Newberg: The Texas Rangers and the culture of expectations

jon daniels adrian beltre

Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels talks with Adrian Beltre prior to a game.

This contribution was provided by Jamey Newberg of The Newberg Report. The Newberg Report provides daily coverage of the Texas Rangers.

Chan Ho Park dealt for seven innings, scattering two singles and three walks, after which Brian Shouse, Doug Brocail, and Francisco Cordero shut things down late as Texas blanked Seattle, 3-0.

It was the greatest of the 68 games Park would pitch in his four seasons as a Ranger.

Sabermetrically speaking, at least. Never mind that the Rangers had been mathematically eliminated from their fifth straight AL West race four days earlier and were sending the Mariners to their 99th and final loss of the 2004 season. There wasn’t a whole lot riding on that game.

The Game 162 expiration contest pitting Park and Gil Meche’s dueling 5+ ERA’s was played on October 3, 2004.

I lead today’s season-ending report off with reference to this meaningless baseball game not because today’s its 10th anniversary, but because Texas 3, Seattle 0 on October  3, 2004 was the last time the Texas Rangers won their final game of the year.

Of course, the point of the game is to play 162+, and these days, when 10 teams (and sometimes more) earn that opportunity annually, nine of them (and sometimes more) end their season with a loss. You’d rather be one of those nine (and sometimes more) who don’t go home when the regular season schedule has nothing left on it than one of the 20 or so others who watch October play out with the rest of us.

But yeah, even though the Rangers lost Game Five to San Francisco in 2010 (3-1), Game Seven to St. Louis in 2011 (6-2), the Wild Card Game to Baltimore in 2012 (5-1), and the play-in Game 163 to Tampa Bay in 2013 (5-2), they also dropped the season finale in 2009 and 2008 and 2007 and 2006 and 2005, even though for all intents and purposes those seasons had really ended before Game 162.

They lost again last Sunday, this time 4-0 to the A’s, and while the game had some actual consequence to it, as Texas had the chance to end Oakland’s disintegrating season (two days before the Royals would; #gauche), the loss wasn’t as marginalized as those pre-playoff days, because it ended a string in which the Rangers — with Yu Darvish and Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo and Matt Harrison and Martin Perez and Alex Rios and Mitch Moreland and Tanner Scheppers and Alexi Ogando and Jurickson Profar and Kevin Kouzmanoff and Joseph Ortiz and Pedro Figueroa and Engel Beltre and Ron Washington as available to the club as Chan Ho Park — won 13 out of 17, including a 7-0 record in one-run games.

In those 17 games, Rangers starting pitchers — namely, a veteran returning from injury (Derek Holland), a veteran who was never supposed to return from injury (Colby Lewis), two rookies (Nick Martinez and Lisalverto Bonilla), a second-year starter (Nick Tepesch), and Scott Baker (Scott Baker) — allowed two earned runs or fewer 15 times.

Think about that.

In 2012, I booked my annual fall pilgrimage to Surprise for the last weekend of the regular season, wanting to get my few days of Instructs in before the playoffs got underway. I made those plans a few weeks in advance, when Texas, coming off two straight World Series and boasting what Jon Daniels has called his best club yet, nursed what seemed to be a comfortable lead on the division. I figured those four days in Arizona would coincide with tune-up games for the big club, with nothing but perhaps post-season home field on the line. Even as the trip neared, and Texas started playing sloppy baseball, the prevailing fear was that the club would merely go into the playoffs out of sync, not exactly ideal as the two-time defending AL champs set out to make it three in a row.

I lifted off for Arizona on a Sunday morning, with five games to go on the schedule (a twinbill with the Angels followed by three in Oakland) and a three-game lead in the division. I won’t finish this part of the story, other than to say that on that Monday night, Tuesday night, and Wednesday afternoon, once I’d gotten in my days on the back fields, I headed over to the Brookside Sports Bar & Grille on Bell Road to watch each game of the Texas-Oakland series, and because we’re talking about Surprise, which has about one or less of most things, that was basically the place to be if you wanted to watch a ballgame that wasn’t on a basic Arizona cable feed, and so I was around a lot of Rangers officials for those three games, guys who were also done with Instructs for the day and ready to settle in to see Texas take care of business and extend its season.

