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Anatomy of a Contender: The 2011 Texas Rangers

The first installment in a hopefully well-received and long-running series about teams which are not that relevant to this blog.

Texas Rangers v Colorado Rockies Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Good morning, everyone. Hopefully you are all healthy and safe somewhere, preferably with a large supply of Clorox wipes nearby just in case.

Given the paucity of topics about which to write currently, given the unknowns surrounding the 2020 baseball season, I’m breaking into my mental vault of things-I-always-meant-to-get-around-to-writing-about-but-never-have, and I am going to begin a new ongoing series. What we are going to do in this series is take a look at team roster construction, but through a different lens than usual. As this is a Cardinal blog, gallons upon gallons of digital ink have been spilled over the years on the various aspects of Redbird rosters, but how often do we really look at other teams, how they’re built, and how they got to that point? Hopefully you’re mentally answering, “Not often enough, Aaron,” right now, so that I can at least pretend this is going to be a useful and/or interesting series of columns.

At least to begin with, I’m going to go with good teams only. Not necessarily championship-winning teams, or maybe not even serious title contenders, but I want to use good teams, and in particular teams that have an interesting story to tell, from my point of view. Maybe at some point I’ll do a club or clubs that really disappointed or something after being projected as a contender, but for now it will probably be good teams. Got it? Good.

Anyhow, to begin this series, we’re going to head back nearly a decade now and look at the club the Cardinals beat in the World Series for the team’s most recent championship: the 2011 Texas Rangers.

Quick programming note: I will likely be using Baseball-Reference’s version of wins above replacement both in this column and throughout the series, simply because B-Ref’s team pages are easy to use and a handy way to look at the overall shape of the team and its sources of value. If a player has a large difference in his fWAR vs bWAR, I may note it, and particularly if the Fangraphs version seems to reflect reality better in some way. But, for the most part, I’ll be using bWAR simply because it’s so much easier to do on a teamwide basis like this — A.

2011 Texas Rangers

96-66, 1st place in American League West

Lost World Series to St. Louis Cardinals, four games to three

Beat Detroit in ALCS (4-2), Beat Tampa Bay in ALDS (3-1)

The Cardinals won their most recent World Series championship by beating the Texas Rangers, who were appearing in their second consecutive fall classic at the time. They had fallen short the year before against San Francisco, who won their first of three titles in a five-year period, serving in hindsight to underline just how monstrously unfair the world can be sometimes. The Rangers and their fans were not exactly the early 90s Buffalo Bills, granted, but anytime you come as close as Texas did to a championship, only to see it slip away, twice in a row, it’s a real kick in the teeth.

How close did the Rangers come? Well, they got knocked out fair and square by the Giants in 2010, but looking at the ‘11 series without my red glasses on, they really should have won that series. They were probably the better team overall, but more importantly, when you have a warning track fly ball in the air with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and a lead, you should, generally speaking, reel that one in. The fact the Rangers did not is testament both to the power of one of baseball’s least-noticeable aspects in outfield defense, and to just how easy it is to forget that for every heroic, unforgettable moment in this game we love there is also someone failing, someone losing, someone tipping a triple with their glove. And that someone is almost always Nelson Cruz.

Coming off their World Series run in 2010, the Rangers didn’t really make a whole lot of moves. And honestly, that’s understandable. They didn’t have to. The 2010 club went 90-72, and there was no real reason to expect much of a fall off. They had an exciting core featuring the AL MVP in Josh Hamilton, a strong pitching staff that drew on contributions from a wide base of players, and a few really strong young talents that suggested the 2010s were going to see a whole lot of the Texas Rangers playing in October. The fact that didn’t really happen, and the Rangers saw their potential dynasty fall apart so very quickly, is just one of the reasons I find this particular team so intriguing.

WAR Leaders

Ian Kinsler — 7.0 WAR

Adrian Beltre — 5.6 WAR

Mike Napoli — 5.5 WAR

C.J. Wilson — 5.0 WAR

Elvis Andrus — 4.2 WAR

Josh Hamilton — 3.8 WAR

Matt Harrison — 3.8 WAR

Alexi Ogando — 3.6 WAR

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is an impressive leaderboard. Ian Kinsler was a legitimate MVP candidate that season (and is one of the more underrated players of the past decade or so, as befits a star second baseman), and the Rangers had eight players worth at least three and a half wins on the squad. After Ogando there’s a dropoff to Michael Young at 2.7 WAR, so I stopped at eight. It’s pretty easy to see how a club gets to a 96-66 record (with underlying peripherals that support it), when there’s this much value being spread around the field.

