints Wilson will almost certainly receive bigger offers. And the truth is, that’s fine. The Rangers don’t need Wilson, as they’ll be able to compete based on their young core and incredible aptitude for player development. Perhaps no team has ridden the Latin American prospect gravy train with more results than the Rangers. The fruits of that labor will soon begin to surface in Venezuelan starter Martin Perez and Cuban outfielder Leonys Martin, with others such as Jurickson Profar and Engel Beltre a little further off. All of these players were international signees, for which the credit goes to Jon Daniels’ exceptional web of scouts working to find talent in Latin America.

These players will join an already well established core. As I mentioned in my ALCS preview, no other team had five or more players who produced 20 runs or more, and the five that did for the Rangers; Mike Napoli, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Michael Young, and Josh Hamilton; are all under Texas’ control for 2012. With these players in the fold, the Rangers’ powerful offense will only continue to improve as the team’s big-league and prospect talent matures.

The Rangers also have options to replace CJ Wilson. The aforementioned Perez struggled in 2011 at Triple-A, but his 3.98 FIP suggests his year wasn’t as bad as his 6.43 ERA would seem. If the Rangers decide Perez needs to spend some more time at Triple-A Round Rock (or even if they don’t), they could decide to convert Neftali Feliz into a starting role. While Feliz has been closing at the major league level for the last two seasons, he was a top prospect as a starter in 2009, and the Rangers’ rotation was full at the time, prompting the conversion into a short reliever. The Rangers’ success in converting Wilson and Alexi Ogando from the bullpen to the rotation could convince them to try it again with Feliz.

If the Rangers decide they want to make a splash, they could even consider going after Darvish, if he is posted for American teams to bid on. Daniels has gone to the trouble of making the trip to Japan in order to scout Darvish in person. He could deem Darvish a better investment than a big deal for his free agent ace, although as Dave Cameron has suggested the market for Darvish may overstate his true value to a team as a player who still has no experience in the best league in the world. I’d trust Darvish’s NPB stats as a better indication of his true skill level than, say, a prospect’s Triple-A numbers, but there’s still a talent gap between the top Japanese league and the Majors.

I think the Rangers have the talent and the player development processes in place to get over the hump in the near future and win the franchise’s first World Series. Though it won’t necessarily happen next year, the Rangers’ window of contention is wide open and will be for long enough that I’d be a little surprised if they don’t win a championship with at least a solid portion of their current core in place. Expect October baseball in Arlington to be a regular occurrence over the next half-decade. While they fell short in 2011 after coming a strike away on two separate occasions, they’re likely to taste postseason glory sooner rather than later.

Congratulations to the Cardinals’ organization on a magical year and a title that can only be described as equal parts improbable and incredible. With Albert Pujols hitting the market, they’ve got work to do, but whatever happens in those negotiations, flags fly forever. If this is the end of King Albert’s reign in St. Louis, they couldn’t have asked for a better conclusion.

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