Now, with the 40th anniversary of Bob Short’s escape in the rearview mirror, it’s time to go all the way and let the last of the bygones be gone.
How times change. The Rangers are not only the Series favorite over the miraculous Cardinals — “Rangers in six” is the chalk pick and mine, too — the Texas franchise has become a fine team-building model for other clubs from prosperous cities that are football crazy but not yet addicted to baseball.
Now, what team could possibly fit that description? Oh, right, the Nationals.
No franchise is in a better position to understand what the Rangers have done to transform their lot in just three lightning years, and to emulate that success, than the current club in Washington. You would be pressed to find two franchises more similar than the 2008 Rangers and 2011 Nats.
The Nats finished this season a thousand miles from the playoffs, much less from reaching consecutive Series like the Rangers. But there is a map. As the Rangers’ huge leaps in attendance demonstrate, it is actually a gold map, even if you play in the shadow of the Cowboys (or Redskins).
Just three years ago, the Rangers drew 24,320 a game, had a $66 million payroll and finished their fourth straight losing season at 79-83. This year, the Nats were 20th in attendance at 24,877, had a $66 million payroll and finished 80-81. Can you get closer? It wasn’t a fluke. If you look at four-year attendance, the Rangers and Nats were 99 percent identical. As a baseball market, and in talent level, the Nats are the ’08 Rangers.
How close (or far) are the Nats to a transformation of their place in the game, their fan base and their financial underpinnings? You have to win to find the answers. But the Nats should be motivated when they look at Texas, where crowds are up 49.6 percent since ’08 to 36,382 this season with 40,000-a-game plausible next year. And the Rangers have done it with a sane 13th-ranked, $93 million payroll.
Who dreamed a Texas ballclub could go to consecutive World Series and make money, all while playing across the street from Cowboys Stadium?
Could it actually happen? You need brains, organization, luck and money to go from where the Rangers were in ’08 to where they are now, but how much is required? The answer, which the Nats need to face, is: a whole lot. This isn’t a matter of stumbling into a couple of hot draft picks such as Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, then letting them grow up, adding a couple of $100 million free agents, and ultimately collecting your hardware.
The Rangers give a realistic sense of the things you must do right to get to a Series if you don’t start in New York, Los Angeles or a mega-baseball market.
The minor leagues are the core issue. You need to produce key pieces steadily, rarely missing a season, as the Rangers did with youngsters gaining visibility almost every year. And your scouting has to go deep to produce players such as fifth-rounder C.J. Wilson, Ian Kinsler (17th round), Scott Feldman (30th round) and Derek Holland (25th round). You must steal obscure prospects, too, such as Rule 5 pick Alexi Ogando from Oakland. None of them bloomed instantly or without setbacks. Some took years. And some prospects simply exist for trades, such as Frank Francisco, who fetched Mike Napoli (30 homers) from the Angels this year.
Player evaluation also creates unique, if unpopular, options, such as trading homegrown star Mark Teixeira in ’07, when Texas realized it couldn’t afford him long-term. Talk about a face-of-franchise player; the slugger called “Tex” fetched “unknowns” who have turned out to be 100-mph closer Neftali Feliz, shortstop Elvin Andrus and starter Matt Harrison. Someday, the Nats’ similarly agonizing decision might involve Ryan Zimmerman. GM Mike Rizzo already traded an all-star, Matt Capps, for Wilson Ramos.
If you can’t scout, stat-study, draft and develop young cheap talent at an elite level, you can’t play in October even with $95 million payrolls. If you get a glamorous first overall draft pick, then he better not be a bust. After many years, Josh Hamilton delivered on his MVP promise. Either Strasburg or Harper (but probably not both) needs to be a comparable force.
Never discount the necessity of luck, such as with late-emerging slugger Nelson Cruz, who was traded three times for nobodies and didn’t become a regular until he was 28 in Texas; his whole career has a Michael Morse feeling. As for rotation stalwart Colby Lewis, the Nats once signed him briefly in ’07 before he drifted to Japan, where the Rangers tracked and signed him last year.
Perhaps the biggest Rangers surprise is that, even now, they have pulled the trigger on only one break-the-bank free agent. And it worked. With his 32 homers, 105 RBI and Gold Glove work at third base, plus a three-homer game in the playoffs, Adrian Beltre looks like the cream of the free agents from last year, even topping Cliff Lee. At $80 million for five years, he’s highway robbery compared with Jayson Werth or Boston’s Carl Crawford.
It takes just 22 hours to drive the 1,400 miles from Nationals Park to the Rangers’ home grounds, where a Series champion may soon be celebrated.
If the Nats require three years to make that journey, and end up a round or two shy of where Texas has finished the last two Octobers, they’ll still think the long trip was absolutely grand — well worth every minute and cent.