It's the toothache of professional sports fandom, that nagging, throbbing reminder that something's rotten. It fades in and out, forgotten at the worst of times, fiercest at the best. No matter how much you try to tell yourself it's not there, no matter how much you try to compensate, you can feel it -- in the clench of your jaw, and in that sharp jab through the temple that leaves you wincing and worried.
For Rangers fans, ironically, the pain began cresting just as it became apparent how strong the 2010 squad's chances were. It intensified as the Texas front office launched a series of stunning moves that pushed the Rangers farther into the post-season than they'd ever ventured. When Texas paid the price for Cliff Lee, it was the burn at the heart of the cost-effectiveness analysis: if Lee left after the season, would it have been a mistake to trade away young guys who might've kept the team consistently competitive well into the future? The euphoria of a World Series berth was an effective anesthetic, but it could only last so long. Then the ache returned, with its unanswerable uncertainties.
How long can this guy keep it up? Will they win while he's still at his peak, or will they waste his prodigious skills by surrounding him with also-rans? Will they lose him to free agency before the next wave of talent arrives? Is acquiring him simply shoring up fragments against the ruins of a declining roster? Should I call the dentist, or will it go away by itself?
The answers divide the dynasties from the one-and-dones, the juggernauts from the never-wons. Between the prospects and the pennant, between the contenders and the crown: falls the Window. Who knows what upheaval lurks in the dugout and 'pen? The Window knows!
Or so the story goes.
This off-season, a number of dire scenarios have played across the Texas stage. In particular, the acquisition of Adrian Beltre caused significant consternation, as Rangers fans debated whether signing the soon-to-be-32 year-old third baseman to a five-year, $80 million contract (plus 2016 voidable option) made sense for the roster as currently constructed. A quick check of Scott Lucas' indispensable 40-man chart at The Ranger Rundown reminds us that C.J. Wilson is poised to become a much-pursued free agent after 2011. Colby Lewis and Josh Hamilton follow after 2012, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, and David Murphy after 2013, and Elvis Andrus (!) after 2014. With all due respect to Messrs. Feliz, Moreland, Hunter, Holland, Harrison, and Borbon, that's most of the Texas core -- and there are still more questions than answers down on the farm.
The Rangers could re-sign any, even all of those players, of course, but in addition to the sheer cost of their contracts, they'll have to consider their ages. Of the group listed above, Andrus will be the only man under 30 when he reaches free agency. (Wilson will be 30; Hamilton, Kinsler, and Murphy, 31; and Lewis and Cruz, 33.)
Now, your average fan might be forgiven for not having too tight a grasp on what the Rangers' roster could look like in 2014. That's why organizations like Baseball America exist. Each off-season, BA projects the starting lineup, rotation, and closer for each team, looking some forty months down the line. Here are the projections for the Rangers, as far back as I could locate them (which, fittingly, starts with Aaron Fitt's December 2006 prediction for last season; click to enlarge):
It's important to be fair to BA when reviewing these projections. Their analysts don't attempt to forecast free-agent signings, and they tend to publish their rankings well before the hot stove's cooled. Fitt posted the putative 2014 lineup listed above, for example, on December 1, 2010, a month ahead of Beltre's deal with Texas. In addition, it's unclear how BA predicts free-agent departures – for example, why Hamilton and Wilson are listed for 2014, but Lewis is not. And, of course, these are hugely prospect-driven lists, in line with BA's focus.
I view these factors as features, not bugs. They underscore just how difficult it is to predict what the Opening Day roster will look like "only" three-and-a-quarter years down the line. Just forecasting one year into the future is tricky, for that matter. On April 6, 2009, how many people anticipated that the Rangers would feature Vladimir Guerrero as the starting DH 364 days later -- with Scott Feldman fronting the rotation, and Rich Harden, C.J. Wilson, and Colby Lewis following? How many people thought the Rangers had a whelk's chance in a supernova of trumping the Yankees for Cliff Lee's services in June, never mind repeating the act in the off-season bidding?
