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Baseball seasons are capable of bringing various shades of disappointment. Rangers fans know this all too well.
“Heartache” doesn’t begin to explain the disappointment of 10 years ago, when the team was one pitch, if not one stride, away from clinching a World Series title, only to have it elude a franchise first by the narrowest of margins. Perhaps “torture” gets a bit closer.
Then there was 2014, when the Rangers were coming off four straight seasons of playing past 162 games (including two World Series appearances), had added the durable Prince Fielder and the reliable Shin-Soo Choo in the offseason, and had Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish fronting the rotation. Preseason pundits had the club in the AL Wild Card mix, just as it had been the previous two seasons. And then Texas proceeded to lose (1) Fielder and Darvish to injury, (2) manager Ron Washington to a personal-life-triggered resignation, and (3) 95 games. A team with playoff aspirations instead posted the franchise’s worst record in nearly 30 years. Expectations weren’t merely dashed; they were eviscerated. Slowly. Let’s call that degree of disappointment “Cowboys fan.”
There’s an evisceration afoot this summer in Arlington as well, this time of that 95-loss total the 2014 Rangers limped to. Texas would have to win 19 of its final 25 games to avoid the same record. More likely is the club’s first 100-loss finish since the franchise’s two maiden seasons in town half a century ago.
But how do we brand this year’s level of disappointment?
Several words would come to mind if the microscope examined what’s happened since Texas returned to the playoffs in 2015 and 2016. But my esteemed editor asked not for a five-year autopsy, but instead an evaluation of the current campaign on its own. [Editor’s note: We don’t want to depress all of you reading too much in our first week of existence.]
I’m not sure the 2021 Texas Rangers season has been a disappointment. Such a description, if we’re going by the book, would require a set of hopes or plans of some sort that went unfulfilled. Perhaps 100 losses weren’t expected, but nobody outside those in uniform truly believed this was going to be anything more than another last-place stop along the rebuild process.
This feels more like 2007, a last-place season that Rangers fans look back on with affection. That year, the Rangers put their rebuild in overdrive, moving Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne, and Kenny Lofton (compare 2021’s Joey Gallo, Kyle Gibson, and Ian Kennedy) for a bushel of system-altering prospects at the trade deadline and made noise in the draft with five first-round picks, four of whom would get to the major leagues and several of whom were eventually traded for players who helped Texas reach those World Series. None, however, had the upside of this year’s first pick, Vanderbilt righty Jack Leiter, who was taken second overall.
A fan’s emotional investment in a team fighting to win more than one-third of its games isn’t easy, but baseball has something to offer that football and basketball cannot: the allure of the farm system. Understanding what is coming up through your team’s minor-league ranks allows a glimpse into what could be better days ahead without having to dream solely on which college quarterback or point guard your team might luck into landing next off-season.
Which once again throws our look at 2021 back to 2007. It wasn’t as widely publicized 14 years ago, particularly without the reach of social media, but that year, the Texas farm system went from ranking 28th best out of 30, according to Baseball America, to the game’s No. 4 system. While the jump isn’t as pronounced, over the last six months Texas has improved its prospect standing with Baseball America from No. 24 to No. 11, in large part due to their draft and trade hauls in July. No other team had as big a surge, and the system is poised to land another top-four pick in next summer’s draft.
There’s no guarantee that third baseman Josh Jung will make the instant, game-changing splash that Elvis Andrus did, or that Leiter and Cole Winn will be any more impactful than Matt Harrison and Derek Holland were. But it’s certainly within the range of outcomes and, particularly on the mound, the 2021 Rangers system has a much deeper stable of young starting pitchers who have just arrived or will soon.