Instead, we saw 4-3, 3-1, and 12-5, all in the Athletics’ favor, two days after which the Rangers’ season would end in Arlington.

I was in the same sports bar last Friday night, again watching Texas lose to Oakland, but there was no dog-cussing from Rangers management this time, even though we once again sat there two days before the Rangers’ season would end. This time we knew the end of the story well in advance, which made the vibe about as far away on the Venn diagram as it could get. There was nothing in common between the Rangers-A’s series that ended the 2012 schedule and the Rangers-A’s series that ended the 2014 schedule.

Sort of.

The 2012 Rangers, who placed two players in the top 5 in the MVP vote (Adrian Beltre and Josh Hamilton) and two in the top 9 in the Cy Young vote (Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish) and whose seventh-best regular (in terms of OPS) was Ian Kinsler, were baseball’s best team for much of the year, and spent 178 of 181 days in first place in the West.

The 2014 A’s were the best team in the big leagues for most of the year, including on July 31, when they added Jon Lester, several weeks after having added Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, to an already formidable starting rotation.

The Rangers may regret trading Kyle Hendricks (and Christian Villanueva) to the Cubs for starter Ryan Dempster that summer, but not nearly as much as the A’s are going to mourn the loss of Addison Russell in their deal with the same club for Samardzija (who they’ll probably trade this summer to get a better return than the compensatory supplemental first-rounder they’d get if they keep him another season) and Hammel (who will be a free agent this winter), neither of whom was able to help Oakland get past a 163rd game. Samardzija lost to Texas in Game 161, while Hammel threw the final pitch of the A’s season, a 2-2 slider away in the bottom of the 12th on Tuesday that Salvador Perez got around and lined past Josh Donaldson to bring in Christian Colon and end the game.

A Wild Card Game loss for the Rangers (to Baltimore) followed that 2012 season-ending Texas-Oakland series, while a Wild Card Game loss for the A’s (to Kansas City) followed the 2014 season-ending Texas-Oakland series.

And while the A’s wrecked the Rangers’ final week in 2012, relegating them to what amounted to a play-in game, you might say Texas put the penultimate nail in the coffin that Oakland spent two months building for itself. The Rangers swept the A’s in Oakland in mid-September and then split a set of four in Arlington on the season’s final weekend. Had the A’s managed to win just four of seven against the worst team in the American League (which not only had more than a dozen players shut down due to injury but had also shipped Joakim Soria and Jason Frasor away), they would have hosted the Wild Card Game rather than the Royals, and maybe the result would have been different.

But they didn’t, and it wasn’t.

In fact, if the A’s didn’t get a beast effort from a beast starter on the final day, taking Game 162 from Texas, they would have had to play Seattle in a Game 163 just to see who would get to travel to Kansas City for the Wild Card Game.

As it turned out, Oakland’s loss to the Royals — an epic, unforgettable baseball game that in some ways was a microcosm of Oakland’s 2014 as a whole — dropped the A’s to 0-7 in winner-takes-all playoff games in the 17-year Billy Beane Era, and 1-13 when they had the chance to advance.

Think about that.

Texas, forcing the A’s to travel for this latest Oakland spit-up, played a role.

A silver lining at best, maybe, but when asked in a radio interview Tuesday whether there was a part of him that was disappointed to see the 1.1 draft position slip away as his club ceded its league-worst record to the Diamondbacks and Rockies with all those late-September wins, Daniels said he’ll take the confidence and momentum that his players built up down the stretch every time.

In spite of the Rangers’ impossible epidemic of injuries and the record number of players and the manager’s resignation and Mike Carp batting third, overlaid against Oakland’s dominant first four months followed by Billy Beane’s decision to go absolutely all-in, all that it amounted to for the A’s was one extra baseball game.

