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Are Rangers still a contender, or a sinking ship?

With only a few yet notable exceptions, the group of Texas Rangers officials, scouts and development personnel that launched into the off-season planning last week was the same as it was in 2013.

And 2012, 2011, 2010 and so on.

Continuity is never a bad thing, and the Rangers’ close-knit group has produced the overall results the past six seasons to prove that. Even with a disastrous 2014, the Rangers are 524-449 since 2009 and have only one finish in the division worse than second place.

Within that, there are three playoff appearances, two division titles, two league championships and two trips to the World Series. There aren’t many clubs that wouldn’t take that in heartbeat.

But in a what-have-you-done-lately world, the Rangers are trending the wrong way.

Despite 93 and 91 wins in 2012 and 2013, those seasons rate as disappointments by the way they ended. The 67-win 2014 is a flat-out abomination.

So, as largely the same minds went through the same process and said the same things in prepping for 2015, it’s not a stretch to question whether general manager Jon Daniels has the Rangers on a winning track.

Naturally, despite the downward arc and some off-season misses and the shortfall of ready-made injury fill-ins, he believes he does as he enters a critical off-season.

“We can always be better,” Daniels said. “We had a bad year, obviously, and ultimately I think we’re going to look back and see some good that came out of it. But now we’ve got to make sure we take advantage of it.”

Absent last week were the mighty voices of A.J. Preller, Don Welke and Ron Washington, who had been regulars since at least 2008. This is the second off-season without Nolan Ryan.

When they talked, people listened and decisions were tipped toward what they said, especially Preller, a former assistant general manager, and Welke, a former senior adviser.

“It’s definitely different not to have them,” Daniels said.

That duo, now overseeing the San Diego Padres, hasn’t been replaced. Jeff Banister has replaced Washington as manager, and rates as the only voice new to plotting the direction of the club.

Banister had the same questions about where the franchise was headed as he entered his initial interview to replace Washington. He wasn’t going to leave a team that had been to the playoffs two straight seasons for a sinking ship.

“I wanted to hear their view on 2014 and the impact that 2014 has had on the Rangers’ organization and what has been learned from it and how we’re going to use 2014 as a mode of moving forward,” Banister said.

“I wanted to learn about what we’ve done well, what has been done well here, but also what needs to be done better. I’m a firm believer that you have to look backward to see where you’re going, especially within the culture of how things get done within the organization because cultures win championships.

“This is definitely not a sinking ship. This is definitely an organization that will be back in its winning ways and back to being a force in the American League West.”

For now, Banister will stand as the only outsider to become a franchise insider. Others who have worked below Preller and Welke will get a chance to grow into larger roles rather than Daniels finding someone from another club.

“I leave open the idea of if the right guy comes along, we might add somebody to the mix, but I have no plans to add a senior-level guy,” Daniels said.

“The new manager changes the dynamic in the room a little bit. One of the things we asked ourselves in the interview process is, ‘Who’s going to challenge us?’ I welcome that. I think you always need that.”

The belief exiting the meetings in Surprise, Ariz., is that the Rangers have a winning core, but it needs to be supplemented by good baseball moves this off-season. The rotation is the biggest need, with decisions also looming at left field, catcher and designated hitter.

Innings-eating changeup artist James Shields will become a free agent at the end of the World Series. He will be targeted after being coveted by the Rangers as a trade target in 2012, when within the span of a December week the Rangers missed out on Shields, Justin Upton, Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton.

The Rangers landed their man last off-season, signing Shin-Soo Choo, but they decided that a first-round pick was more important than re-signing Nelson Cruz for $7 million. Cruz led the majors with a career-high 40 homers in 2014.

Many of the Rangers’ baseball people who spent some 20 hours together last week were responsible for those decisions. They form the same group that is forging the plan for 2015.

Daniels, the leader of the pack, believes the group still has the Rangers on a winning track despite a recent downward trend. He’ll know if he’s right a year from now.

“There’s just a critical mass of talent on the club and at the upper levels. We’re going to have to supplement that, but there’s the core of talent there to win,” Daniels said. “Maybe just as importantly, I believe in the guys in that group. Our scouts and our development people have a track record of making the kind of decisions and producing the kind of players who win.”

Rangers’ decline

Year Wins
2009 87
2010 90
2011 96
2012 93
2013 91
2014 67
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