The Texas Rangers are Hungry

Bottom of the 9th inning. The count is 1-2. Neftali Feliz on the mound. David Freese at the plate.

“Into right, well hit…Back at the wall…and it’s off the wall! One run scores…here comes Berkman…Freese has tied it, 7-7! Unbelievable.”

This moment and these words will live on in Texas Rangers history in infamy. For some, if you are like me, this memory makes your stomach drop as if you swallowed a five-pound weight. This, of course, was Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, in which the Rangers were one strike away from their first World Series title for the first of what would be two times that night. All around the D/FW metroplex and in St. Louis dreams, hopes, and joy was killed in the 13 seconds it took for that David Freese triple to transpire.

Now the Rangers approach the beginning of the 2012 season, greeted with yet another spring filled with new hope. After such a bitter end to the 2011 season, this offseason has surely been the most difficult for them to endure in their career. Faced with such a devastating end to the season, I believe there are two ways to react: dwell on the World Series loss and dream of what might have been, or use it as a chip on the shoulder to gain focus and improve preparation for the upcoming season. Based on comments from Nolan Ryan last week, it seems the Rangers have chosen the latter.

In 2010, the Rangers made the World Series in a year when they “shouldn’t have”. That World Series loss still felt like a victory for this organization, if only because it had never before won a postseason series. In 2011, the Rangers defended their American League title with a target on their back the whole year, and came even closer to winning the championship. The 2011 loss did not have the same feel of moral victory. Now, the Rangers are a legitimate contender, and this team has a new standard to which it holds itself.

Michael Young stated it well in an interview this week, “In my mind, the last two years have been very successful,” Young said. “We didn’t get the ultimate prize, but we did some great work. Our work’s not finished yet. We’ll keep at it. I’ve heard the term ‘World Series hangover’ a lot. I’m not concerned about that at all. It’s an ultra-competitive group. The only thing we’ve been thinking about is putting on our uniforms and beating people.”

This is a team of highly competitive, experienced players that have an itch, a hunger, to achieve the ultimate prize. And this is not a feeling unfamiliar to this club, nor has it been assembled in this manner by accident.

Clearly, the Rangers players that have been with this club since the 2010 season have both experience and that desire burning in them after two World Series losses. This group is led by a core set of veterans – Michael Young (12 seasons, 33 playoff games), Colby Lewis (7 seasons, 8 playoff starts), Nelson Cruz (7 seasons, 33 playoff games), Ian Kinsler (6 seasons, 33 playoff games), Josh Hamilton (5 seasons, 33 playoff games), and David Murphy (5 seasons, 26 playoff games). We can debate what the future with the Rangers should look like for each of these individuals until we’re blue in the face, but for the 2012 season it is an extremely valuable asset to this team to have this kind of experience and leadership, yet all are still seeking their first championship.

In the offseason between 2010 and 2011, the Rangers made several additions to their team – Adrian Beltre (14 seasons, 21 playoff games), Mike Napoli (6 seasons, 31 playoff games), and Yorvit Torrealba (11 seasons, 24 playoff games). With each of these additions, players hungry to prove themselves or win a championship were intentionally sought. In Jamey Newberg’s e-book “JD: Building the team that built a winner”, he describes the additions of Beltre and Napoli in this way: “Daniels and his crew saw a star-level third baseman who had never won in the post-season and a catcher who had a chip on his shoulder as the result of his career-long employer’s doubts about his defense — doubts that the Rangers didn’t share. Texas acquired two very hungry players.” The extra motivation Beltre and Napoli carry within them did not go unnoticed by Jon Daniels and his team, nor was it undervalued. During the 2011 season, Mike Adams (8 seasons, 11 playoff appearances) and Koji Uehara (Age 36) were added to the mix. Uehara has even more to prove in 2012 after a significantly disappointing end to the 2011 postseason.

In preparation for the 2012 season, the Rangers once again have acquired players cut from the same cloth – skilled, hungry, and in pursuit of that elusive first World Series ring. Joe Nathan (11 seasons, 8 playoff appearances) is the ultimate example of this. Nationally, Nathan is mostly seen as damaged goods after having significant shoulder surgery in 2010, and struggling for most of 2011. The Rangers, on the other hand, saw one of the best closers of the last decade begin to regain his form at the end of 2011, and now is ready to prove his worth again, and claim his first World Series title.

Even the biggest acquisition of the offseason, Yu Darvish, fits this mold even though he is yet to play a MLB game. Darvish has displayed his ultra-competitiveness while pitching 1,024 innings over the last 5 years in Japan. Beyond that, he carries the weight of becoming the first Japanese player to fully live up to the hype that follows him. His motivation comes not from his prior shortcomings, but the disappointment that has resulted from the expectations placed on his countrymen that have gone before him.

(Speaking of hunger, both Nathan and Darvish had pivotal meetings with the Rangers over a steak dinner this offseason before they were signed. Coincidence? Yeah, probably.)

Also invited to the Rangers Spring Training camp this year are Conor Jackson and Brad Hawpe. Though these invitations are relatively insignificant, both of these players were of All-Star caliber in 2008-2009, and are still only age 29 and 32, respectively. They may still have something left in the tank, with the motivation to prove their worth as well. These signings are along the same lines as when the Rangers signed Mark DeRosa in 2005, Marlon Byrd in 2007, or Endy Chavez in 2011. There is a track record of success in this organization with this practice.

In total, among the 59 players that have been invited and reported to camp with the Rangers this spring, there is a total of zero World Series rings. Zero.

As I wrote in January, the Rangers are trying to do something that has not been done since the 1923 Yankees – lose two consecutive World Series, and return to win the following year. They are trying to do so with an even larger target on their back, in an American League that saw the Angels, Yankees, and Tigers reload their rosters with major improvements.

The road ahead in 2012 will perhaps be the most difficult the Rangers have ever faced. Yet, this club could not be in a better position, being filled with talent, experience, and perhaps most importantly with what could be the “x” factor – hunger. 


Peter Ellwood is a Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @Peter_Ellwood
Peter Ellwood

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