For the long-suffering Texas Rangers and their ever loyal fanbase, the 2007 season was originally intended to signal the arrival of a new beginning. A new era, even.
Armed with a respectable offensive attack, a potentially dominant bullpen unit and perhaps the most stable Opening Day starting rotation to roll through Arlington in years, the Rangers seemed poised to easily surpass the 80-82 record they had compiled in 2006.
And underneath the newfound guidance and leadership of self-proclaimed "player's manager" Ron Washington (whose style was widely believed to be a refreshing change of pace from the stifling micromanagement that exemplified Buck Showalter's four year tenure in Texas), many felt that the Rangers, despite playing in one of baseball's more competitive divisions, were finally in position to flourish.
It's funny how things don't always work out the way you planned.
The offense, decimated by key early season injuries to Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock and Brad Wilkerson, struggled mightily at times to put runs on the scoreboard. And though the bullpen was every bit as dominant as Texas could have reasonably hoped for, the rotation collapsed into a disaster of epic proportions.
By the morning of June 1st, Texas starting pitching had recorded a cumulative ERA of 6.44 - nearly a full run worse than the next worst starting rotation in baseball, which belonged to the equally hapless Tampa Bay Devil Rays (5.58 ERA).
Not surprisingly, the Rangers also woke up on the morning of June 1st with a brutal 19-35 record, tied with the Kansas City Royals for the worst in baseball. Meanwhile, the remainder of the AL West pulled far ahead of the floundering Rangers, with the first place Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in particular staking a 13.5 game lead over Texas.
For the Rangers, the season was quite literally over before it even started.
They would eventually sink to a season-low record of 23-42 on June 13th, after the conclusion of a blowout loss at Pittsburgh, before finally turning their fortunes around with a successful second half run. Granted, they still finished dead last in the AL West with a 75-87 record, but sometimes you have to take what you can get.
Many Ranger fans are trying their hardest to forget about the misery that epitomized last year's frustrating campaign. I can't say that I blame them. But even during the course of a season as awful as the one we just witnessed, there are many noteworthy stories - some good, some bad, and some in between - that deserve special recognition for their significance.
Here are a few of those stories.
#10 - A-Rod Opts Out
October 28th, 2007
From the standpoint of a die-hard Rangers fan, one of the most interesting side plots to unfold during the course of the 2007 playoffs was the fascinating saga of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, and whether or not he would choose to opt out of the record 10-year, $252 million deal he originally inked with Texas before the 2001 season.
Under the terms of that contract, Rodriguez possessed the ability to exercise an opt-out clause that would immediately render him an unrestricted free agent after the 2007 season, if he so desired.
The opt-out window, however, was limited: A-Rod had to make his decision between the time his club was eliminated from post-season contention, and a contractually imposed deadline set 10 days after the conclusion of the World Series. If he didn't exercise his opt-out clause within that brief time frame, Alex would remain locked in with his current team for the final three years of his existing deal.
It wouldn't take Rodriguez ten days to reach his decision. During the final innings of the 2007 Fall Classic, word leaked that Rodriguez had indeed opted out - and the Rangers, as a result, would no longer be required to pay the remaining $21,304,500 subsidy they owed to the Yankees as part of the February 2004 blockbuster trade that originally shipped A-Rod to the Bronx.
In time, Alex discovered that both he and superagent Scott Boras had misread the free agent market. After hanging Boras out to dry, Rodriguez personally negotiated a shiny new 10-year, $275 million contract with the Steinbrenner sons, thus all but guaranteeing that the Hall of Fame-bound infielder will retire as a Yankee.
At long last, the book on the A-Rod era in Texas has been shut.
#9 - The Continuing Emergence Of Ian Kinsler
An utterly miserable start out of the gates for the Rangers was at least somewhat mitigated by a monstrous month of April from the bat of second baseman Ian Kinsler.
Drafted out of the University of Missouri by Texas in the 17th round (496th overall pick) of the 2003 MLB Draft, Kinsler ascended rapidly through the ranks of the Rangers farm system, won the big league starting job at second base outright at just age 23, and appeared primed to build off his strong rookie season.
Kinsler hit an astonishing .298/.375/.667 with 9 HR in just 84 AB for the month of April, though he failed to win the AL Player of the Month award in the face of A-Rod's even more ridiculous .355/.415/.882 batting line and 14 HR in 93 AB. He did snag AL Player of the Week honors for the period spanning from April 9th through April 15th, however, after going 10-for-21 at the plate and slugging four home runs.
Oddly enough, Ian followed up the best offensive month of his burgeoning Major League career to date with his worst, batting just .174/.267/.228 during a May campaign that found Texas losing 20 out of 29, and falling permanently out of contention in the AL West. He rebounded to hit a steady .259/.366/.482 in June, but a stress fracture in his left foot would sideline him for the entirety of the month of July.
That injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it granted the 25-year-old infielder precious time to work on his fielding, an area of his game which had ranged from shaky to downright awful for the better part of the year. Ian worked almost non-stop with manager Ron Washington and bench coach Art Howe on his footwork and positioning defensively during his stint on the disabled list. His efforts paid obvious dividends over the final two months of the 2007 season.
