Rangers content to wait
T.R. Sullivan , StarTelegram Staff Writer
Manager Buck Showalter compares the Rangers situation to the movie Braveheart.
The Scottish rebels are lined up to do battle with the advancing English army. Mel Gibson, who plays William Wallace, admonishes his troops not to fire too quickly.
"Hold ... hold ... hold," he says.
As the Rangers finish the first full season of their rebuilding plan, Showalter and general manager John Hart say they're in the same position as the Scottish rebels as far as their pursuit of big name free agents.
The Rangers want to hold this winter, save their money, continue developing their own young players and wait until at least the following off-season to attack.
"You never know what all is going to happen," Hart. "We've done several things, but No. 1 is set a course where as many young players as we think are close, we're going to give them an opportunity. If there are some affordable supplemental pieces, whether it's starting pitching, bullpen guy, a corner [outfield] bat, whether it's trade or free agency, we're going to look at that.
"There are obviously some attractive front-line free agents. There are every year. But we've stated very clearly that we're not going to be in the market for big-time, front-line free agents."
Instead, the Rangers go into the off-season looking to cut their payroll from $100 million to approximately $70 million. Owner Tom Hicks estimates the Rangers lost about $30 million this year and is adamant about not losing money again.
"Money is going to be tight," Hart admitted. "That's OK. I think we need to do this."
That still doesn't mean the Rangers will hibernate this winter. Hart doesn't do that.
The Rangers have moves to consider and decisions to make.
Kevin Millwood. Bartolo Colon. Andy Pettitte. Greg Maddux.
Those are some of the big-name starting pitchers who can become free agents. The Rangers plan to keep their hands off.
That might change in a year, especially if Kerry Wood becomes a free agent.
Right now, the Rangers plan to sign one or two free agents in the $1 million to $2 million range and plan to keep giving the ball to the pitchers they've been looking at for the past three months.
John Thomson is at the top of their free agent list.
"John Thomson will be in a group of pitchers we'll look at," Hart said. "We want to sign a John Thomson-type. Obviously, we like John Thomson, but a lot will depend on the economics."
So, come spring training, Colby Lewis, Ryan Drese, Joaquin Benoit, Mickey Callaway and Tony Mounce will each get another shot.
The Rangers also have Ricardo Rodriguez, and expect he'll come back from a hip injury. He was once a highly regarded prospect and the Indians' No. 2 starter coming out of spring training this year.
"We may have a little bit of a shootout," Hart said. "We have some protection depth, but, with some of these guys, it might be time to just give them the ball for a half a season and let them go, see what they can do."
By the All-Star break next year, the Rangers could be in a position where they have viable prospects ready at Triple A: Juan Dominguez, Ryan Snare and the injured, but not forgotten, Ben Kozlowski.
They will also look at bargain candidates. Hicks talks about finding next year's Esteban Loaiza, who went to spring training with the Chicago White Sox on a minor league contract and ended up winning 20 games. The Rangers' spring training camp next year will be filled with pitchers on minor league contracts trying to win jobs.
Chan Ho Park? Who knows. If his back is healthy, he'll be in the rotation. If there's the slightest doubt, the Rangers will put him back on the disabled list until they're convinced he's ready.
Then there is R.A. Dickey. The Rangers like him a lot. They're just not sure if he's better suited as a starter or he could help in another area of concern.
That being ...
Closer Francisco Cordero and left-hander Brian Shouse appear to be the keepers from this year's bunch. Jay Powell is signed at $3 million, so he'll be back.
The Rangers probably will keep only one of their three other left-handers: Ron Mahay, Erasmo Ramirez and Aaron Fultz. The Rangers like all three but don't have enough space on the winter 40-man roster.
Right-handed relief remains a mystery, mainly because of Jeff Zimmerman. The Rangers would love to have him back healthy. Instead, he remains an unknown.
