Rangers' revival gaining more steam

Rangers' revival gaining more steam

Published Jan. 17, 2012 1:24 p.m. ET

The Yu Darvish contract drama will end this week. Our fascination with the Texas Rangers will not.

For a once-irrelevant franchise, that's an achievement to rival the consecutive pennants.

Darvish and the Rangers must agree on a deal by 5 p.m. ET Wednesday, or the Japanese pitching sensation will return to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters for the upcoming season.

The Rangers remain confident they will sign Darvish, sources said Monday. If they do, they will have a new international marketing star — not to mention a potential staff ace. If they don't, they will see whether free-agent slugger Prince Fielder is interested in their millions. Rangers officials met Friday with Fielder and his agent, Scott Boras.

Rangers officials have downplayed their chances of landing both Darvish and Fielder, "barring something changing," in the words of one source. But when it comes to expanding the payroll for a chance at the title, the Rangers are junior members in a class with the Yankees and Red Sox: Rule them out at your own risk.

We've heard plenty of rationalizations about the luxury tax and its limiting effect on the spending of the Yankees and Red Sox. The Rangers have no such problem; they have been operating well below the luxury-tax threshold of $178 million. If their ownership group — of roughly 30 partners — decides to spend big, the Rangers can do so. In theory, the Rangers can sign Darvish and Fielder — as long as they backload Fielder's contract — and maintain a payroll near to what the smaller-market Cardinals did last year (about $110 million).

Darvish or Fielder (or both) fit in Texas because of the Rangers' financial flexibility in the coming years. Hamilton and Michael Young will earn roughly $30 million this season, but those obligations will come off the books soon. Hamilton is set to become a free agent following this year, Michael Young after the 2013 season. So, there is money — and a place in the lineup — for a player of Fielder's caliber.

The Rangers' negotiations with Hamilton on a long-term contract are another consideration. If team officials aren't confident in their ability to reach agreement with Hamilton, they would be more apt to sign Fielder as their left-handed-hitting cornerstone.

One source said the Rangers' talks with Hamilton are on hold for now, so the team can focus on Darvish and its arbitration-eligible players.

"Hamilton is the face of the Rangers' hitters, at the moment," one player agent said Monday. "Four years from now, who's going to be the face? I don't know."

The Darvish/Fielder pursuit has been the healthiest way for the Rangers to cope with coming within a Lone Strike of a world title. It's also the latest chapter in a surprising trend: The Rangers are one of the most-talked-about baseball teams in America, not far behind the rich East Coast franchises. In a sport followed most closely on the local and regional levels, the team from Arlington has become familiar to even casual American sports fans.

The Rangers have a likable, well-rounded roster and one of the best farm systems in baseball. They have a lucrative television rights deal and World Series revenues to tap. Nearly 3 million fans came to Rangers Ballpark last year. Free agents want to play there. Over the last two years, no team has played more postseason games than the Texas Rangers.

In fact, the Rangers' recent success is one of their biggest assets in the Darvish talks. Robert Whiting, an author and expert on Japanese baseball, said Monday that the Rangers are highly respected in Japan because of the consecutive World Series appearances and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan's prominent role within team management.

It would have been hard to envision the Rangers gaining such status as recently as two years ago, when they were coming off their 10th consecutive season without a playoff berth. They have been a fixture in the national headlines ever since, mostly for the right reasons.

The 2010 season didn't begin well — the revelation of manager Ron Washington's positive drug test came during spring training that year — but the focus shifted to the Cliff Lee trade, Hamilton's MVP season, Young's first playoff berth and the team's inaugural World Series appearance.

The front office responded with a newsy and productive 2010-11 offseason, including the signing of Adrian Beltre and quiet acquisition of eventual postseason hero Mike Napoli. But the team's most dominant storyline in January and February of last year was one move that didn't happen – the near-departure of Young after a short-lived trade request.

Ultimately, Young and team management dealt with their differences professionally. The Rangers set a club record with 96 wins, and Young, who finished eighth in the MVP voting, was a major reason why. General manager Jon Daniels had another effective trade deadline, tweaking an excellent team into one capable of winning the World Series.

They didn't, because of one of the biggest sock-to-the-gut losses in sports history. But their offseason has been appropriately aggressive. And it isn't over yet.