I wondered aloud on Twitter the other day which team and its fans had a worse 2014, Oakland or Texas.  It’s easy to say the Rangers had a more brutal year, because by every objective measure that’s true, but I know that as a Rangers fan, 2012 was tougher on me than this season was — and again, the 2012 Rangers and 2014 A’s had a whole lot more in common than just Craig Gentry and Geovany Soto.

And that’s without even considering the level at which Oakland mortgaged its future to (attempt to) win big in 2014, something the Rangers didn’t do two years ago. Not only did the A’s give up a ton more as far as prospect inventory goes, they also had a dramatically weaker farm system than Texas to begin with, plus an economic situation that makes the development of inexpensive talent more important for that franchise than most clubs who view themselves as contenders.

Oakland’s collapse in 2014 was worse than Texas’s in 2012 — and the A’s season this year, as far as I’m concerned, was worse than the Rangers’.

Let’s talk about that prospect depth for a second. While first-year players like Rougned Odor, Nick Martinez (2.29 ERA over his final six starts, which spanned 35.1 innings — more than the former infielder pitched in three years at Fordham University), Ryan Rua (.338/.355/.514 over his final 76 plate appearances), Jake Smolinski (.349/.391/.512), Tomas Telis, Roman Mendez, Phil Klein (.073/.191/.122 split against righties), Spencer Patton, Luis Sardinas, Lisalverto Bonilla (the first Ranger ever to win his first three big league starts), Alex Claudio, and Jon Edwards contributed at varying levels, and other young players like Martin Perez, Neftali Feliz, Nick Tepesch, Leonys Martin, and Shawn Tolleson took steps forward, there’s another tremendous wave on the way.

While I was at Instructs last week, I saw a Rangers-Reds game in Goodyear in which Texas fielded this starting lineup:

texas starting lineup newberg

A couple things about that:

1. Yes, Joey Gallo (zero pro experience in the outfield) started in right field, Ryan Cordell (whose entire pro career has been spent in the outfield and first base) started at third base, and Odubel Herrera (who had never appeared in the outfield in his first five pro seasons before making 13 of his 110 defensive appearances there in 2014) started in center field, and that’s not all: Midway through the game, Gallo shifted to center field (Herrera slid to right), and Jorge Alfaro moved from catcher to third base, a position he hasn’t played since Don Welke scouted him in Colombia and, squinting his eyes, saw a potential catcher. (And just yesterday, the starting assignments included Gallo at shortstop, Alfaro in center, and Ronald Guzman in right.)

All of the above qualify as experimental exercises in versatility and, even more so, an effort to liven things up for those guys as their baseball year nears its end.

2. More to the point — barring injury, there’s a legitimate chance that every one of the players in that lineup (six of whom reached AA in 2014, two of whom topped out at High A, and one of whom peaked at Low A) reaches the big leagues, in some cases in frontline roles. Six of them have a chance to play up the middle, and the three who don’t — Gallo, Mazara, and Guzman — have the potential to do damage in the middle of a Major League lineup.

Throw in the pitching that’s developing on the farm — the five pitchers in the season-ending rotation at Frisco (Chi Chi Gonzalez, Jake Thompson, Andrew Faulkner, Jerad Eickhoff, and Alec Asher) should all start in the big leagues, for example — and tack on whomever Texas will take with the fourth pick in this June’s draft to guys like Luis Ortiz, Lewis Brinson, Marcos Diplan, Keone Kela, Corey Knebel, Travis Demeritte, and plenty others, and there’s reason to believe that the Rangers are as healthy as any franchise in the game when it comes to the rest of this decade and into the next, when the club’s new manager is expected to remain at the helm.

While Daniels won’t look for his new big league manager to be as intimately involved in every aspect of player development as Buck Showalter wanted to be here, he’s said that he wants someone to “partner” with the front office in helping shape the direction of the franchise as a whole, establishing a culture of accountability up and down the organization while carrying out the more immediate and perceptible task of motivating 25 men every night at the big league level. He’ll be expected to connect with both core veterans and young players new to the squad, and that’s something that Bogar has already shown an apparent knack for.

