Rangers' offseason plan takes shape
Club fills specific needs despite uncertain circumstances
ARLINGTON -- The Rangers had a specific set of needs and a strict budget. They were coming off an 87-win season that saw them contend for a playoff spot into September, but were also dealing with an uncertain ownership situation.They were faced with the task of putting together a championship-level team by stretching what few resources were available to do that. The final story of the 2009-10 offseason is how the Rangers were able to stay so active and get so much accomplished despite their challenging financial situation.
"We had a plan," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "We had a good club last year. That made it easier to define our needs. We were able to be more focused than we had been the last few years."Will it all work out? That part is difficult. Many of the players acquired come with risk. The whole plan may fall apart once the season begins. Certainly the Rangers would have loved to have competed for free-agent pitcher John Lackey and outfielder Matt Holliday, while keeping pitcher Kevin Millwood and outfielder Marlon Byrd. That would have been ideal. But these were not ideal circumstances. Instead they were able to parlay Millwood into starter Rich Harden and relievers Chris Ray, and Ben Snyder, and $9 million in extra spending money, exchange Byrd for outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, sign pitchers Colby Lewis and Darren Oliver and add utility infielder Khalil Greene. In short, by acting as a true organization from top to bottom, they were able to accomplish all their stated goals. They are still monitoring free-agent pitcher Ben Sheets and that hasn't been ruled out completely. But for the most part, it's mission accomplished at the Ballpark in Arlington. "I'm very excited about what we've accomplished," manager Ron Washington said. The Rangers went into the offseason knowing one thing: to accomplish all their goals they had to trade Millwood. That's where everything started. Millwood was 13-10 with a 3.67 ERA in 2009, but also was set to make $12 million this season. The Rangers knew that money could be spent in other ways in multiple areas. "We knew what our budget was going to be last summer," Daniels said. "As much as we love Kevin, it was just a decision we had to make. We had to make sacrifices somewhere." The Rangers began by calling clubs and telling them Millwood was available. The Cubs, Mariners, Blue Jays, Mets, Diamondbacks and Orioles were interested. "A lot of clubs were interested in Kevin," Daniels said. "It was just a matter of cost in dollars and in players." The Rangers began implementing their plans at the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis early in December. The War Room was a small conference room at the Marriott Hotel, where a dozen officials worked almost around the clock trying to pull everything together. Nolan Ryan was there, not only as the club president but also as another baseball guy throwing in his opinion and listening to others. Daniels was in charge, but leaning on the meticulous guidance of assistant general manager Thad Levine, the creative brilliance of A.J. Preller, director of player personnel, and the veteran judgment of Don Welke, senior director of baseball operations with his four decades of baseball experience. Washington was there with a significant voice in the proceedings. Minor League boss Scott Servais lent expertise on the Rangers farm system and Josh Boyd, the highly-organized pro scouting director, stayed in constant communication with his scouts. There also were Ron Hopkins and Scott Littlefield, two of the Rangers' top talent evaluators, club vice presidents Jim Sundberg and Alex Hicks and farm assistant Jake Krug. "There were so many things going on at once, everybody in the room had a role and took part," Daniels said. "I can't say enough about having everybody come together during the course of that week and help execute the plan." As the Winter Meetings commenced, the Rangers were still talking to several clubs about Millwood, but ultimately focused on the Orioles. Daniels dealt directly with Orioles general manager Andy MacPhail, while Welke had back-channel talks with others. Many names were thrown out but the two sides finally agreed on Ray, a power-throwing right-handed reliever who had saved 33 games in 2006 before developing elbow problems that required Tommy John surgery. He had a 7.27 ERA in 46 games in 2009. "Obviously he had a down year but we're hoping for a bounce-back year because he has nasty stuff," Daniels said. The Rangers also took the Orioles first pick in the Rule 5 draft and latched on to Snyder, a left-handed reliever from the Giants organization whose above-average breaking ball gives him a chance to be a situational reliever. Most important was that the Orioles were willing to take $9 million of Millwood's salary, giving the Rangers some financial flexibility. They started immediately by spending $7.5 million on Harden, who was 9-9 with a 4.09 ERA in 26 starts for the Cubs while striking out 171 in 141 innings. Harden has a history of injuries, but if he stays health, the Rangers believe they have a pitcher with No. 1 stuff. Harden was their No. 1 target among free-agent pitchers and a deal was struck immediately after the Millwood trade. "We wanted to have a corresponding move lined up," Daniels said. But Harden for Millwood was only breaking even. The Rangers wanted one more starter and there were plenty. But they wanted Lewis, who they had been following for two years in Japan. Lewis was coming off two strong seasons and when he decided to return to the United States as a free agent, the Rangers moved quickly, signing him to a two-year, $5 million deal. "The thought process on Colby is he could be an innings-eater," Daniels said. "We're not looking to him to match what Millwood did. But if he does give us the innings, then Hardens becomes an addition and gives us something we didn't have last year." The Rangers were also going take some of the extra money from Millwood deal and sign Oliver to a one-year, $3.5 million contract. That upgraded a bullpen that already had Frank Francisco as the closer with C.J. Wilson as the left-handed setup reliever and Ray, Neftali Feliz and Darren O'Day from the right side. The Rangers still needed a right-handed bat, especially with Byrd headed out the door. Daniels had spoken to Byrd's agents at the GM Meetings in November and knew he wasn't coming back. The Rangers had already made the decision. With the money available, they wanted a big presence in the middle of the order. They felt they have center field covered with Julio Borbon, but had nobody who could bat behind Josh Hamilton in the cleanup spot. "As much strong sentiment as there was to bring Marlon back, for what he was going to get, we couldn't justify it," Daniels said. The Rangers wanted Guerrero. They talked about Troy Glaus, Gary Sheffield, Jim Thome, Xavier Nady and Jermaine Dye, but Guerrero was at the top of their list. Talks began in Indianapolis and an agreement was reached in January after Daniels and Washington met with Guerrero in California. The money was crucial but Guerrero agreed to a one-year, $6.5 million deal. It didn't hurt the Rangers were budgeted some extra money just after the New Year when the ownership situation appeared headed for resolution. "It was timing more than anything," Daniels said. "Ron was also big in recruiting him and in his ability to sell what we were doing." One day after closing on Guerrero, the Rangers were able to agree with Greene on a one-year, $750,000 contract to be their utility infielder. The Rangers didn't get everything done. They had a deal in place with the Red Sox at the Winter Meetings for Boston third baseman Mike Lowell until it was determined he needed wrist surgery. He would have been a backup first and third baseman but the Rangers still likely would have pursued Guerrero. "We might have been able to do both," Daniels said. The Rangers also found the free-agent catching market to be too expensive but were able to get Toby Hall on a Minor League deal to give them some depth at the position. They may add another catcher before the winter is over. They are also keeping a close watch on Sheets and his situation, although they probably won't be able to make the finances work. Money remains an issue. It has been all winter. But the Rangers found out that with organization, creativity and hard work, they can still stretch out the most of what they have.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.