Righthander Chris Young was riding the Double A Texas League buses with the Frisco RoughRiders last season when the NBA's Sacramento Kings dangled a two-year guaranteed contract for him to give up baseball. The Kings, for whom former Princeton coach Pete Carril is an assistant, figured Young, who had been a 6'10" two-sport star for the Tigers, would be a perfect fit as a backup center in their Princeton offense.
"Around that time I was promoted to Triple A," Young says of moving up to Oklahoma in the Pacific Coast League. "And the first road trip we made was to Sacramento. I had never been there. I met with [ Kings president of basketball operations] Geoff Petrie. It was very informal. Then I told myself, I'll give it five more starts in Triple A and see what happens. After the fifth start [he was 3--0 with a 1.48 ERA] I was called up to the big leagues."
The man who would be a King joined the Rangers in August and went 3--2 with a 4.71 ERA in seven starts while keeping Sacramento's offer secret. It wasn't until the final day of the season that he told Texas G.M. John Hart about it.
"I didn't think it was fair to be pitching for a team in a pennant race and concerning them with an outside issue like that," says Young, 25, who typically throws his fastball in the low 90s but was clocked as high as 95 mph last year. "I didn't tell anybody but my wife [Liz], and I think I was driving her crazy. We were engaged at the time. One day I'd think I was going to play basketball. The next day it was baseball. I like both sports, but the basketball contract was guaranteed. I'd have been foolish not to consider it."
Hart persuaded him to remain a Ranger with a king's ransom: a three-year, $1.5 million contract that Young signed in November. "Being from Dallas, I'm glad it worked out," says Young, who trained over the winter at Ameriquest Field in Arlington. "It's an exciting time for the organization."
Now Young is playing the pivot for Texas, whose season hinges on establishing at least one reliable starter in the manner of 28-year-old righthander Ryan Drese last year. Only Drese and Kenny Rogers, 40, began the spring as locks in the rotation. In camp the Rangers gave opportunities to veterans Pedro Astacio and Chan Ho Park, but Astacio has thrown only 82/3 innings (with the Red Sox) following shoulder surgery in June 2003, and Park has been one of the biggest free-agent busts in history. Three years into a five-year, $65 million contract, Park has delivered only 14 wins.
More likely, the season depends on what Texas gets from Young and Ricardo Rodriguez, a 26-year-old righthander whose successful four-start cameo last year ended when a line drive fractured his throwing elbow. Like Drese and most members of what was the league's top bullpen in 2004, Young and Rodriguez were acquired through trades by an organization that hasn't developed a bona fide starter since Rick Helling, a 1992 draft pick.
"Every deal I've made I've tried to add pitching," Hart says. "I'd love to develop or sign a Number 1 or 2 starter. In the meantime we're going to have to play it like we did last year: score runs and pack the bullpen with power arms."
The Rangers play their home games in a bandbox that last year was second only to the Rockies' Coors Field in runs scored. Texas hold 'em it is not. Baseball's preeminent slugging infield--first baseman Mark Teixeira, second baseman Alfonso Soriano, shortstop Michael Young and third baseman Hank Blalock, all of whom are in their 20s--combined for 120 home runs in '04.
Last year Texas improved by 18 wins over 2003 and finished three games out of the playoffs despite a rotation that resembled an American Idol casting call: 17 tried out, many to awful reviews. Teams typically backslide after such breakthrough seasons. Since divisional play began in 1969 (excluding strike-shortened years), only 11 of 53 teams that improved by at least 18 games increased their win total the following season, including only one, the '87 Giants, that made the playoffs the year after falling short in its breakout season. A more stable rotation would improve those long odds for Texas. --T.V.