Credit Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch for recognizing his elders, and for being a polite guest.
“The division goes through Arlington,” Hinch said before the Astros’ game against the Rangers on Saturday. “They’ve won it the last two years and we have tremendous respect for them. Unless they raise the white flag, or it’s late in the season (with a big lead), we are not going to allow to see it a different way.”
Props to Hinch for saying this with the necessary level of sincerity that a stranger to the situation may actually believe it.
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Don’t bother. Not even a team from Houston, where choking is a celebrated way of life because of the humidity and sports teams, could blow a division lead this big. The Astros are not going to maintain a plus-.700 winning percentage, but the AL West now goes through Houston.
The Rangers are closer to owning the worst record in the American League than they are to catching the Astros. The Rangers are not the worst team in baseball, but they are nowhere nearly good enough to contend as one of its best, which is Houston.
And Nolan Ryan’s fading fingerprints are all over this transition that began years ago. His departure from the Rangers had a far more profound impact than his arrival did with the Astros.
Whereas Nolan deserves ample credit for his tenure with the Rangers and the most successful run in team history, he deserves none of it since he arrived as an executive adviser in Houston.
He’s basically a part-time guy who helps out with some business matters, and will evaluate and watch some minor players. By the time he arrived in Houston the club’s farm system was set with a load of top-tier prospects, many of whom are with the team now and are a big reason why the franchise is so good.
While it’s no secret he would like to run a team again, he deliberately has remained a fringe player with the Astros. His priority was to let his son, team president Reid Ryan, run his own team without his dad’s shadow lurking over his every move.
The Rangers don’t necessarily need, or even miss, Nolan by name. What they miss, and need, is someone back in the front office who can challenge the GM.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels no longer has someone in his trust tree who can tell him no. Or to tell him, “You don’t want to do this.”
Someone who could tell him, “If you sign Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year, $130 million contract, I quit.”
Nolan could be a killjoy, but his role as a baseball version of a conscientious objector had value for the Rangers. Teams are always better off when the man making decisions on personnel has someone he trusts to challenge, and debate him, over roster decisions.
When Nolan left after 2013, JD had a few of those types remaining in his office. Men he had long relationships with and whom he trusted in assistants Thad Levine, A.J. Preller and Don Welke.
But those three are all gone, having taken jobs with other clubs. Some accepted the jobs because it was a step up, and some left over money.
For all of his success, manager Jeff Banister is not going to challenge JD just yet.
Owner Ray Davis has final say, but as evidenced by the growth in payroll, which at $178 million is the seventh highest in baseball, he is more of an enabler than a challenger.
Since Nolan was kicked out of the club in Arlington, the result is one terrible year followed by a pair of AL West titles. And now this — the seventh-highest payroll for an inadequate roster that is good enough to cough, gag, wheeze and sputter their way to a flirtatious relationship with .500.
JD has spent his way to building a relevant club that is not nearly as good as the World Series’ teams. JD spent his way to build a team that, best case, is a wild-card contender in name only
This club is not built the way the Rangers constructed their best teams; they’ve fallen into the same trap most former champions do — they spend and they spend to extend their window in hopes of contending, when, in fact, what they are really doing is remaining above .500.
It’s not too different than the Los Angeles Angels, or a handful of other teams.
Windows to win a title are not open for long, and then without warning they close. It’s open for Houston.
“I believe we are in that window,” Astros veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran told me Saturday. “I believe this team has about three years to do it. I mean, look at the Royals. Or the Angels.”
The Rangers had it, but Game 6 happened.
Now it’s the Astros’ turn.
The AL West goes through Houston.
Mac Engel: @macengelprof