"I don't know if the bullpen will be settled until we know about Zim," Hart said. "With Zim, we have a chance to be pretty good. Without Zim, our right-handed relief is short."
There is talk of trying Dominguez in the bullpen, but the Rangers like him too much as a starter. The prudent course seems to be let him pitch in Triple A for at least a half-season.
With the Rangers thin from the right side, there is some sentiment to using Dickey as a reliever. Benoit could also end up in the bullpen.
He had a terrific rookie season, especially considering it was his second professional season, and he finished strong.
"We're very happy with Mark Teixeira," Hart said. "For a young man with less than 300 professional at-bats and [who] got off to a bad start, Buck did a tremendous job with him in his usage and building his confidence."
The Rangers just aren't sure what to do with Teixeira. He established himself at first base, but the Rangers have Adrian Gonzalez, who could be a year or less away. The Rangers could move Teixeira to the outfield, re-signing Rafael Palmeiro or signing a free agent to play first base.
Gonzalez is playing in the Arizona Fall League, and that could give the first indication of what direction the Rangers will go.
Right now, Hart seems to feel the best course of action is to continue to use Teixeira at first base, let Gonzalez continue to develop in the minors and look for a corner outfielder.
But the Rangers also have to look at ...
The Rangers love Laynce Nix. It would be a surprise if he's not on the Opening Day roster next year.
The Rangers also love Ramon Nivar. But it would be a surprise if he is on the Opening Day roster. His August trial in Arlington showed conclusively that he needs more time in the minors.
So who plays center?
Nix is a possibility. The other possibility is moving him to one of the corner spots and signing a center fielder who could bat at the top of the order.
"I'm certainly not opposed to giving Laynce an opportunity," Hart said. "But we certainly need to look at a center-field type. If we go with Laynce, we'd still need another guy who could play center. We're going to take a close look at it."
The Rangers profess satisfaction with catcher Einar Diaz, who is signed for $2.5 million next year. But there are some concerns about his ability to be the defensive captain that the Rangers look for in their catcher.
They might try to move Diaz in the off-season and go with some combination that includes rookie Gerald Laird and a veteran mentor. Todd Greene, who is arbitration eligible, would be the obvious choice.
"We see a lot of good things in Laird defensively," Hart said. "The question is: How ready is that bat? Does he need more time in the minor leagues."
The Rangers wouldn't mind a left-handed hitting catcher, but defense is still a top priority, Hart says.
The Rangers would like him back. They need a power hitter in the middle of the lineup. He wants to come back.
It all comes down to agreeing on a contract before Dec. 7, when the Rangers must either offer him arbitration or lose the right to negotiate with him until May 1. They ran into that problem with Kenny Rogers last year.
Said Hart: "I think this is something that will very quietly go right up to the 7th of December. Ultimately we know we have a timeframe. We are aware of the situation."
There will be many moves and many decisions. But what Rangers fans really want to know is if this team has a chance to be a contender again or at least not finish in last place for a fifth consecutive season.
"There's always a chance," Hart said. "I never go into a season thinking you don't have a chance. But a lot of things have to happen.
"The young starting pitchers have to be better. If these pitchers come quickly ... We need a healthy Zim and we need a better effort [from the bullpen] in the middle innings. Among position players, there will be some development.
"This will be a club that's offensively competitive. I know this: It will be a fun club to watch. A lot of things have to happen, but they'll play hard and they'll be fun to watch."
The biggest questions the Rangers face in the off-season:
Starting pitching: Can they find one or two free agents in the $1 million to $2 million range?
Tex and Raffy: Is Mark Teixeira's future at first or in the outfield? Do they re-sign Rafael Palmeiro?
Center field: Is Laynce Nix the answer or do they look at free agents?
Catcher: Should they trade Einar Diaz and go with Gerald Laird?
Bottom line: Can they contend next year?
Updated on Monday, Sep 29, 2003 7:43 am EDT
Anything can happen in baseball, but that does not look like a recipe for success next season to me.