No longer does Thad Levine risk paper cuts or burst eardrums when he checks what the local media is saying about the Rangers, the team for whom he serves as assistant general manager. In years past, Levine said, as soon as the Dallas Cowboys began summer training camp in late July, the newspapers would relegate baseball coverage to the sixth page of the sports section and the loudmouths on sports talk radio would open with four football segments before finally shifting discussion to the baseball diamond.
But the Rangers' run to their first playoff appearance in 11 years and ultimately their first American League pennant in franchise history -- notably coinciding with a disastrous season for their NFL neighbors across the street -- kept baseball on the forefront of the North Texas sports conversation on a daily basis all the way through the end of their World Series loss to the Giants in early November. The Rangers continued to grab their share of attention during the first two months of the offseason thanks to their aggressive pursuit of top free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee and later their signing of All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre.
"We saw a little bit of a transformation, but I don't think we're so cavalier to think that this is anything but a Cowboys town first," Levine said in an interview with SI.com, while general manager Jon Daniels was traveling overseas. "But for a moment in time we made it a Rangers Metroplex, and that was a pretty special moment in the franchise."
The biggest change, however, isn't the public one but the private one: in the accounting books of the defending American League champs. The club sank into significant debt under former owner Tom Hicks, needing a pair of loans from Major League Baseball -- $15 million in May 2009 and $21.5 million more this past May -- to remain in operation. The second loan was granted days after the Rangers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
That precarious ownership situation was finally settled when attorney Chuck Greenberg and team president (and Hall of Fame pitcher) Nolan Ryan won at auction to buy the team in August. A month later Fox Sports Southwest and the Rangers completed a new television contract reportedly worth $1.6 billion over 20 years.
That deal helps explain how the Rangers have moved into the realm of big-budget clubs. It's how a team less than six months removed from bankruptcy offered Lee six years and $138 million of guaranteed money, with a $23-million vesting option for a seventh year. It's how they eventually signed Beltre to a five-year, $80-million contract with a vesting option that could make it six years for $96 million. It's how they could even consider adding another veteran bat, as there were reports this week that the Rangers are interested in slugger Jim Thome.
And this newfound financial might is why the balance of power is shifting in the AL West. The Rangers are no longer just a sleeping giant with a prized farm system. Now they are an organization that has the financial clout to add talent through free agency, too.
That may seem like a lot to read into a team that has made just one major signing this winter, but consider that with the Beltre deal the club is spending nearly nine figures on a player who wasn't even their No. 1 target this offseason. Furthermore, the Rangers can spend that kind of money without mortgaging their future, according to the insistence of Greenberg who, as reported by ESPNDallas.com, said that "signing Adrian does not change our plans or impair our plans in any way" to lock up reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton, All-Stars Elvis Andrus and Nelson Cruz, or closer-turned starter C.J. Wilson. Those players become free agents in successive years, starting with Wilson (after 2011), then Hamilton (2012), Cruz (2013) and Andrus (2014).
"We're hoping to establish a window [of contention] that stays open longer than a standard two- to three-year window," Levine said.
While the Rangers' budget won't be soaring into the stratosphere of the Yankees or Red Sox -- or, for that matter, even as high as the Cubs, Phillies, Mets and Tigers, each of whom had payrolls in excess of $120 million last year -- Ryan has indicated that Texas is prepared to eclipse $100 million in player salaries for the first time since Alex Rodriguez was getting some $25 million per year from Hicks in 2003.
According to the website Cot's Contracts, the Rangers have committed about $61 million in player salaries for 2011 so far, but that figure doesn't include arbitration-eligible players (such as Hamilton and Wilson, both due for big raises) or other players under team control. Regardless of where exactly the budget settles, it'll be a radical jump from their 2010 Opening Day payroll figure of about $58 million and provides the club a new option for bolstering their lineup with veteran talent.
"When you're making a trade, especially when you're acquiring major league talent, there are two currencies that are accepted," Levine said. "One is the ability to take a large chunk of payroll off of someone else's books and the other one is, of course, trading prospects."