After the club responded to the change in manager the way it did over the final few weeks of the season, Daniels said in a radio spot that, “having seen the last few weeks, having seen the change in the energy and atmosphere, I do think [bringing in a new voice] had an impact. Tim should certainly get some credit for that, but sometimes I do think that a change is beneficial. I told Wash . . . I was hoping he’d be the only manager I ever hired. . . . I was not going to make the move this winter. Since it was effectively made for us, I can look back now with some perspective and say, ultimately, it may be for the best.”

In this instance, the “new voice” Daniels seeks on a permanent basis will apparently belong to someone without big league managerial experience, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. When he conducted the process to replace Showalter after the 2006 season, Daniels assembled five candidates for the interview phase, and none had managed in the Majors, though all five — Washington, Don Wakamatsu, Trey Hillman, Manny Acta, and John Russell — would land manager gigs somewhere within two years.

Expect Daniels’s list this time to be similarly full of men seeking their first big league skipper post — and expect those who don’t get this job to start landing them elsewhere. In other words, don’t expect Ron Gardenhire.

We know that AAA manager Steve Buechele (whom Houston spoke to before hiring A.J. Hinch earlier this week) and pitching coach Mike Maddux have already interviewed, Bogar is set to in the next week or so, and as many as four or five others from the outside will as well. According to local reports, “a few” of the external candidates are currently with playoff clubs, though no names have been confirmed.  (Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reports this morning that the club has at least had internal discussions about Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr and Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach, whose teams are still playing, plus White Sox bench coach Joe McEwing and a name I hadn’t seen yet — Angels Assistant GM Scott Servais, who spent six years with Texas (all during the Daniels regime) as Director of Player Development.

Michael Young isn’t on the list, but Daniels did ask him if he’d be interested in being considered for the job, a conversation that has reportedly led Young and the organization to agree in principle on the framework of a front office position. Young and Darren Oliver have evidently been involved in the evaluation process from the club side, and you better believe both will be asked to weigh in on how Bogar and the other candidates would fit from a player’s standpoint.

There are strong indications that the front office evaluation on Bogar was boosted by the work he did after Washington resigned.  While Daniels said Bogar couldn’t have locked up the job even if he’d put up a 22-0 record as interim manager and couldn’t have lost it by going winless, the 47-year-old made a strong impression.

“I do think the atmosphere that was created, the communication with the players, the in-game management, how he worked with . . . the media were all very good,” Daniels said. “I really appreciate the job he did, and that factors in for me.”

But there’s a process to go through, and Daniels isn’t going to cut it short. “I think it’s really important for the organization to get this hire right,” he said. “And for the fans and players and everyone else involved to feel like we were as thorough as possible, and when we announce our full-time manager to know that there was a lot that went into it.” If Bogar gets the job — Daniels plans to make the hire before the World Series starts on October 21 (Thad Levine added in a radio interview that the club wants the manager to be “central in meetings and the recruitment of players” as free agency kicks off) — he will know he earned it on the basis of more than mere familiarity, or that 13-4 finish.

“Tim is a real good candidate,” Daniels said. “But if he is our manager, it will be a lot more meaningful if we went through a thorough search first.”

I try to never miss the Manager’s Show that Eric Nadel precedes every game broadcast with, and I was very interested in what Bogar would say before the season finale last Sunday. Aside from the note that he’s already under contract with Texas for another year (which is why the Diamondbacks have had to ask for permission to interview him for their managerial opening), Bogar addressed whether he handled the end of the season with his players any differently as their interim manager than he would have if he had been appointed full-time. His said he conducted exit interviews with every player, going over individual off-season programs and what the organization expects from them in 2015. “I went about it . . . as if I was going to be sitting in this chair next year,” Bogar said. “I think it was the right thing to do.”