Okay, so remember that thing I said a moment ago, about the Rangers not making a lot of big moves in the offseason between 2010 and ‘11? Well, that’s still sort of true, in a way, but it’s also not entirely true. See, two of the eight players here listed as WAR leaders were not, in fact, part of the 2010 club. Only one of the two were seen as big deals when acquired, though.

Starting with the one that was a big deal, we have Adrian Beltre, who signed a free agent deal with the Rangers ahead of the 2011 season. He was coming off a disappointing five-year stint in Seattle, followed by a rebirth year in Boston in 2010. In retrospect, Beltre’s tenure with the Mariners was not a disaster, but in putting up sixteen fWAR over five years in Seattle he basically performed like the solid, annual all-star vote third place type he had been in Los Angeles for most of his early career, rather than the supernova he appeared to be in ‘04, his last season with the Dodgers, or the surefire hall of famer he would become during his time in Texas.

Beltre’s deal with the Rangers was for six years and $96 million (he would sign an additional two-year extension for 2017 and ‘18 that would carry him to the end of his career), and it proved to be, along with the Cardinals’ Matt Holliday signing, one of the best free agent contracts of the era. In the six seasons covered by Beltre’s deal with Texas (2011-’16), he produced almost 36 wins above replacement. He became the face of the Rangers, replacing Nolan Ryan’s World Series grimace. Adrian Beltre is an all-time great signing, made by a club coming off a near-championship season.

The other big addition, but which was not really seen as such at the time, was Mike Napoli, whom the Rangers acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in late January. Did you remember Mike Napoli was a Blue Jay? I didn’t. Probably Napoli doesn’t, either, seeing as how he was only a part of the roster for five days and obviously never suited up for them. He was traded twice within a week that offseason, heading from Anaheim, the team which had drafted him, to Toronto as part of the Vernon Welles deal (now there’s a name I haven’t thought of in a while), and then on to Texas in exchange for Frank Francisco, a middling righty reliever who always had some buzz because he threw hard but never really performed. Needless to say, the Rangers got the best of that deal.

Up to the point Texas acquired him, Mike Napoli had been one half of the Angels’ bizarro-world catching tandem along with Jeff Mathis. The two came up at almost exactly the same time, with Mathis serving as the all-glove, no-hit wonder behind the plate, and Napoli his counterpart, the slugger who really shouldn’t be calling pitches but is just so damned enticing as a possible catcher because of how he hits. Napoli was, by pretty much every measure we have, an horrific catcher, and it made all the sense in the world a couple years after this when he became a defensive stalwart and still-excellent hitter at first base for the Red Sox in their 2013 title run.

It was during this 2011 season we’re looking at when Napoli really began appearing at first base, though he was still primarily catching. And his batting line that season was one for the ages: a .320/.414/.631 triple slash, good for a 1.046 OPS and a 179 wRC+. He walked 13.4% of the time that season, and it was the only campaign of his career in which he posted a strikeout rate below 20%. What seemed like a relatively minor move in the offseason, trading for a platoon catcher who had already been dealt once just a week before, turned out to be a huge deal.

As for the rest of the Rangers’ top performers, it’s an interesting mix of types, with one big elephant in the room we’ll get to in a bit. Ian Kinsler was a late round draft pick by the Rangers in 2003 out of Missouri; a classic player-development story in the Matt Carpenter mold, wherein a talented ‘tweener type makes good in a huge way. C.J. Wilson had come up with the Rangers back in 2005 as a reliever and kicked around in that role for a few years before inexplicably becoming a much better starting pitcher than he ever was out of the bullpen, sort of like if Braden Looper had actually turned out to be really good back in ‘07. (By the way, did you realise that Braden Looper was not only the Cardinals’ first-round pick back in 1996, but also the third overall pick? What kind of fucking nightmare dystopia did we live in back in the 90s when a right-handed relief pitcher went third overall? That’s appalling. I suppose we could still go to the mall, though, so it was maybe at least as good as nowadays.) Wilson had a couple solid years out of the ‘pen, but was the Rangers’ best starter in both 2010 and ‘11, then moved on to the Angels, where he became more of a middle to back of the rotation type, pairing with Josh Hamilton to give Arte Moreno plenty of reasons not to sign ex-Rangers.

Alexi Ogando had been selected in the minor league Rule V draft way back in ‘05, then bounced around the Texas system before showing up in the big leagues in 2010, then breaking out as a starter in 2011. It was the only season of his career in which he was both consistently healthy and consistently starting (though we Cardinal fans probably remember him best as the reliever Allen Craig made his name against in the series), and it was by far the best year he ever had. He wasn’t exactly a one-year wonder, as he had a couple good relief seasons on either side of his 2011 star turn. Call him more of an Ugly Kid Joe or Cutting Crew.

