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ARLINGTON -- The Tampa Bay Rays are on their way to the playoffs and the Rangers are sitting at home.
The Rays, after nine last-place finishes in the first 10 years of existence, are about to win their first division title. The Rangers are about to finish their eighth losing season in the last nine years while drawing under 2 million fans for the first time since 1995.
The Rangers have just been passed up by the Rays and that has to be somewhat discouraging.
"I'm encouraged by it," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said of the Rays' success. "They had a plan and they stuck with it. They didn't back off when it was unpopular or being criticized. They hired good baseball people and they made good baseball decisions, and it showed up on the field."
In doing so, it would seem there are no more excuses. If the Rays can enjoy the kind of success they've had this season despite low payroll, low attendance and low television market, then there are no more excuses for any other franchise. If the lowly Rays can do it ...
"There never should be excuses," Daniels said. "The last 10 years, teams from every market size, every climate, every ballpark configuration and every payroll percentile have made the playoffs. It doesn't matter. It's about having a plan, having good players and playing baseball the right way."
Daniels has a plan and has been operating under that plan for about 16 months. Owner Tom Hicks and club president Nolan Ryan have publicly supported that plan.
Sixteen months ago, the Rangers put in motion a plan to commit to a long-range commitment to scouting and player development, of going with young players from within a strong farm system and giving them every opportunity at the Major League level.
The start of the plan was signaled by trading Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne and Kenny Lofton for nine young prospects. It was accelerated by drafting and signing five players taken in the first or supplemental round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, and by increasing the Rangers' presence in Latin America.
The results of those efforts have been obvious in one respect. The Rangers' farm system is considered one of the best in baseball by those who keep watch over such things.
The results have been less obvious in another respect. The Rangers are still falling short at the Major League level, especially in the pitching department. But that does not deter Daniels in his belief that the Rangers are following the right path. The success of the Rays reinforces his belief. It does not discourage it.
"We're on a track to have a chance to do something similar in a short period of time," Daniels said.
The Rangers will continue to follow the plan. But they have five big questions to answer before they show up in Spring Training next year:
1. Should they re-sign Milton Bradley?
Bradley has been one of the top offensive players in the game this season. He is competing for a batting title and could set a new Rangers record for highest on-base percentage. His presence has meant much for Josh Hamilton.
Bradley turns 31 on April 15 and physical problems continue to be an issue. He did not go on the disabled list this year, but he was out of the lineup for 43 games because of a variety of ailments. He has played the outfield just once since the All-Star break.
2. Should the Rangers pick up Hank Blalock's option?
Pro: Blalock is having a great September and is showing he can be an offensive force again in the middle of the lineup. By bringing Blalock back for a relatively cheap $6.2 million, then the Rangers can leave him at first, Chris Davis at third and focus on pitching. Otherwise, they would have to find another bat for the middle of the lineup.
By letting Blalock go, the Rangers can move Davis back to first. That's his long-range position and his best defensive position. Then they can go out and find a strong defensive third baseman. Or they could go with Travis Metcalf and use the money saved on Blalock for pitching.
3. Should the Rangers trade Gerald Laird?
Pro: They have to do something. They have to make a decision on the traffic jam behind the plate. Trading Laird could bring pitching in return and allow the Rangers to use Taylor Teagarden and Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate. Teagarden is coming fast; he may pass everybody.
Laird is their most proven Major League catcher. He's hitting .278, he's athletic and he can throw. His pitchers like throwing to him. The Rangers might find there is a higher market value for one of their younger catchers who can bring more in return.
4. Should the Rangers pursue free-agent pitching?
The Rangers need pitching and this is a relatively deep class of free-agent starting pitchers. C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets are the top names but also eligible are Paul Byrd, Ryan Dempster, Jon Garland, Randy Johnson, Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Jamie Moyer, Randy Wolf and Andy Pettitte. The Rangers need two starting pitchers to compete next year.
Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Mike Hampton may also be free agents if their options are not picked up. This would be an incredible class if this were 1999. Everybody has been pining for Sheets all summer and now he has a bad elbow. The Rangers would be better off going with Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla and three young pitchers. Or they could trade Padilla and go with a fourth young pitcher.
5. Should the Rangers commit to Nelson Cruz in right field?
Pro: He is hitting .320 with six home runs and 23 RBIs in 28 games since his return. He has a .417 on-base percentage and a .583 slugging percentage. If the Rangers aren't going to commit to him now, when will they ever?
Cruz is playing because David Murphy is down. When Murphy is back, their best outfield is him, Josh Hamilton and Marlon Byrd. Cruz's trade value may never be higher than it is right now.