I’ve become a big Tim Bogar guy. All the talk from the front office about energy and culture, about the ability to connect and motivate and communicate, about the search for a “partner” in the setting of the franchise direction — if it doesn’t point to Bogar, and the front office believes there’s an even better candidate to entrust the job to, then that other guy clearly will have blown the organization away. Adding talent to an organization goes beyond starting pitchers and middle infielders and corner bats, and the Rangers have a huge opportunity here to add an impact talent on the coaching side of things, at the very top, one who can help set the tone not only in the dugout but also throughout the organization.

In spite of the temporary void at that spot, there’s tremendous strength throughout the system in terms of those entrusted to oversee the franchise’s player development program, and that’s something that jumped out at me last week in Surprise. Obviously there are coaches in every organization who are exceptional at what they do, but I dare you to spend any amount of time around Danny Clark or Scott Coolbaugh or Casey Candaele or Hector Ortiz or Ryley Westman and not find yourself looking for a wall to run through, and that’s without even getting to the managers and pitching coaches and hitting coaches assigned to specific farm clubs.

When Nick Martinez is handed off to Maddux, and Smolinski is put on Dave Magadan’s and Gary Pettis’s plate — and when Bengie Molina gets Alfaro — those guys don’t arrive as finished products, but the crazy amount of work put in not only by the prospects but also by any number of coaches and instructors whose sole purpose is to make them better baseball players and teammates is what turns a 17th-round Lake Erie College infielder into Ryan Rua and a 30th-round Youngstown State righthander into Phil Klein, even if things don’t quite work out for Jordan Akins or Matt Thompson.

There are waves of prospects coming — pitchers first at this point, then position players — and it’s still a very good time to be a Texas Rangers fan, 67-95 notwithstanding. Fielder is swinging a bat and working through normal baseball activities. Choo played all year with torn cartilage in his ankle (he was hitting .314/.432/.500 when he originally injured it — .229/.322/.351 afterwards) and, as it turns out, he was battling through a bone spur in his throwing elbow as well, and both have been surgically repaired. Holland is back, Darvish will be, and eventually Perez will be, too. We have Odor.

And this is a team led by Adrian Beltre.

Jon Daniels said in the wake of this brutally difficult season: “I expect that we’re going to win next year.  The years of hoping and praying are gone.”

Maybe Billy Beane said that to a group of Bay Area reporters as well, but contrast that with what Peter Gammons wrote after Oakland’s final-third collapse that culminated with the loss to Kansas City:

When Beane made the trades for Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and Lester, there was a sense that, at least in the Cubs trade, that it was the wrong thing to do, but he didn’t care. He wanted to win one of those post-season elimination games. There was no solution to their venue or revenue problems, not for another six years. They had the best run differential and record in the game.  He and Dave Dombrowski were going to duel at an October sunset. Now Lester and Hammel are free agents and Samardzija will be put on the market to try to find an Addison Russell.

Good luck with all that.

In many ways I’m glad the 2014 baseball season is over in Texas — but, truthfully, I didn’t really want it to end.

Never do.

When Chan Ho Park won that season-ender 10 years ago today, it gave Texas its 89th victory, following four straight seasons in the low-70s and in last place. There was a prevailing sense that the Rangers weren’t quite as good as their final record in 2004, and I know many of you will remember the cautionary mantra routinely issued by John Hart and Buck Showalter that ensuing winter, even if it didn’t end up on billboards marketing season ticket packages for 2005:

“Managed expectations.”  

Hart’s successor bluntly said something very different a few days ago: The years of hoping and praying are gone.

He expects to win in 2015.

There’s much work to be done between now and then, with the coaching staff and with the roster and with the definition of everything else, including a culture tune-up that evidently began a month ago.

While I’m eager to see how all of it plays out, this is sports, and one of the great things about hiring a new manager or adding a number three starter or pulling the trigger on a direction-altering trade, all in the name of window-fitting, is that every one of those steps brings us closer to a new baseball season and all the expectations that go with it, expectations in this case that need not be managed but instead confronted head-on, as the quest for a season that ends in a win — and I’m not talking about Game 162 — awaits the hungry and healthier group of Texas Rangers that will suit up for 2015.