Building the cover band.

Let’s face it: Texas can’t match the Astros’ discovery of Jose Altuve.

Nobody can.

Not long ago, Houston couldn’t match the Rangers’ trade for Josh Hamilton.

Nobody could.

A whole lot of different things have to come together to win.

If it were only drafting at the top after years of sustained terribleness, the Nationals would at least have a playoff series win by now, let alone a World Series title.

If it were all about having limitless money to throw at free agents — and to cover up mistakes — the Yankees would have more titles than one in the last 17 seasons.

If it were a function of having the guts and the knack for making big trades that work, Dave Dombrowski would have more than one championship in his 29 years running the Expos (zero), Marlins (one), Tigers (zero), and Red Sox (zero).

You’ve got to check off lots of boxes. Timing comes into play, in the front office — where opportunities with trading partners and with free agent players have to line up — and in the batter’s box and on the bases and in the field. Players have to execute at the right moments. Players in the other uniform may execute a little better, at the critical moments.

I was thinking I might write today about “The Last Jedi,” but I know it’s too soon on the spoiler etiquette scale, so instead I figured I might write something, in spite of the relative crawl of the off-season around baseball, about the Rangers.

And about the Astros.

I saw something in Houston earlier this week that stuck with me (aside from unexpectedly spotting a dude in a restaurant without a goatee; maybe it was the lighting?). It was a row of books (or magazines — I looked away too soon to know for sure) on a grocery store shelf honoring, in full, gaudy Halloween hues (Hughs), a World Series victory.

I know (but completely fail to understand) that there are Rangers fans that leaned into the Astros’ title march on a platform of state pride. But not me. I’ve never been more invested in a championship game or series in any sport without my own team involved.

Ever.

Sports rivalries are a gift. They don’t get set aside in the name of regionalism.

(Don’t @ me.)

(Or @ me.)

And though I respect Houston’s season, and the multi-dimensional plan that begat it, I don’t celebrate it. I have friends and family that I’m happy for, but I sports-hated Astros in seven, and seeing a row of book-or-magazine covers over the latest issues of Field & Stream and Easy! Sudoku shouting at me about it.

Give Houston all the credit in the world for finding Altuve for $15,000. That happened before GM Jeff Luhnow arrived. The farm director (Ricky Bennett) and special assistant (Al Pedrique) who played large roles in the discovery have been gone from the Astros for years.

Dallas Keuchel in the seventh round in 2009 was outstanding. He’s the Astros’ Ian Kinsler. Kyle Hendricks. Chris Davis. Keuchel was drafted by scouting director Bobby Heck, whom Luhnow fired in 2012 (though area scout Jim Stevenson is still around).

Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman are Astros because Houston earned the picks to select them by regularly losing in triple digits (and, in Bregman’s case, by blowing a second straight number one pick, taking Brady Aiken in 2014 and not signing him a year after taking Mark Appel rather than Kris Bryant).

OK.

George Springer (pre-Luhnow) and Lance McCullers were drafted well and Marwin Gonzalez was a brilliant Rule 5 pickup and Chris Devenski via trade was outstanding. Adding stabilizing veterans like Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick was smart, if overdue, and Yuli Gurriel at big money, but not insanely big, was a solid risk.

The Justin Verlander trade was a no-brainer that almost didn’t happen, and should have a month sooner. Verlander was Houston’s Cliff Lee.

Many teams can match ledgers with much of that, and Houston, since watching the Rangers play in two World Series, has its own J.D. Martinez release and Delino DeShields mistake and Appel-over-Bryant decision and butchered trades of Mark Melancon and Jonathan Villar and Josh Hader-Brett Phillips-Domingo Santana to reflect on.

No team personnels perfectly, and there’s no MLB version of the Cleveland Browns.

You assess the shifting state of your window and hope to make good trade decisions. You listen to your scouts. You embrace the analytics. You the make the most of the draft and the international landscape and allocate the dollars entrusted by ownership. Lots of things have to come together to win.