It's baseball's equivalent of a grocery store cashier asking "cash or credit" -- and for a few years the Rangers had no cash. They had only credit in the form of promising prospects, who collectively were rated as the game's best farm system by
That same year was when the Rangers first faced their budget crunch. That summer, they led the AL West as late as July 10 but they didn't have the payroll flexibility to make a significant trade-deadline acquisition. At that time the club was exploring a trade for Roy Halladay, talks that later fell through for undisclosed reasons, but likely in part because of the $22 million or so in salary remaining on the final year and a half of Halladay's contract.
Not wanting to face the same fate in 2010, last offseason the Rangers made what initially appeared to be a head-scratching move, trading starter Kevin Millwood to the Orioles for reliever Chris Ray. But the deal had an overlooked advantage in that it netted the club about $8 million.
"We got creative with a very small budget," Levine said. "It wasn't popular when we did it, but we traded Kevin Millwood -- a guy who had done very well for our franchise -- and it looked immediately like a step back for us. We were doing it because we only had a finite amount of money and we were able to reallocate those funds in part to sign guys like [Darren] Oliver, [Rich] Harden and Colby Lewis."
The Rangers reinvested that money, and indeed those three pitchers -- of whom two, Lewis and Oliver, were instrumental to Texas' division title and playoff run -- cost $12.25 million for the 2010 season, meaning the Millwood trade paid for about two-thirds of them.
Having learned from their in-season struggles to add a key player in 2009, Texas preserved about seven to 10 percent of their 2010 payroll budget for use midseason, according to Levine. So while the club's Opening Day expenditure was widely reported as $55 million (though really $58 million given the money sent to Baltimore in the Millwood trade), that wasn't the club's ceiling, as it had nearly $6 million in reserve in addition.
That money came in handy when the Rangers made deals for veterans Lee, Bengie Molina, Jorge Cantu, Cristian Guzman and Jeff Francoeur in packages that included 10 prospects at midseason. A recent
"We may have taken on salaries that would be equivalent of increasing our payroll by $16 million, but in practice the vast majority of those salaries were being paid by the teams from whom we acquired the players," he says. "We paid them in the form of extra players. We could have traded lesser-valued prospects or fewer prospects if we had a little more latitude to take on money."
In their nouveau riche world, the Rangers were serious contenders to trade for and extend some of the game's best young arms this offseason. Levine wouldn't discuss specifics of negotiations to obtain Zack Greinke, whom the Royals traded to the Brewers, or Matt Garza, whom the Rays dealt to the Cubs, but he did say that it has been the organizational philosophy that, anytime a high-level starting pitcher is available, the club "pursues that player at least to the point of learning what it would take for us to acquire him."
Even without adding a bona fide front-end starter to help soften the loss of Lee, who signed with the Phillies, the Rangers still look to have improved. The addition of Beltre -- whose signing was made possible by the accommodation of incumbent third baseman Michael Young, who will move primarily to designated hitter -- bolsters their defense without hurting their offense. The loss of Lee could be lessened if they can get reliable production from reclamation project Brandon Webb, the former Diamondbacks ace who finished first or second for the NL Cy Young in 2006, '07 and '08 but has pitched only four innings since then because of shoulder injuries.
"On paper we feel as if a lot of teams in the AL have improved themselves and significantly," Levine said. "We want to start the 2011 season with as good a team, if not better than the one that started the 2010 season, and then stay nimble throughout the year in ways to improve our club to put ourselves in a better position to get back to the playoffs and ultimately repeat."
Levine stressed that there has been no changing of the guard in the AL West yet, at least not until the Rangers hold off the perennial division champion Angels for a second year in a row while also staving off the emerging A's and their excellent pitching staff.
But with new reserves in the bank and the prospect of more big signings like Beltre, it's a safe bet that the Rangers will remain contenders in the AL West -- and front-page news in Dallas -- for at least a few more years to come.