By Caleb Slinkard
The Commerce Journal
I’ve loved the Texas Rangers since I could throw a baseball. I don’t attend a ton of games, but I watch a lot of them and pay pretty close attention to the roster, statistics and any moves that are made. In the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of personally seeing the Rangers defeat the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the AL Championship and play the Detroit Tigers in an A.L. Division Series. And, while the World Series losses have been heartbreaking, seeing Ranger playoff baseball at all is fantastic.
2012 felt different than 2010 or 2011. The Rangers weren’t one year wonders, they weren’t unheard of. Texas was expected to win the AL West. They had an All-Star lineup, proven pitchers and a young Asian phenom they spent tens of millions on. It was probably Josh Hamilton and Michael Young’s last year in a Rangers uniform, two players who have come to define the franchise.
The season had its ups and downs. Losing starting pitcher Colby Lewis, who was fantastic in last year’s postseason run, was a blow. Roy Oswalt was a useless signing. Converted starter Neftali Feliz was pitching well before he was injured and needed season-ending surgery. C/1B/DH Mike Napoli had a poor year at the plate. So did Young.
But Texas shored up their rotation with former Cub Ryan Dempster, who was having a fantastic year. Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, David Murphy, and Elvis Andrus played well and stayed healthy for a good chunk of the season. Closer Joe Nathan recovered from an early season meltdown to become rock solid. The Rangers were on a roll, and spent 156 games in first place. The Los Angeles Angels underperformed, despite signing slugger 1B Albert Pujols and former Rangers’ ace C.J. Wilson and trading for SP Zack Grienke. The Rangers had the AL West in the bag.
Except they didn’t. The Rangers lost 10 of their last 14 games, including a sweep by the lowly Oakland Athletics who won the division on the last day of the regular season, their first division lead of the year. Then, Texas went to play the Baltimore Orioles in what was effectively a play-in game, who haven’t been in the playoffs since 1997, and lost 5-1, thanks to a spectacular performance from Joe Saunders, who had a 4.07 ERA this year.
The difference is that the Rangers are no longer underdogs. They don’t surprise us. They’re *gasp* favorites, and they do what favorites do from time to time– they lose in the playoffs. Boston did it last year. The Yankees did it for most of the 2000s. Oakland and Baltimore are now the pesky up-and-comers. The Rangers are old news.
Texas is a disappointing powerhouse, and their window has changed. It’s definitely not closed, but the Rangers’ teams in the next few years will be missing some key parts of their two AL Championship teams. Michael Young, the team’s all-time hits leader, is probably on his way out. If he’s not, he should be, which is a tough sentence for me to write. After all, Young is my favorite baseball player, and he anchored Texas when they were absolutely terrible. I’ll never forget the tremendous impact he had for this team. But his performance this year hurt Texas, as did manager Ron Washington’s decision to not tweak the lineup.
Hamilton has been frustratingly inconsistent in key moments, and Rangers fans have been less than gracious because they expect him to be superman all of the time. That’s unfair, but Rangers fans aren’t used to having a winner on their hands.
Hamilton will walk and sign with the Cubs or the Yankees and add to his already stellar career. I wish him the best of luck. His loss will mark the second season in a row the Rangers have lost a franchise player, after Wilson left last year. The Rangers will have to rely more on Beltre and Yu as faces of the franchise.
The future is still bright for Texas. Kinsler and Andrus are locked in, as is Beltre. Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish and Neftali Feliz are still very young. Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt have a ton of potential. The Rangers could work them into the lineup by moving Beltre to DH, starting Olt at 3B, moving Kinsler to RF and starting Profar at 2B.
2012 was heart-wrenching. To not even be able to compete in a playoffs series is disappointing. But the Rangers have been here before, and the organization has a chance to use to off season to position themselves in an even better position to win the World Series. As they so often say, there is always next year.