Josh Hamilton remains one of the more fascinating, and tragic, figures of the baseball world this century. I’m not sure if everyone knows the story, but the short version goes something like this: ultra-talented high school baseball prodigy (like Bryce Harper level prodigy), gets picked first overall in ‘99 by the then-Devil Rays. Drug problems follow, prodigy washes out of baseball. Doesn’t play at all for a couple years. He fights his way back, gets taken by the Reds in Rule V draft in December of 2006. He put together a great season in 2007, then is traded to Texas in exchange for Edinson Volquez. Was good in ‘08, struggled in ‘09, and then went crazy and won the MVP award in 2010. Good again in 2011, though strikeouts began to be an issue for him, still really good in 2012, then signed with the Angels and went off the rails. Fell off the wagon, feuded with ownership, had personal problems, talked even more about Jesus, was out of the game by age 35. The Rangers trading for Hamilton after that one good season in Cincinnati was a masterstroke of calculated risk-taking, and a huge part of what they were able to do in that 2010-’11 window.

Now it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room: Mark Teixeira. Many of you may remember the Mark Teixeira trade of 2007; it was described at the time as the Herschel Walker trade of baseball. Sadly for the Rangers, it never quite rose to that level of absurdity (the Herschel Walker deal was the trade that largely built the early 90s Dallas Cowboys dynasty), but they did manage to flip one star first baseman for four top prospects from the Atlanta Braves, and the DNA of the Teixeira deal was all over the 2010-’11 teams.

At the time of the trade, Tex had one year of club control remaining plus the remainder of the ‘07 season. He was coming off three straight seasons of 121 or better wRC+ marks, and was in the midst of what would be a 4.4 win, 146 wRC+ season in 2007. He missed some time due to injury that summer, the first time in his career he had really done so, but even so he was outstanding. The Rangers were going nowhere in 2007; they finished the season with 75 wins and had an all-time awful pitching staff. So they flipped their biggest trade chip to Atlanta, and in return they received what at the time looked like an historic haul.

In exchange for one and a third seasons of Big Tex, the Rangers received Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz, widely considered the Braves’ best prospects at time, plus Matt Harrison, a highly thought-of lefty starter and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a switch-hitting catcher who had been one of the top prospects in baseball a year or two earlier, but whose stock had dropped a little as his contact issues became a concern and his work behind the plate remained unpolished. Saltalamacchia had made it to the big leagues at age 22 all the same, though, and was still a huge get for the Rangers at the time.

Of those four players, only Saltalamacchia, whose name I am definitely getting tired of typing, was not a contributor to the 2010-2011 playoff clubs. He struck out over 30% of the time in both 2008 and ‘09, and was dealt to the Red Sox in 2010, having spent the bulk of that year in the minors. He would have a decent run with Boston from 2011-2013, turning the tools he had always possessed into solid enough defense and league-averagish offense, which for a catcher translates into about three wins a season. He fell off a cliff after going to the Marlins as a free agent, though, and was essentially done by the time he was 33. The Rangers ended up receiving three players in return for Saltalamacchia, but none of them were really prospects, and none ended up making any impact one way or another.

The other three, though...

Elvis Andrus was the most valuable in 2011, posting that 4+ WAR season at age 22. At the time, Andrus was a slick fielder and had untapped offensive potential; in the years since, the defense has been up and down, has now mostly declined, and the bat peaked in 2016-’17 but has never really come around the way many people thought it would back at the beginning of his career. Andrus was supposed to be Francisco Lindor, but never really hit those heights. Still, he’s right around 30 WAR for his career, regardless of which system you prefer, and still has a few more years in which he could/should be reasonably valuable. Teixeira ended up with a hall of very good career, and Andrus will likely not reach his career WAR total, but he’s still been a solid player for a long time. And in 2011, Andrus was a young star on the rise.

The other two players, the pitchers, have more checkered histories, as is often the wont of those who hurl for a living. Matt Harrison had horrible back problems and was essentially done after 2012, throwing barely 40 innings from 2013-’15 and retiring before his 30th birthday. In fact, if one wanted to trace a large part of the Rangers’ failure to continue their success through the teens to Matt Harrison’s really sad career arc, it’s not exactly a stretch. He had a 130 ERA+ in 2011, a 133 in 2012, and then he was gone. Baseball sucks sometimes.

