Key to Texas Rangers victory: Home-grown talent

The Texas Rangers excel in identifying potential players, then preparing them for the Big Leagues. Home-grown talent will be on display when they go to the World Series for the first time.

Jeff Haynes/Reuters
Texas Rangers pitcher Neftali Feliz (R) celebrates with catcher Bengie Molina (L) after defeating the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball's ALCS playoff series in Arlington, Texas, Friday October 22.

In 2008, the Texas Rangers drafted Justin Smoak, a young first baseman who had just graduated from the University of South Carolina.

In two years, he made it to the major leagues, and he illustrates why the Rangers eliminated the defending World Champion New York Yankees on Friday night 6 to 1 and are going to the World Series for the first time in their history.

Actually, Mr. Smoak won’t be on the field to hear the roar of the crowd. On July 9th, he got traded to Seattle, along with three minor leaguers, for star pitcher Cliff Lee who struck out 13 Yankee batters in game three. Mr. Lee, a lefty and the Texas ace, will probably start game one of the Series for the Rangers.

But, it wasn’t only the Lee trade that is one the reasons Texas will be in the World Series.

It’s also because Texas was able draft young players with potential such as Smoak who could be used to trade for stars or who are currently playing for the team. At the same time, the Rangers shifted their basic philosophy – no longer trying to pound teams into the ground with the home run ball – but taking advantage of speedy young players who can race around the bases.

Some of that home-grown talent will be on display when Texas takes on either the San Francisco Giants or the Philadelphia Phillies. (We will know by Saturday night or Sunday night.)

A strong minor league system

Behind those young, talented players is an organization that has excelled in recent years in identifying potential players and then getting them ready for the Big Leagues. In 2008 and 2009, Baseball America ranked Texas’ minor league system number one. This year they were number four.

“They have built a very strong minor league system,” says Dale Petroskey, a former Ranger official. “They are deep in talent.”

For example, among the players who have come up through the Texas organization are second baseman Ian Kinsler, first baseman Mitch Moreland, outfielder Julio Borbon, pitchers Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland, Michael Kirkman, and C.J. Wilson.

At the same time, Jon Daniels, Texas General Manager, has made some shrewd trades.

He sent home run hitter Mark Teixeira to Atlanta (he’s now at the Yankees) in return for Elvis Andrus, a dangerous and speedy lead-off hitter, and Neftali Felix, now their closer who threw 100 mile-per-hour fastballs on Friday night past Yankee star Alex Rodriguez.

“That trade was transformative,” says Ed Randall, the host of Talking Baseball on both WFAN radio and Sirius Radio. “This is not to say he hasn’t made some bad trades – like any General Manager has – but that trade was the catalyst.”

Shrewd player trades

Another key pickup is home run hitting Josh Hamilton who was acquired from Cincinnati in 2007 in a three player trade and could be the league MVP. At least twice in the series the Yankees walked Mr. Hamilton, a move that cost them when subsequent batters hit either home runs or doubles.

But, the most notable trade is for Lee, who was at the Seattle Mariners and was dangled by the team since he would be a free agent next year and the Mariners were not going to the post-season.

At the time, it appeared the Yankees were going to pick up the crafty lefty. Instead, the Rangers dangled Smoak, who was only hitting .209 but seemed to have promise.

“Everyone thinks he will be the next Chipper Jones,” Atlanta’s star infielder, says Mr. Petroskey. “That put them over the top for Cliff Lee.”

In addition, in 2008, the then-owner of the Rangers, Tom Hicks, hired Nolan Ryan to be the president of the organization. Mr. Ryan, a former strike-out king, brought a new ethic to the pitching staff.

Mr. Randall says Ryan told his pitching staff they would not be held to a strict pitch count. “To him it’s only an outside guideline,” he says. “He realizes incidents of injury are not directly correlated to pitch counts. That means pitchers don’t come in thinking all I have to do is pitch five and fly.”

Petroskey says Ryan wanted the pitchers in better condition than anyone else. Then, he had little mini-camps during the offseason to work with them individually. And, “he told them to throw more first pitch strikes,” says Petroskey.

At the same time, he brought Mike Maddux, an old friend, to be his pitching coach. In 2010, Rangers pitchers had the fourth lowest Earned Run Average, its best ranking in 27 years.

“He paid a lot of money to get Mike Maddux, but he’s one of the best pitching coaches in baseball,” says Randall.

Petroskey says all those changes illustrate how Texas has turned itself around from a struggling franchise which last won the A.L. West in 1999 to a team vying for a World Series title.

“They have gotten the model right,” says Petroskey. “If you can get that working then you can become like the Red Sox or the Twins.”

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