And it’s not just the big moves that have to work. Not only did the reigning AL MVP sign for that paltry $15,000 bonus, the Cy Young (a two-time Cy Young, incidentally) was picked up in a relatively quiet deadline deal as a 24-year-old AA pitcher with a losing record and a 4.29 ERA in four minor league seasons.

Does Texas reach its first World Series without Edinson Volquez and Danny Ray Herrera for the enigmatic Hamilton? Or without its fanfareless deal to bring journeyman Colby Lewis back from Japan, or the brilliant bullpen work of minor league Rule 5 pickup Alexi Ogando and waiver claim Darren O’Day?

How far does Texas go in 2011 without Nelson Cruz, who was a tack-on in a July buyer’s deal and finally got a real shot at age 28, with his fourth organization, or without Mike Napoli, whom the Angels (after failing to sign Adrian Beltre) sent to Toronto in a deal for Vernon Wells, four days after which the Jays unceremoniously flipped Napoli to the Rangers for Frankie Francisco?

Where do the Rangers go either year without the 17th-rounder Kinsler? Or 40-year-old Darren Oliver, in his third tour with Texas, at modest money?

Aside from Gonzalez and Devenski, the pair of Astros moves that I respect the most were two that, without which, this winter’s book-or-magazine covers may instead have been at the top of aisle 18 at a Los Angeles Ralphs:

  • Two years and $14 million in November 2016 for free agent Charlie Morton, coming off a year-long hamstring injury
  • Jed Lowrie and Fernando Rodriguez to the A’s in February 2013 for Brad Peacock, Chris Carter, and Max Stassi

Peacock’s 7.1 World Series innings (two runs on four hits and three walks, eight strikeouts, .154/.267/.308 Dodgers’ slash line), including a scoreless run of eight batters in relief of McCullers in Game Seven, and Morton’s brilliant four frames (one run on two hits and a walk, four strikeouts) to close the decisive victory out, which combined with his strong start in Game Four amounted to an opponents’ slash of .143/.189/.171, were absolute difference-makers, indispensable contributors to a world championship.

Houston stayed away from a shaken Ken Giles (1.2 innings) and limited the ineffective Devenski’s work (5.0 innings) in the seven-game set, and barely touched Luke Gregerson (1.0), Will Harris (2.0), and Francisco Liriano (0.2), getting 17.2 dominant frames from Peacock and Morton, neither of whom came in as an elite draft pick or on a huge free agent deal or in a trade deadline blockbuster with seconds to spare.

During the regular season, Peacock (10–2, 3.22 in 21 starts) and Morton (14–7, 3.62 in 25 starts) were big parts of the Astros’ staff as starters — logging 34 percent of the rotation’s 71 victories. Then they were nails in relief late in October, when it counted most.

And almost certainly didn’t have a jersey in the gift shop all year.

From 2011 through 2013, nobody won more games in the regular season than the Rangers (280), and nobody lost more than Houston (324).

As a result, looking solely at the draft, and at the first round alone, Houston was able to take Correa (1.1) and McCullers (1.41) in 2012; Appel (1.1) in 2013; and Aiken (1.1) and Derek Fisher (1.37) in 2014. The failure to sign Aiken allowed the Astros to take Bregman (1.2) in 2015, three slots after which they took Kyle Tucker (1.5), by virtue of their 91-loss 2014.

Those same years, Texas, picking late in the first round because of three straight seasons north of 90 wins, took Lewis Brinson (1.29) and Joey Gallo (1.39) and Collin Wiles (1.53) in 2012; Chi Chi Gonzalez (1.23) and Travis Demeritte (1.30) in 2013; and Luis Ortiz (1.30) in 2014.

The Rangers, picking 1.4 in 2015 (between Houston’s selections of Bregman and Tucker) after their lousy 2014 season, took Dillon Tate. That didn’t work out so well. Those two months of Beltran a year later that cost Texas a package of Tate and fellow minor league righthanders Nick Green and Erik Swanson (neither of whom was among the four draft-eligibles New York lost in last month’s Rule 5 Draft), had it turned into three months, might have been a little less of a troubling memory.