Burning equally bright — and short — was Neftali Feliz, who came up in 2009 as one of the first of the new generation of triple-digit fireballers. What Trevor Rosenthal was in 2012, or Aroldis Chapman in 2011, Feliz was right out of the gate. He was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2010, contributing hugely to the Rangers’ playoff run, then settled in for 2011 as a top-flight closer, albeit one who wasn’t quite as dominant as he had been the year before. He was good again in 2012, and then...the injuries hit. Tommy John surgery, missed almost all of 2013, was great in a slightly abbreviated 2014, and then more injuries. This is what Jordan Hicks’s bad outcome future looks like. Still, in 2010 and ‘11, Feliz was a huge part of what the Rangers were doing.

Long term, the Rangers’ return for Teixeira kind of fell apart. And really, that’s sort of how those mega-packages usually turn out. In 2011, though, the three players the Rangers received from Atlanta contributed 9.5 wins to the cause, and it looked like they had secured their future for years to come. The Mark Teixeira trade will go down for me as an all-time interesting one, largely because of how it changed the course of the Rangers’ future.

There were other contributors to that 2011 club I haven’t mentioned yet, of course. Michael Young was still very good, posting an .854 OPS (125 OPS+), mostly as a DH. Young had been with the Rangers his whole career and was really their elder statesman at the time. Colby Lewis was a huge contributor to the 2010 club after returning from a stint in Japan, then put together more of a bulk innings type season in 2011. Another smart risk, in the vein of what the Cards did with Miles Mikolas. Darren Oliver put up a spectacular season as a 40 year old, though in lefty reliever terms that’s still only about mid-career. He was a canny free agent signing, but nothing anyone was going to throw confetti over. Derek Holland was just a kid at the time, but had all the talent in the world to go along with that goofy hair poking out of his hat. He was another late round draft pick by the Rangers, out of a community college, and just developed.

There was a narrative back around the time the Rangers were starting to really get good that they had done so on the back of their farm system. I was guilty of buying into that, seeing Jon Daniels as one of the harbingers of the new, pipeline-focused front office model that would eventually come to make our offseasons so dreadfully dull. Really, though, the Rangers did build through their minor leagues, but what they mostly did was make some really smart trades, take some really smart risks, and sign one fantastic free agent contract.

Smart trades: the Teixeira haul, at least in the short- to medium-term; picking up Mike Napoli for virtually nothing.

Smart risks: grabbing Josh Hamilton from Cincinnati when the Reds were maybe looking to get out of the former drug addict prodigy business before it turned turtle; signing Colby Lewis from Japan; moving CJ Wilson to the starting rotation.

The small moves Daniels mostly got right, too, like picking up Alexi Ogando in the minor league Rule V when he was still a hard-throwing lanky kid with no control. Ogando was a late bloomer, but was a big contributor for a little while there. The farm system did, in fact, churn out some big value as well, particularly in the form of some later-round draft guys, led by Kinsler, who has to be an all-time great seventeenth rounder.

And, of course, signing a first ballot Hall of Famer to a long-term deal as you’re coming off a World Series appearance goes a long way, so long as that Hall of Famer is Adrian Beltre, and not Albert Pujols. The Rangers were smart, but the Rangers were also lucky. Smart to sign a fantastic player, lucky that he aged the way he did, instead of, well, you know.

I would imagine that every team I look at under this microscope will show as having a combination of things that went right to get them where they wanted to go. But the Rangers stand as a really interesting case to me, and if I had more time I would go more into their decline, and why they were unable to pull out of the tailspin once it started. Maybe some other column some other day. As you can see, though, these types of retrospectives tend to be very long, and tracking down transactions and all that stuff is very time-consuming. So, maybe some other time for the fall of a contender series. Actually, that sounds really appealing; I very much want to write some of those now.

This column has mostly been about the 2011 Texas Rangers, but it’s really impossible to separate out the ‘11 club from the 2010 team which preceded it into the fall classic. The 2010 club had most of the base building stuff done, much of which came from the Teixeira deal and some very productive drafting. Going from 2010 to ‘11, though, the Rangers put the pedal down and pushed their club to a higher level, signing Beltre and trading for a really underappreciated player in Mike Napoli. Between the two of them they contributed just about eleven wins worth of value, and really accounted for the Rangers jumping from a 90 win club with October aspirations to a 96 win team that really believed a trophy was in the cards. The foundation was in place, and the front office made a couple of more or less perfect moves to add that little bit of extra fuel that sent the whole thing into orbit.

And then Nelson Cruz missed a fly ball, and sorry not sorry, I’m not giving that trophy, or those memories, back.