Kinsler wrapped up his second full big league campaign with a .263/.355/.441 batting line and 20 HR in 483 AB, including an impressive 23-for-25 run on the basepaths. Despite recording a batting average 23 points lower than the one he compiled a year previous, Ian realized healthy gains in the EqA (.266 to .277) and WARP3 (5.1 to 7.5) departments.
That improvement is undoubtedly attributable to not only his huge strides defensively, but also his marginally higher on-base percentage, and his brilliant 20-20 offensive accomplishment.
What will the calendar year of 2008 hold for Kinsler? With any luck, fewer injury woes - and hopefully, a long-term contract extension.
Anything beyond that is gravy.
#8 - 200 Hits, Part V
September 26th, 2007
Like it or not, a good share of the Rangers' aforementioned April struggles could be linked to the accompanying offensive difficulties of shortstop Michael Young. Following the conclusion of a home doubleheader sweep at the hands of the hated Yankees on May 3rd, Young was hitting a paltry .192/.211/.308 through 120 AB.
Not only had his power production mysteriously disappeared, but with each passing day, the odds of Young being able to log his usual .300+ batting average and 200 hits before season's end seemed to be fading further and further away.
But in trademark Michael Young fashion, the "Face of the Franchise" would come storming back from the brink - and with a vengeance. From May 4th onward, Young batted .343/.399/.443 over 519 AB, and recorded a pair of memorable walk-off RBI singles to sink both Milwaukee (June 9th) and Baltimore (July 6th).
Fast forward to September 26th, the Rangers' final home date of the year. Young entered the game with a comfortable .312 batting average, but just 197 hits.
One 3-for-5 day at the plate and a rousing standing ovation from the home crowd later, Michael had notched his fifth consecutive 200-hit campaign - and further cemented his legacy as one of the greatest Rangers to ever step foot on a baseball field.
#7 - Farewell, Ameriquest
March 19th, 2007
A decision that was almost universally panned from the moment it was announced was finally remedied less than two weeks before the onset of the 2007 season, as the Texas Rangers severed ties with Ameriquest Mortgage after a relationship that spanned almost three years in length.
Ameriquest had held the naming rights to the stadium formerly known as "The Ballpark in Arlington" since May 7th, 2004, when team owner Tom Hicks signed them over to Ameriquest for the paltry sum of $75 million over the life of a 30-year contract - for you math majors out there, that's just $2.5 million per year. These days, that's just barely enough to pay the salary of one mediocre reliever in the twilight of his career.
The Rangers reportedly began to show signs of buyer's remorse sometime in 2006, and consequently approached Ameriquest about the possibility of buying out the contract; initially, they were rebuffed. But with the total and utter collapse of the subprime lending market in late 2006, Ameriquest ran into dire financial straits, and wisely chose to revisit negotiations regarding their stadium naming rights deal with Texas.
After reaching a "mutually beneficial" decision with Ameriquest in terminating the sponsorship agreement, the Rangers moved quickly to rename their home stadium to "Rangers Ballpark in Arlington" - the product of a supposedly re-energized effort on the part of Hicks and company to improve their brand recognition within the competitive entertainment landscape of the Metroplex. I'm still not sure if I buy that explanation, but it's a nice sentiment nonetheless.
And hey, at least that damn bell is gone.
#6 - Six Hundred For Sosa
June 20th, 2007
Few names in baseball are more polarizing than that of the one belonging to the latest entrant to baseball's prestigious 600 HR club. Even fewer can say they were a part of the 2007 Rangers.
After a one-year layoff from the great game, Sosa and the Rangers agreed to terms on a minor league contract with an invitation to big league spring training on January 30th. Although the club's initial company line was that Sosa was brought aboard merely to "compete" for the everyday DH job, it became increasingly clear as spring training progressed that he would be "the one."
Whither Jason Botts?
While Botts terrorized Pacific Coast League pitching at Triple-A Oklahoma to the tune of .320/.436/.545 in 369 AB, Sosa drifted through the motions. "Slammin' Sammy" jacked 21 HR and recorded a team-high 92 RBI in 412 AB, but also hit just .252/.311/.468 overall. Nearly 83% of his plate appearances came as a DH, firmly positioning him as one of baseball's worst designated hitters in 2007.
Sosa would prove to still be a capable lefty masher (.328/.410/.613 in 119 AB), but the helpfulness derived from that type of production is hindered significantly when almost 70% of your plate appearances come against right-handers - and you hit a meager .222/.267/.410 against them.
The bright spot of Sammy's season came on June 20th, when he launched the 600th home run of his storied Major League career into the right-center field bullpen at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Fittingly enough, it came against the team he had spent 13 of his 18 big league seasons playing for: the Chicago Cubs.
By the time early August rolled around, Sammy's role had been reduced to that of a part-time player. Jason Botts was called up from the Redhawks to audition as the club's everyday DH for the final two months of the season, but a less than impressive showing offensively (.240/.326/.335 in 167 AB) may have been the final straw for the Rangers, who suddenly find themselves overflowing in outfield depth as a result of their most recent acquisitions.
And as for Sosa? Despite providing below-average offense and virtually zero defensive value, the 39-year-old outfielder is still sticking by his demands for a $7 million contract in 2008. That's a lot of dough to shell out for a player who's the proverbial one-trick pony - surefire Hall of Famer or not.
Yep, he's still Sammy.