Fact is, no one's quite sure what light's breaking through yonder window. Texas fans are both hopeful and fearful that it's the West, and that the Rangers are the sun -- but we don't know. BA doesn't know. Jon Daniels doesn't know. (Daniels, by the way, becomes a free agent the year after Andrus. He'll be 38.)
Indeed, one of Daniels' great strengths as a GM is that there are things he knows that he knows, and one of those things is that there are things that he now knows he doesn't know, as well as things he doesn't know he doesn't know. As Daniels himself admitted in a March 6, in-game interview with Eric Nadel and John Blake, he was overeager when he grabbed the reigns in October 2005. Not only had he misoverestimated the Rangers' competitiveness, he also hadn't foreseen how dominant the Angels would be over the following few seasons.
Daniels' worst moves of those years were predicated on thinking he had a firm handle on the Rangers' alleged window. He looked at a core including Kinsler, Mark Teixeira, and Hank Blalock, and was convinced the Rangers were potential contenders -- and that Texas needed to realize that potential before key players moved on. That's what drove the trades and signings of the 2005 and 2006 off-seasons. Simply put, Daniels didn't know what he didn't know. (He was not alone.)
Now he does, and here's part of it: windows are tricky things. From a distance, they look open, but when the team tries to soar through: bam! like a bird smashing into -- well, a window. Trades don't work out in the way hoped. The star first baseman underachieves, the once-promising third baseman continues to fall off a cliff, and the hotshot rookie second baseman isn't quite ready for prime time. The expected top-of-the-rotation pitching acquisitions pitch like the middle-to-back-of-the rotation guys they are. And then it's a long, hard fall to rock bottom.
Naturally, four years later, amidst the manager's drug use and the organization's bankruptcy, a former hot prospect's reclaimed off the Japanese trash heap, and a temperamental reliever's converted to starter -- and they become the staff aces. The rookie with a catapult for a right arm wins the AL Rookie of the Year award as the team's closer. The in-recovery left fielder wins the AL MVP award the season after the worst year of his comeback; the right fielder waived after the disaster of 2007 would've been a candidate for the same prize had he avoided injury. The knee-less DH finds inspiration after being cut loose by the very same Angels who dominated the division for three straight seasons. In each of the year's acquisitions, almost every piece the team touches turns to gold. (Almost.)
There's no doubt that much of this is due to design and opportunity. Between running the numbers and a cracker-jack scouting team, the Texas front office deserves a huge amount of credit for recognizing that the window was cracking in 2010, and taking a crowbar to it. There's little doubt that the same staff is viewing the future with a gimlet eye. When all's said and done, though, the residue is also crucial. For all the importance of planning and window-gazing, getting to the post-season still requires a good amount of luck.
And getting through the post-season? Winning a World Series crown? That's a still-higher level of serendipity. We've looked at post-season probabilities before, but it's worth reiterating that in a seven-game series, a team expected to win 60 out of 100 games played versus its competitor wins the series only 71 percent of the time.
Looking ahead, it's not entirely out of the question that Kellin Deglan could be the Rangers' starting catcher in 2014. It's even more likely he'll wash out completely. By that point, Wunderkind Jorge Alfaro could be knocking on the door. Or the Rangers might very well decide that they need a better catcher now. You don't give up on trading for Cliff Lee even if your heart's on fire for your first-base prospect. You don't pass on signing Adrian Beltre because you suspect Mike Olt will be The Next Big Thing at Third. (Mr. Olt, of course, would ask you please kindly to pin that title on Chris Davis, who would, in turn, complain about your use of the word "next," and demand his spot on the 25-man.) You can't plan these things; you can only plan for them -- and even then, you're limited. You're always learning what you didn't know you didn't know.
So sit back. Relax. Have a drink (or a buffered analgesic) to dull the pain. Take in the view through the window -- and try not to worry too much about whether it's opening or closing. It's a pleasant enough diversion, as baseball discussions go, but beyond that, your guess is as good as Baseball America's. Meantime, there's plenty of enjoyment left to be had on this (saddle up, baysbawl, yer goin' fer a) ride.