Josh Hamilton and Michael Young were the cornerstones of the Rangers' last big rebuild. Could the 2021 offseason be the beginning of something similar? Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball

Lessons From the Last Rangers Rebuild

Texas' overhaul from 2007 through 2009 set the team up for its first World Series appearances. There are plenty of similarities in place for this go-around.

It’s not really fair to invest faith in sports history repeating itself. Sure, if you want to tell me Dusty Baker always takes his teams to the postseason or James Harden leads the league in free-throw attempts every year, there’s some rhythm there. But it’s less reliable in terms of one franchise’s saga. No team has the same configuration year to year; when the only thing in common from one season to the next is (usually) the uniform, it sort of voids the “repeat” metric. 

But … can we properly ask whether past is prologue in sports? That similarities — even if those similarities are something less than spitting images — can set us up for what may lie ahead?

It wasn’t until the Texas Rangers’ fifth decade that they did anything worth trying to repeat. Now, in their sixth decade, we can look back at 2008 through 2011 in search of a precedent from which we might chart a best case for the next few seasons.

Learning from mistakes is something the Rangers and every other pro sports franchise aim to do. But there’s also plenty of benefit in learning from success.

Going into the 2008 season, the Rangers had finished last or next to last in the AL West eight straight years, at an average of 21 games back in the division standings. The worst stretch were the three Alex Rodriguez years (last-last-last, 33 games back on average), which overlapped with the first of Buck Showalter’s four seasons at the team’s helm. In 2007, both were gone. First-time manager Ron Washington was brought in to lead and to hold things together as the front office traded away its most valuable player two winters before he would have had the chance to leave on his own.

Now, 2021 Joey Gallo was not on a 2007 Mark Teixeira level, and Chris Woodward, while managing his first team, wasn’t in his first year doing so. But there are some comps we can draw between the Rangers club that was three (and four) seasons away from the World Series and the one that goes into this winter on a stretch of disappointment not seen since the A-Rod/Showalter years.

There are also differences, and only time will tell whether they turned out to be unfortunate — or pivotal.

When Texas traded Teixeira (and southpaw reliever Ron Mahay) to Atlanta in July 2007, they got five young players back, three of whom — Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, and Neftali Feliz — would be instrumental in the organization’s golden age. Fourteen years later, the Rangers traded Gallo (and southpaw reliever Joely Rodriguez) to the Yankees, and the team will obviously be thrilled if three of the prospect foursome of Glenn Otto, Josh Smith, Ezequiel Duran, and Trevor Hauver end up contributing here at some level in October.

A month before trading Teixeira, the Rangers drafted Justin Smoak, a player who ultimately landed Cliff Lee in Texas. Lee didn’t help the Rangers get to the playoffs in 2010 — that would have happened regardless — but they probably wouldn’t have gotten past Tampa Bay in the first round without him

Smoak was the highest-profile player the Rangers had drafted since Teixeira seven years earlier. Jack Leiter (June 2021) is their highest-profile draft pick since, and whoever the club selects third overall this coming summer should fit that category, too. For that matter, the club’s farm system had gone from a No. 28 Baseball America ranking heading into 2007 to a No. 4 ranking in 2008. The present jump isn’t quite as pronounced, but the system’s move from No. 24 to No. 11 in August was the biggest in baseball, and it’s not out of the question that they’ll have a top-10 slot going into 2022.

If we’re going to stay true to the “2022 is the new 2008” theme, here’s where things could get super interesting. In the offseason heading into 2008, the Rangers traded Edinson Volquez and Danny Ray Herrera for Josh Hamilton, who would win AL MVP in the 2010 World Series season. Can Texas acquire a similar impact bat in this rebuild? It would be fair to envision that scenario from whichever free-agent shortstop many believe the club will prioritize signing this winter. But the Rangers have to actually land that player before those expectations begin.

That said, even if Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, or Trevor Story were to settle in as this winter’s Hamilton reboot, the 2022 blueprint won’t replicate 2008’s in at least one key aspect — and maybe that’s just fine.

