Rangers owner Hicks upbeat about '07

Rangers owner Hicks upbeat about '07 season

DALLAS -- Rangers owner Tom Hicks has been known to climb out on a limb around this time of the year when making predictions about what's going to happen with this team in the upcoming season.

But not this year, at least not now.

"I don't have to," Hicks said with a laugh.

That's because manager Ron Washington has been out there all winter. Usually it's the owner who is predicting the Rangers will compete for and possibly win a division title, but this time the manager beat him to it.

"I'm with Wash," Hicks said this week while celebrating his 61st birthday. "I want to feel like we have a chance to win. Only one team can win, but the good thing in our division is we only have three teams to beat. They feel the same way. That's why you play the games."

This has been a busy time for Hicks. As owner of the Dallas Stars, he was the host of the NHL All-Star Game at the American Airlines Center. Once that was over, he flew across the Atlantic Ocean and joined Montreal Canadians owner George Gillet in buying the Liverpool Club in the English Premier Football League.

Now he is ready for Spring Training.

"This is my favorite time of the year," Hicks said. "I can't wait to get out to Spring Training. I feel good about how this team came together. I'm optimistic. Of course, I always feel good about Spring Training, but I'm more optimistic this year."

Hicks has had his optimism doused before. After winning two division titles in his first two years as owner, the Rangers have had just one winning season in the past seven years. That's one reason why they have a new manager, the latest in a number of significant changes over the past seven years.

The Rangers are still trying to get it right, but the new manager may be the foremost reason why Hicks thinks the club's fortunes might be changing as he enters his 10th season as owner.

"I think Ron will bring a quality of leadership that will help this team play up to its potential," said Hicks, who saw the Rangers win 89 games in 2004, but who were then unable to build on that over the next two seasons.

"I think Ron's intangibles are really promising," Hicks said. "I think you're seeing the enthusiasm that led us to hire him. I think it will work if we let it happen. I know from talking to the players they believe it will happen. That's important."

Hiring Washington was the first big change the Rangers made this winter. The latest has been signing outfielder Sammy Sosa to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training.

Sosa, 38, has 588 career home runs, fifth all-time, but sat out the 2006 season. The Rangers are looking at him as a potential designated hitter, but he still has to make the team in Spring Training.

"I had dinner with him the first night he was here," Hicks said. "He had all the right answers, but at the end of the day, it's actions, not answers. We shook hands that night, but it's still to be seen what he can do. He's very confident he can come back to what he was.

"I'm confident that he'll be a team player. I'm confident he'll stay within the rules that we talked about and not create any issues of the past, and I'm confident he's not going to be the center of attention. My thing is just let [hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo] work with him to get his technique back and his timing back and see if he can still hit."

Sosa may help the Rangers offense, but Hicks knows that pitching is still the bigger issue, especially with the fans.

The Rangers were unable to sign Barry Zito despite making an offer that was potentially worth $99 million. But they did re-sign Vicente Padilla, then added former Cy Young winner Eric Gagne and also acquired right-hander Brandon McCarthy from the Chicago White Sox for pitchers John Danks, Nick Masset and Jacob Rasner.

McCarthy joins Padilla and Millwood at the head of the Rangers rotation and Gagne, if he is over his back and elbow troubles, will take over as closer from Akinori Otsuka at the back end of the bullpen. Otsuka will slide into the eighth-inning setup reliever role.

"I like our rotation," Hicks said. "It's possibly the best one since I've been here. We've got three solid pieces in place for this year and three years to come, and we have a potentially strong duo at the end of the bullpen in Eric and Akinori.

"We have a chance to have an outstanding bullpen. A lot will depend on Eric having full recovery, but I've talked to the doctors and they've assured me he is fully recovered. He's got to go out and show it but the bullpen could be the strength of the team."

Hicks knows there are still many questions to be answered in Spring Training, not only with Sosa and Gagne, but with Hank Blalock and Brad Wilkerson as they come back from shoulder surgery, with Nelson Cruz as he tries to claim a job in right field and with the unsettled fifth spot in the rotation.

He also knows that the contract situations of Michael Young and Mark Teixeira are becoming an issue with fans. Both can be free agents after the 2008 season. The Rangers are actively working to resolve the situation with Young while Teixeira appears to be in no hurry.

"We'd love to have both finish their careers with the Rangers," Hicks said. "We have them for two more years. There will be time to talk to each about an extension."

Both have made it clear that winning is important and the Rangers haven't won since 1999. Hicks knows that too, better than anybody.

He is committed to changing that. He said the purchase of Liverpool should reaffirm that.

"I think from the fans perspective, I've decided professional sports is something that I want to be actively involved with for many years," Hicks said. "I want to win and all these teams (Rangers, Stars, Liverpool) are long-term investments that are attractive to me and my family."

His fans are impatient, but so is the owner, and his annual optimism is back.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.