Well, if we know one thing about our Texas Rangers it's this: they, like former partial owner President George W. Bush, like to vacation early and often. Mr. Bush would be proud as our team once again decides the playoffs are too much of a burden to mess with this year.
We, the fans, want more, though. At the very least, we want another first round playoff beating to celebrate. But what faces the Rangers as they try to get there in 2007? A need for starting pitching (talk about restating the obvious), a need for a beefed up outfield, and decisions on nine free agents. Oh, and don't forget they may need a new manager. It's like this:
There seemed to be clear signs this season that this team doesn't buy totally into Buck Showalter's program. And the book on Buck is that he is great for a young team, ala 2004, but not good for more experienced players, say 2005 or 2006. It's what led to his dismissal from the Yankees and Diuamondbacks a year before those teams won the World Series.
Then, the question asked is, "But if you fire him, then who do replace him with next year that will be any better?" I offer two names: Dusty Baker and Joe Girardi. Baker is a World Series manager whose failure in Chicago can be traced to a club relying on the fragile arms of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Girardi proved to be a solid, young manager in Florida but his owner's ego will likely make him unemployed.
Hicks, Daniels, and Company have dinner Tuesday night to decide Buck's future so keep an eye on this.
You have one certainty for next year's rotation: Kevin Millwood. A large swath of our DFW media suggests he was solid with a 16-12 record and worth the investment. But they seem to ignore his 18-16 TRIS (Team's Record in Starts) and 4.52 ERA. Two games above .500 and an ERA over 4.00 is not good enough for a $50 million-man. I don't care if he's really a number two starter and pitches in the Ballpark. You better be at least five games over .500 with an ERA under 4.00 for that money. We'll let this season slide, though, as he's now had a year in the Ballpark and seemed to adjust late in the year.
Two of their nine free agents, Adam Eaton and Vicente Padilla, are starters who reportedly are unlikely to return. Padilla was pretty solid, but has said he's going to the highest bidder and is a bit of a head case. Eaton has a history of injuries but has great stuff and would be intriguing to return to the Texas hill.
The only other decent possibilty for the rotation is Robinson Tejeda who showed the goods late in the season and silenced the whiners criticizing the David Dellucci trade.
Beyond that, you have prospects John Danks, Thomas Diamond, Edinson Volquez (we'll label him that after a lackluster call up), and Eric Hurley. But Hurley just received the Rangers cursed Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the year award. Then there's Kameron Loe if he can rediscover his sinker. He's followed by reliever Josh Rupe, C. J. Wilson, and Nick Massett. The Rangers are debating if any of these guys should start, though they like them for the bullpen. Some Major League scouts have pegged Rupe as the Rangers best starting pitcher prospect.
And we won't forget lefties John Koronka and John Rheinecker. They couldn't make it through an entire season after being acquired from their previous team's bullpen at the end of spring training, but showed some potential. And lefties are needed in the Ballpark.
I'd mention Kip Wells, but...
With the emergence of Akinori Otsuka as closer, the bullpen became on of the American League's best. With the trade of Francisco Cordero, a minor hole opened at the setup position. This is where the above mentioned relievers Wes Littleton, and Frank Francisco come into play. They say bullpens are unpredictable from year to year, but this is a young group that's still on the rise. Look for them to be a key to any future playoff runs.
Infield and Catcher
This is a cornerstone for this team, but could see changes over the next year or two. Rod Barajas is a free agent and Gerald Laird may finally get his well earned opportunity to start behind the plate. Michael Young and Ian Kinsler should turn double plays for years to come, but the corners may be in question. Sure to be Gold Glover Mark Teixiera had a down year and has Scott Boras as an agent. He has two years to show this season was a fluke and that he is worth the kind of money he'll be seeking in 2008. Hank Blalock just had his shoulder scoped, routinely struggles in the second half, and may be moved for a starting pitcher. This is one of the considerations as the Rangers decide if they should, and can, re-sign utilityman Mark DeRosa, hoping he wasn't a one-hit wonder.
This was a weakness for the Rangers this year. The Rangers have said Gary Mathews, Jr., is their top priority. A little troublesome since he's coming off a career year in a contract year. The difference between DeRosa and Mathews, though, is that this has been a pretty steady progression for Mathews so it is more convincing he's the real deal. Free agent Carlos Lee and the Rangers both want him to return if they can agree to terms. But the Rangers fancy him as a DH while he wants to remain in LF. Management thinks he's more likely to hit for power throughout an entire season if he's not carrying his big body all over the outfield.
The hope in LF, then, is that Brad Wilkerson returns to near-All Star form after shoulder surgery to help ease the pain of the Alfonso Soriano trade. Meanwhile, keep an eye on right fielder Nelson Cruz, the second piece in the Carlos Lee trade. He came on strong late in his first prolonged Major League tour. He could be huge next year.
Also, if the Rangers are unable to move Lee to DH, keep an eye on Jason Botts. Here's a kid who has yet to get a legitimate chance when he's been called up. But he has a swing and he knows how to use it. Unfortunately, Buck has kept the reigns on him as he did with Kevin Mench. Give him everyday at bats and watch what happens.
And, if you are wondering what free agent pitchers I'd have the Rangers consider, here's a quick list: Barry Zito (though he's on record as saying Texas is not an option), Jason Schmidt, Andy Pettite, Tony Armas, Jr., Wade Miller, and Jeff Suppan. And, as always, there will be pitchers available via trade. The White sox are known to be looking to deal one of their starters and others will come available once the offseason arrives.
Remember: the Rangers like to vacation early.