Rebuilt Rangers Headed In Right Direction

NEW YORK -- If there has been one downside to what has been an otherwise improbably impressive year for Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, it came a couple of weeks ago when best-selling author John Grisham was in Arlington for a game and Washington didn't get to meet him. Because if there's one thing Washington loves as much as baseball, it might just be Grisham novels.

The Rangers' 57-year-old manager has read everything the best-selling author has written; "even the bad ones," he says. He's currently flying through The Appeal, Grisham's 2008 legal thriller about corporate malfeasance. "I love them," he said before a recent game. "He needs to hurry up and write some more."

With 23 books published in just 20 years, Grisham might be one of the most prolific writers on the planet, but that's still not fast enough for readers like Washington, who can relate to fans who want results yesterday. In fact, for a man as impatient as he can be with his favorite author, Washington has been remarkably patient in his professional life.

First by spending a decade as a big-league coach before getting a shot to manage in the majors, then by enduring two losing seasons in his first two years, and even now, refusing to look ahead one year to how good this young and developing team might be, or even one month, to when the Rangers might lock down a playoff berth that has been 10 years in the making.

Even after taking two of three this week from the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, and even though they've beaten the AL West-leading Angels nine out of 12 and the wild-card-leading Red Sox seven of nine, Washington is in no hurry to label his club a playoff team.

"That's one over there," he says, gesturing toward the Yankees clubhouse. "We're not there yet. [The Yankees] know how to go down to the finish line. We don't. Our kids are learning that. I don't want them looking somewhere that's strange territory. We're in the running, but we ain't done nothing."

Washington may not be convinced, but the rest of baseball is quickly catching on to the fact that this Rangers team is no fluke. All winter, debate raged on the hot stove about who might be this year's Rays. The answer, it turns out, is the Rangers, who have been the most surprising contender in the American League.

Although their turnaround hasn't been as dramatic as what Tampa Bay did a year ago, like the Rays, the Rangers eschewed a strategy built around bulky sluggers and expensive free agents, rebuilt themselves through defense, pitching and a productive farm system, and emerged as a playoff contender ahead of schedule. They enter a series at Minnesota this weekend just four games out in the AL West and 1 games behind the Red Sox for the wild card.

"I feel like we're capable of [making the playoffs]," says Rangers third baseman Michael Young. If they do, no player will have been more responsible than Young, a six-time All-Star who is having an MVP-caliber season. Young is batting .328 with 22 home runs and 66 RBIs, and has played remarkable defense after being shifted to third to make way for top prospect Elvis Andrus in spring training.

Young, who had never played so much as an inning at third in his first nine major league seasons while excelling as a shortstop and second baseman, initially resisted the move. But he finally assented, and his rapid development over there has helped solidify the Rangers defense, and the fact that he has done so without complaint all year long has helped keep the club drama-free. He's also emerged as an elder statesman on a young and talented team, and despite Washington's insistence that Young was always overshadowed even in his own clubhouse, Young says all this attention is nothing new for him.

"To be totally honest, I've felt all eyes have been on me since we traded Alex [Rodriguez]," says Young of the '04 trade that sent A-Rod to the Yankees. "So I've felt that way for six years."

"It's his team," says Washington. "Michael is the one that leads the way. We've got some pretty good players, but Michael Young is the man."

He's also a very highly-paid man, which is rare these days in Texas. Young's five-year, $80 million deal, which runs through 2013, is easily the highest on the club -- only Kevin Millwood and Hank Blalock have eight-figure deals, and both of those contracts will expire by the end of next year -- as the Rangers have had to exercise fiscal restraint. In '02 and '03 their payroll was in excess of $100 million, but for the past four years it has hovered at about $68 million.

Part of that is due to the financial struggles of owner Tom Hicks, and part due to the plan put in place by 32-year-old general manager Jon Daniels, who inherited a ball club reliant almost entirely on sluggers and has had to remake it into a pitching-and-defense outfit, a transformation that can take several years, but is certainly paying dividends. They still rank second in the American League in home runs, but the Rangers are tied for second in the majors with just 16 errors all season and are fourth in the AL in ERA.

"For a long time we had this identity as a power-hitting ball club," says Daniels. "You don't see teams with that profile winning in the playoffs very often. One thing we'll take away from this year is that we changed the perception that we're a one-dimensional team. The last couple of years we've got our arms around where we are as a ball club. You can really look out there now and see every facet of our organization at work. We're a team that has to develop our own guys to compete. We're not going to be a player in the free-agent market every year."

In fact, the Rangers have not signed a big-league free agent in more than a year, although they were heavily involved in talks to sign Ben Sheets last winter before Sheets was forced to undergo surgery with a bad elbow that has kept him out all season. Instead they've beefed up their amateur and international scouting and relied on the game's most promising farm system, one that has already produced rookie pitches Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland and has several promising position players, most notably Justin Smoak, waiting to arrive next year.

That bounty of young players made the Rangers a prime candidate in the Roy Halladay trade sweepstakes. But even though they were in the mix, a deal couldn't get done. "There were times we were closer than others," says Daniels of the Halladay negotiations. "I always feel like a deal is one phone call away, but that deal didn't happen."

Despite not landing Halladay, the Rangers have not lost any ground in the AL West since the trade deadline. They've also kept their budget right where it was, which is important given their financial restrictions. There is still one thing that could significantly improve that budget, Daniels says: A trip to the postseason. October is still more than a month away, but even if they haven't reached the playoffs in a decade, the Rangers have already seen what it might be like if they do.

"We swept the Angels at home in May and that was a playoff atmosphere," says Daniels. "It was a little bit of a sign."

A sign that they are headed in the right direction, ahead of schedule, and with every intention of sticking around for a long time to come.

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