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Texas Rangers THE PRICE IS WRONG

March 23, 1998
March 23, 1998

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March 23, 1998

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Texas Rangers THE PRICE IS WRONG

TALENT CHALLENGED/AL WEST

This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue

The Rangers have all the distinctive markings of a late-1990s
contender: star players, big salaries, a retro stadium brimming
with fans, flush ownership. Everything but the championship
banners. Performance has lagged behind payroll, which, at $55
million, ranks them fifth in the majors for 1998. General
manager Doug Melvin says, "If we're the fifth-highest-paid team,
then we should be one of the top five in the game," a statement
so eminently reasonable in this wins-per-dollar era and so
lacking in self-pity you wonder that a baseball man has the
courage to say it.

There might not be a bona fide No. 1 starting pitcher in Texas,
but there is no weasel either. "If I ever told our fans we had a
five-year plan," Melvin says, "as a fan I wouldn't buy a ticket
for the first four years." He expects the Rangers to draw close
to three million and compete for a division title every year,
even though they have won just one in their 26 seasons in Texas.
No excuses. Now, a World Series is a serious reach--everything
would have to go exactly right, including two or three players
having career years and maybe a surprise contributor from the
minors--but if the Rangers are good enough for long enough,
maybe, like John Elway, they can finally win a championship.

There can be no U-turns for a franchise whose payroll in the
past decade has increased 500% from $10.9 million, especially
since Tom Hicks reached an agreement on Jan. 7 to buy the
Rangers for $250 million, pending major league baseball
approval. Hicks has an open-wallet reputation--the payroll of
his NHL Central Division-leading Dallas Stars has gone from $18
million to $31.7 million since he acquired the team in December
'95. "People figure that in July [before the trading deadline]
we'll go out and get a player to help," Melvin says. "My
preference would be that we're five games up, and [Hicks] can
save his money and we can save our prospects that teams always
want in those deals. Yes, he wants a winning team, and he
doubled the Stars' payroll. Of course if he doubles our payroll,
that's $110 million. That's not going to happen."

If Melvin had ever wanted to shed salaries, he had a glorious
opening last summer when the injury-ravaged Rangers (14 players
spent 642 man-games on the disabled list) fell out of
contention. Instead he retooled for this year, not the
millennium. Melvin signed All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez
through 2002, traded streaky slugger Dean Palmer for speedy
leadoff hitter Tom Goodwin--a deal that also cleared a starting
spot for third base prospect Fernando Tatis--and swapped pitcher
Ken Hill to Anaheim for catcher Jim Leyritz, who then was
flipped to Boston for starter Aaron Sele and backup catcher Bill
Haselman.

The Rangers could have lost five free agents--Rodriguez, Palmer,
Hill and starters Bobby Witt and Roger Pavlik--and gotten
virtually nothing back, but Melvin either re-signed them or got
something significant in return. "Our problem wasn't lack of
performance but key guys out of the lineup the majority of the
season," says second baseman Mark McLemore, who hurt his hand
breaking up a double play on Opening Day and wound up playing in
just 89 games. "They recognized that and gave us a chance to go
out and prove we can do it."

Manager Johnny Oates says this is the best Texas team he has
managed, deeper and more versatile than the 1996 American League
West winner. The return of free-agent shortstop Kevin Elster
should stabilize the position, the bench is formidable--Luis
Alicea, Roberto Kelly and Haselman all have been regulars--and
the starting pitching can't be worse than the group that was
49-66 with a 5.11 ERA in '97. "Of course you'd like a Randy
Johnson, but not everybody can have one," Oates says. "That
said, I've got six guys who could win 15 games."

Like any team in the high-rent district, the Rangers are
star-driven. Rightfielder Juan Gonzalez has won an MVP,
Rodriguez might be baseball's most indispensable player, John
Wetteland is a superb closer, and leftfielder Rusty Greer plays
so well and so hard in a gritty, 1950s sort of way that
Wetteland has nicknamed him the Baseball Player.

The Rangers will need more baseball players, upper and lower
case, if they hope to do a full Elway this year. They aren't
ready just yet, not even to raise a hand and proclaim, "We're
No. 5." Ah, $55 million just doesn't go as far as it used to.

--M.F.

COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN DETERMINED The Rangers need a super year from superstar Rodriguez to help compensate for their pitching deficiencies. [Ivan Rodriguez]COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [Fernando Tatis]