The Rangers opened 2008 with a lineup that included Hamilton, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Hank Blalock, Milton Bradley, and Marlon Byrd. The rotation was headed by Kevin Millwood (coming off an unsightly 5.16 ERA) and included Vicente Padilla, Jason Jennings, and Kason Gabbard, all of whom had even worse 2007 ERAs. More to the point, the farm system (led by hitters such as Andrus, Chris Davis, and Taylor Teagarden) wasn’t teeming with pitchers bearing in on Arlington. Eric Hurley was the top hope among starters; Blake Beavan and Michael Main were fresh out of high school, Derek Holland was 16 games into his minor-league career, Kasey Kiker and Thomas Diamond weren’t healthy, and Feliz was almost certainly going to relieve. Harrison, who hadn’t pitched above Class AA and was injured all summer after coming over in the Teixeira trade, was probably the highest realistic hope.

An argument can be made that the current Rangers roster lacks a single hitter thought of as highly as any of the abovementioned six featured on Opening Day in 2008, which doesn’t even include Nelson Cruz, whom they’d designated for assignment to start that season but luckily didn’t lose on waivers. 

But at the same time, there was no Dane Dunning in 2008. No Taylor Hearn. No Otto or A.J. Alexy, and not even a Spencer Howard to hope for a resurgence out of. There was certainly no Leiter on the farm, and if you were to combine a list ranking the Rangers’ 2008 pitching prospects and their 2022 group, you’d have to work your way well down a list including present-day Cole Winn, Ricky Vanasco, Tekoah Roby, Owen White, Yerry Rodriguez, Dane Acker, Avery Weems, Cody Bradford, Ronny Henriquez, Jake Latz, and Cole Ragans before Beavan or Main showed up.

The Rangers need a lot. Even if the club executes its pledge to be very active this winter, they won’t be able to build a 2024 pennant winner all at once. But in a reversal of how they built the 2010-11 clubs — starting with a 2008 season (79-83) that seems like a fair goal for 2022 and a 2009 campaign (87-75) that could be what the 2023 vision looks like — Texas is now a club that appears to have a pitching foundation coming into focus and a wide-open lineup. There are high hopes for Smith, Duran, Josh Jung, Justin Foscue, Sam Huff, Evan Carter, Dustin Harris, Luisangel Acuna, Bubba Thompson, and others, but as far as the actual position-player foundation is concerned, the trio of Adolis Garcia, Nathaniel Lowe, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa is not anywhere close to Hamilton, Kinsler, and Young.

Yet it’s theoretically easier to add hitting, not to mention more reliable. There are typically more hitters to go around, and they tend to get hurt a whole lot less often. Start a team from scratch, and you’d probably rather get ahead on the pitching front and build from there. Hell, the Braves are representing the National League in the World Series with an outfield manned by three players they traded for three months ago.

The free-agent market will be heavy on hitters this winter, and the Rangers are on every shortlist in the national media handicapping where Correa, Seager, Story, and Marcus Semien could land. ESPN’s Buster Olney even reports on “speculation among rival evaluators that the Rangers could double-dip among the elite shortstops, signing two and shifting one to another position.” And don’t rule out the Rangers tapping into the trade market this winter as well, like they did when they plucked Hamilton from the Reds before 2008. There’s little question that they will trade prospects moving forward; they did so to get Lowe last winter, and as the major-league team starts to win, they will use minor-league depth to deal for players to help put them over the top. It’s just a matter of when — and perhaps that ends up being midseason, the way Beavan and Josh Lueke helped acquire Lee, or Main was flipped for Bengie Molina.

One difference between this winter and the one 21 years ago is that if the Rangers sign a superstar shortstop, this time they won’t surround him with 37-year-olds on one-year deals like they did when A-Rod agreed to his quarter-billion contract. You can learn from your (predecessors’) mistakes.

But you can also study what once worked and try to replicate it, and it looks like that’s what the Rangers are trying to do. Win with hitting? Win with pitching? Either way, win with youth at the foundation and stack impact on top of it. Make 2022 your 2008, and go from there.

Re-creating the past seems to be the Rangers’ objective, a tack our sports memories heartily approve of — if properly done. If the club ultimately gets this right, it’s a safe bet that this winter and the season that follows will have been pavers on the path — part of a framework to make the past, aside from evoking a rush of sports thrill and heartbreak, the prologue to a new story that has a better ending.

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