But, hang tight. If you’ve got two handfuls of popcorn working, anticipating that I’m about to paint a picture that has the Rangers going to the World Series in 2024 and 2025… I’m not. The 2007 team had Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz settling into key, long-term roles, with David Murphy carving out one of his own. Nick Solak is not Kinsler. There are similarities between the opportunity for a late-in-life emergence that Texas gave Cruz then and has given Adolis Garcia this year, but Garcia is not Cruz. While he brings a different skill set, could DJ Peters emerge as a Murphy-like frontline fourth outfielder after his own change of scenery?
For that matter, could Dane Dunning develop into the rotation mainstay that Brandon McCarthy was supposed to become? Meanwhile, Taylor Hearn has given the Rangers some recent hope that his power arsenal could work in a starting role, but to envision a C.J. Wilson-like transformation to the top of a pennant-winning rotation would be overly optimistic at this stage.
In some ways, the Rangers’ 2021 farm system is actually even more exciting than the 2007 version. But there are fewer signs in the majors that things are falling into place.
A club official put it best when I asked earlier in the season about the positives he’s seen at the big-league level this year. “[I] think we’ve raised the floor,” he said. “[We] need ceiling.”
It’s a nutshell that points to a couple of things. Texas may have found something on the mound in Dunning and Hearn, in rookie starters Glenn Otto (from the Gallo trade) and A.J. Alexy (from the Darvish trade), and in bullpen revelations Joe Barlow and Nick Snyder. On the infield, there’s certainly another level that Nathaniel Lowe has the ability to get to and a level that Isiah Kiner-Falefa has flashed but needs to sustain. In the outfield, Peters and Eli White look like they can be contributors on a winning team in the way Murphy and Craig Gentry were, and Leody Taveras’s ceiling is higher than either of theirs. Could Willie Calhoun be Marlon Byrd? Might Jonah Heim turn into the big, switch-hitting masher at catcher that Jarrod Saltalamacchia figured to be?
The floor does seem to have been elevated, which is one way to bring the window of contention closer into view. The ceiling, however–I promise I’m not trying to get all HGTV on you here–remains little more than a blueprint.
There’s no 2007 Michael Young on the current club, no Kinsler, and likely no Cruz. There may never again be a trade that replicates the December 2007 Josh Hamilton deal with the Reds on a baseball level. To hoist the ceiling higher–a prerequisite to winning –Texas will need to be active in free agency (which they insist will happen this winter) and on the trade market (there’s more than enough depth in prospects to get on the other side of the Gallo-type trades when the timing is right and opportunities arise). Otto, Alexy, and Peters had exciting Augusts. Can they build off that?
There’s still plenty of work to be done, but it feels like less than there was a year ago. Envisioning the bottom and, in some cases, the middle of a contending Rangers roster has gotten easier. But it takes impact to win. Maybe Jung develops into a middle-of-the-lineup anchor at third base. Maybe Sam Huff irons out the swing-and-miss and gets to his Gallo-level power in Texas. Maybe Carlos Correa or Trevor Story holds down the shortstop position, and between Justin Foscue, Luisangel Acuna, Maximo Acosta, Josh Smith, and Ezequiel Duran (the latter two of whom came over with Otto from the Yankees), one emerges as a Kinsler-level force while another ends up as a key part of a package to go get, say, lefty Trevor Rogers from the Marlins in three years so Texas can pair him with Leiter atop a deep, young rotation whose emerging star is Ricky Vanasco.
And maybe Elijah Green is Texas’ pick in the first few minutes of next July’s draft, two years after which he embarks on a decade-long run patrolling center field at Globe Life Field.
It’s been a painful year for the Rangers between the lines. The losses continue to mount, and that’s no fun for the veterans or the league-high and club-record 26 rookies getting the chance to carve out careers, not to mention those of us who remain locked in day to day. But there’s been growth, too, both in the quality of those young players who have arrived and on the farm, where the yearly promise of lower-level talent has started to gather on the doorstep.
Pain, yes. But growth, too.
There you go: perhaps 2021 has been a year of growing pains for the Rangers. And there’s nothing disappointing about that.