Ryan sees progress with Rangers
Club headed in right direction in competitive AL West
ARLINGTON -- Attendance is up, they had their first winning season in five years and their young players are one year older and wiser. The leadership in the front office and on the field is stable.The Rangers still haven't been in the playoffs in 10 years and the ownership situation and financial outlook is still unsettled. But Nolan Ryan, after his second season as the club's president, is able to look around and see much that he likes about the franchise. "Overall I was very pleased with our season," Ryan said Tuesday morning. "I felt we made a lot of progress. Our young players gained valuable experience and a lot was accomplished. I'd like to think the experience they gained will help them get better and give them the realization of what they need to work on to help the ballclub get better." The Rangers still have much work to do to compete in the American League West, a division that has been dominated by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but may only get tougher in the next few years. The Rangers were better this season, but the Seattle Mariners won 24 more games than they did in 2008 and the Oakland Athletics are putting together their own nucleus of strong young pitchers. The Rangers are already beginning the process of preparing for 2010. Ryan, general manager Jon Daniels and owner Tom Hicks met on Monday, and there are more organizational meetings to come. The Rangers know their needs. They want a right-handed bat, they want to reinforce their bullpen and they will look into adding a veteran starting pitcher. They want to re-sign outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher Ivan Rodriguez. The first order of business is to establish a payroll budget. The Rangers were at approximately $68 million in 2009, and Ryan said the club can expect about the same next season despite the occasional vibrations of financial instability. "I think it will be right there," Ryan said. "Whether it goes up or down I can't say, but I don't see much variance." If that is the case, it should allow some flexibility and the ability to explore the free-agent market. The Rangers lose $20 million off the payroll by subtracting Vicente Padilla, Frank Catalanotto and Hank Blalock. But the usual restrictions still apply regardless of economic health. "I think it's going to be pretty much the way it has been in the past," Ryan said. "We'll have the opportunity to improve the ballclub if we can find the right person who fits our needs. Are we going to be able to sign a big-name free agent to one of those long-term contracts? I don't think so." Ryan continues to maintain his support for both Daniels and manager Ron Washington. "I think Jon has done a good job with the development side of it with our scouts and the people in our farm system, and I think we've made a lot of strides at the Major League level," Ryan said. "I'm very pleased with that. I think Ron has done a good job of growing into his job. I think he's matured as a manager and his relationship with the players is excellent." A year ago Ryan became personally involved in the Rangers' pitching, making it a top priority throughout the organization. The result was the pitching staff, despite a number of key injuries, had a 4.38 ERA, down from 5.37 in 2008. "I think we made a lot of progress there," Ryan said. "Our bullpen was more consistent and our starters were more consistent. With the number of young starters we had, if you look where we began and where we finished, we didn't get as many innings out of them as I had hoped. I think that's a reflection of their youth, but I still think we made a lot of progress. I'm not disappointed at all." As a reflection of the improvement on the field, the Rangers' attendance went up for the first time in four years. The club drew 2,156,016 fans for an average of 26,617. They averaged 24,021 in 2008 while drawing under two million for the first time in a non-strike season since the Ballpark was opened. The Rangers are still far below the 2,860,731 fans they averaged per season in a six-year period from 1996-2001. Overall, Ryan said the health of the franchise is stable at this point, which seems based on the young talent on the field rather than their tenuous financial situation. "I think it's much better than this time last year," Ryan said. "We were No. 1 in baseball in percentage increase in attendance, our young players got a year of Major League experience and we still have players in our farm system that can help us win at the big level at some point in the future. Overall I have to be pleased." The ownership situation remains unresolved. Hicks has said he is looking into selling all or part of the club in an effort to reduce debt in the Hicks Sports Group. There are groups out there that have put bids in and are in discussions with Major League Baseball. The process is ongoing but Ryan insisted it should have no effect on what the Rangers are doing as far as putting a team together for next season. "I don't think it impacts us at all," Ryan said. "We'll approve a budget and operate within that budget. The budget will be in the same neighborhood as it was this year. We'll have a business plan and stick with it."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.