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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 reacheverything would have to go exactly right, including two or three players having career years and maybe a surprise contributor from the minorsbut 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 reputationthe 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 Goodwina deal that also cleared a starting spot for third base prospect Fernando Tatisand 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 agentsRodriguez, Palmer, Hill and starters Bobby Witt and Roger Pavlikand 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 formidableLuis Alicea, Roberto Kelly and Haselman all have been regularsand 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.
by Michael Farber
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