"How can the Rangers not be running away with the American League West?"
The question never seems to be answered, except to suggest that a roll is going to come. They wait for Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland to be healthy and go off at the same time. They wait for nights like Thursday, when Derek Holland shut out the Athletics to find the right pitching balance between C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando at one end and Neftali Feliz at the other.
And they wait to see what Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan and A.J. Preller and those who built the defending American League champions will do before the July 31 Trading Deadline.
"The teams most certain to do something are Texas and St. Louis," says one National League GM. "The Rangers have a really good team that can win in October. They have built their farm system. Most of all, they have proven that they will try to do what it takes."
They did that last year when they traded three good prospects for Cliff Lee. They tried to do it last winter when they offered a package of prospects to Tampa Bay for Matt Garza, and when they spent what it took to get Beltre, which with Elvis Andrus gives them the best left side of an infield in the game -- which further helps Wilson and their other left-handed pitchers. Andrus, Feliz and Matt Harrison, of course, all came together from Atlanta in the Mark Teixeira trade that helped stock their system.
Look at what they've done in the international market. They spent $4.95 million to sign outfielder Nomar Mazara, then inked outfielder Ronald Guzman for $3.45 million. They signed left-handed pitcher Yohander Mendez for $1.5 million. Those deals represent three of the top six international bonuses. Earlier, they won the bidding for Cuban center fielder Leonys Martin, whom they liken to Jacoby Ellsbury. They have two of Baseball America's top prospects in left-handed pitcher Martin Perez and shortstop Jurickson Profar.
This building process has taken place around the bankruptcy of former owner Tom Hicks, as well as the ensuing sale, and despite the MLB takeover limiting what they could spend both internationally and in the Draft.
What Ryan and his group bought is a far different organization than what Jim Crane will buy in Houston, where the sale of the Astros has to wait for some resolution of the Dodger situation; this month's Vanity Fair features Prince Andrew and Frank McCourt, and the latter makes it eminently clear why every day he retains control, the Los Angeles Dodgers are devalued.
In Los Angeles, evaluators suggest they have no more than two or three legitimate prospects because of McCourt's personal use of what should have been scouting and development money. Where Peter O'Malley and industry giants like Ralph Avila built a worldwide Dodger system from Korea to San Pedro de Marcoris, the recent Dodgers have been dead last in international spending the past two years. They are limited in what they can spend on Draft choices, necessitating going below slot this year on a Stanford reliever considered a late sandwich- or second-round pick. If you are a Dodgers fan, think what the organizational talent pool would be like if McCourt had taken the $5 million he paid himself out of Dodgers revenues and the $5 million he paid himself out of the parking revenues and signed the three kids that Texas got.
McCourt has slashed the scouting staff, so when and if there is a real baseball owner, he will have to spend on the Major League level -- and that will include somehow keeping two of their legitimate players, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, from free agency at the end of 2012 -- as well as spend on rebuilding the scouting and development staffs.
These are the Dodgers, they play in L.A., and they're going to be expected to go after bigger free agents than Jamey Carroll. If McCourt ever was able to give Fox one of the worst club television deals imaginable, not having any hope of a regional sports network and having to invest millions in free agency and scouting would make the dream of getting a billion dollars from anyone but a Mark Cuban as far-fetched as McCourt's tales of buying the Red Sox or getting an NFL franchise.
Daniels went hard into the international market because signing Beltre cost them a first-round pick.
"We know there's a lot of risk in these signings," Daniels says. "We all remember when Joel Guzman with the Dodgers was supposed to be the best power-hitting infield star."
Guzman played 24 games in the big leagues. Daniels also remembers that when he traded Eric Gagne to the Red Sox in 2007, one of the players he got back was a teenage outfielder named Engel Beltre, who had been compared to Barry Bonds by Baseball America. Beltre was offered to Tampa Bay last winter in the Garza deal, and was hitting .248 in Double-A through Monday.
"We understand the risks," says Daniels, "but there is risk in everything we do." Which is why he has to decide whether or not it is worth the risk to trade for a closer like Francisco Rodriguez or Heath Bell and put him into the setup role, at least until and if they make Feliz a starter next spring. The Rangers remember all too well what happened to Gagne when he took that role in Boston and fell apart, about which Daniels says, "I still can't believe that happened."
The Rangers may not be the sure thing so many believe. No one knows what impact last week's tragic death of fan Shannon Stone might have on Hamilton. The Angels may have a left fielder getting on base less than 30 percent of the time but they have two of the six best starting pitchers in the AL, they actually took back first place for a day last week, and no one can gauge what Mike Trout's energy might bring them. The Mariners have great pitching with Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda, Jason Vargas, et al, and who knows what the influx of kids like Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager will bring.
What we do know is that they are established as a legitimate Major League threat, with ownership and management that cares and tries and isn't afraid to be wrong. How many other teams could have thought outside the box to end up with Wilson and Ogando as their front two starters? How many teams have the entertainment of Beltre and Andrus as they line up and simultaneously call for popups, instinctively knowing which one is going to actually make the play? How many teams could have survived the Michael Young fiasco?
Last October has carried over into this July. There is a baseball world outside of the Yankees-Red Sox and the Cubs. The Dallas Metroplex, San Fransisco and Philadelphia are three of the six biggest markets in the baseball business, and the Rangers, Giants and Phillies are extremely well-run franchises, which is good for the overall financial well-being of the sport.
The Rangers are what they are because even after Hicks messed up the foundation Doug Melvin had built, he ended up with people who grasped the significance of all the layers that go into the building of a good franchise. The Astros and the Dodgers are what they are because ownership did not.
The question "How are the Rangers not running away with the American League West?" is a compliment, one Astros and Dodgers fans wish they could ask.