The happiest place on earth is somewhere around here, maybe even within walking distance, but it sure the heck isn’t the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort.
That’s where officials from all 30 major league teams — plus officials from minor league clubs, job-seekers, player agents and media — have gathered for the annual winter meetings.
These four days are the biggest event of the off-season, where baseball business picks up some two months before spring training opens. Decisions are made, players are acquired, teams are thrilled, teams are spurned, headlines are made.
There are exceptions, and at the top of the list the past several years running have been the Texas Rangers. They come with plans, scouting reports, a Rolodex and phone chargers, but rarely do they pull off the major deal of the meetings.
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“Games aren’t won at the winter meetings,” general manager Jon Daniels said Sunday.
It will be an upset if they steal the spotlight this week, after last week finished with their hopes for one star player being crushed by a division rival and with another American League team acquiring the game’s most fearsome slugger.
The Rangers coveted Shohei Ohtani, the newest player for the Los Angeles Angels, but never made a play on Giancarlo Stanton, who will be introduced Monday as the newest New York Yankees bomber.
A primary reason for the Rangers’ interest in Ohtani was his ridiculously low price tag. Had the two-way star from Japan waited two more years to begin his MLB career, he could have scored a deal worth upwards of $200 million.
And the Rangers wouldn’t have gone there.
Money, as difficult as it is for many to understand, is on Daniels’ mind this off-season after playing the 2017 season with more money than he has ever had.
The 2018 payroll will be around $150 million, down as much as $25 million from a season ago. The ability is there to make the reactionary splash so many want Daniels to make, but at this point in the off-season — it’s still early — Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Wade Davis and the like aren’t on the Rangers’ radar.
“We’re trying to evaluate everybody on their individual merits and how we value them,” Daniels said. “We’re not trying to buy a label. We’re trying to get the right fits for our club.”
The Rangers aren’t going all-in in 2018 even as the teams around them seem to be. They are going with their core offensive players, who stack up nicely in the AL, and are seeking the right value to fill out the starting rotation and bullpen.
Any holes offensively, like the need for a right-handed hitter, are likely to come from players in the organization who are still trying to prove their big-league worth. Ryan Rua, for instance, fits that mold.
Daniels admits to this after telling the team’s leader and best player, Adrian Beltre, and their newest acquisition, left-hander Mike Minor, that the Rangers will be contenders in 2018.
Contenders for what? Last place?
No, the postseason, Daniels said. And here’s why:
The Rangers have made the playoffs five times since 2010 and played in a tiebreaking Game 163 in another season. Only twice since 2009 have they posted a losing record.
The players in the organization work hard, fear no one and believe in themselves, having resurrected themselves from a disaster in 2014 to back-to-back division titles in 2015 and 2016.
Fine. But one of those losing seasons ended only 2 1/2 months ago. And, as the storyline continues to go for some, the Rangers haven’t enjoyed nearly the same success since Nolan Ryan was atop the front-office depth chart.
(Daniels was there just below him doing much of the legwork and doing it with less than the Rangers will pay out in 2018.)
So, fans and probably Beltre and Minor have to trust that Daniels will find the right parts to get the Rangers racing again, and they must understand that it’s likely not going to happen this week.
The shiniest pieces probably aren’t coming to Arlington, though price tags seem to drop the closer it gets to spring training.
After free-agent reliever Brandon Morrow turned his career-saving season into a two-year deal north of $20 million, the Rangers might have to wait to find bullpen help they can stomach paying.
Agent Scott Boras isn’t going to field any calls from the Rangers as long as Arrieta’s price tag is $150-$200 million, but might if the former TCU star is still on the market a month from now.
So, as a public service announcement, lower any expectations this week for the Rangers. And probably this off-season. For those in the anti-Daniels camp, try to summon some faith in the GM who has helped turn the Rangers into one of the most successful MLB teams since 2010.
For those desperate for a counter move against the Angels and Yankees, consider that the Rangers’ five postseason appearances since 2010 are the same as the Yankees and four more than the Angels.
In light of the Stanton deal and based on 2017, the Yankees seems like an October shoo-in. The Angels are closer to the playoffs than they were a week ago.
The Rangers might feel further away, even further than their 78-84 finish in 2017.
At this point it’s hard to build up much trust in that group or that front office. But at this point, there’s not much choice.