Of course, had Tim Bogar’s bad Rangers club not won 12 of 13 at one point as the 2014 season was winding down, well, I don’t want to go through that story again. But, suffice it to say, Bregman or Dansby Swanson or Brendan Rodgers would likely be here now, rather than the memory of Tate and those two months of Beltran.

So the worst team in baseball from 2011–2013 drafted Correa, McCullers, Appel (who was traded in a deal for Giles), Aiken (who turned into Bregman), and Fisher in the ensuing first rounds — while the top team in baseball (by win-loss, at least) those three years selected Brinson (traded in a deal for Jonathan Lucroy), Gallo, Wiles, Gonzalez, Demeritte (traded in a deal for Lucas Harrell and Dario Alvarez), and Ortiz (traded in the Lucroy deal).

The other part of that formula — with Houston owning baseball’s lousiest record over those three years, by a ton, and Texas posting baseball’s best — is that over those same three years, the Astros picked up young players like Peacock, Devenski, Hader (later moved), Joe Musgrove, and David Paulino by shipping veterans off, while the Rangers traded Hendricks, Davis, Tommy Hunter, C.J. Edwards, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Leury Garcia, and Robbie Erlin to add pennant race reinforcements.

As they would also do soon thereafter, with Brinson and Ortiz and Jerad Eickhoff and Corey Knebel and Nick Williams and Jake Thompson and Jorge Alfaro and Ryan Cordell and Marcos Diplan and Tomas Telis and Luis Sardinas and Cody Ege and Alec Asher and Chad Bell and Eduard Pinto and Ti’Quan Forbes and Tate and Green and Swanson and Demeritte moving on for veteran additions.

It was two teams, on opposite ends of the spectrum, focusing differently — on the short term, or long — at the expense of the other.

In 2008, Texas drafted Justin Smoak 11th overall, and turned him into Cliff Lee.

In 2011, Houston drafted George Springer in that same 11th slot.

In the last 10 years, the Rangers have drafted higher than that once (Tate in 2015, fourth overall).

In those same 10 drafts, the Astros have drafted higher than 11th seven different times (six, if you count the Aiken/Bregman selections as one).

It’s no accident that the Astros are loaded right now. They should be — which is not to say Houston hasn’t made some shrewd moves and found the right mix. But this wide-open window was built on the strength of a number of really, really bad years of baseball, by design.

The Astros will be favorites to repeat in 2018, although the Yankees will get some love. The publications will all suggest that everyone else in the AL West and AL East will be competing for Wild Card spots. That may be true. But it may not be.

Can Nomar Mazara be better? Absolutely.

Will Joey Gallo? Better believe it.

Can Elvis Andrus and Robinson Chirinos repeat? We’ll see.

Can Rougned Odor bounce back? Has to.

Will Adrian Beltre be healthier? Certainly reasonable to expect it. In his late 30s, can he be as good?

It would be foolish to bet against him.

Shin-Soo Choo definitely has the ability to be better. DeShields has shown the capacity to add to his game. Willie Calhoun is coming.

So are Leody Taveras and Cole Ragans and Hans Crouse and Kyle Cody and Joe Palumbo and A.J. Alexy and Chris Seise and Pedro Gonzalez and Bubba Thompson, but that’s getting way ahead of things, though Jose Trevino and Ronald Guzman and Adam Choplick and C.D. Pelham may not be too far off from helping.

What if Carlos Tocci gives Texas an Endy Chavez season? Or if Drew Robinson is a more versatile David Murphy? Or if Ryan Rua is Jeff Baker with a positive clubhouse presence, or Kyle Blanks with healthy feet? Or if Jurickson Profar is . . . Jurickson Profar?

What if there’s an impact outfielder who has yet to arrive this winter?

On the pitching side, Cole Hamels pitched well down the stretch (until Texas was eliminated) and Martin Perez showed signs in 2017 of finally trusting his stuff.

The bullpen will be more reliable. It just will.

And that brings me back to Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton.

Is Mike Minor a starter or reliever? He certainly arrives with higher expectations than Peacock (starter? reliever?) brought with him to Houston.

Could Doug Fister, under control for two years at moderate money, turn in a Morton season?

Is it possible that Matt Moore, at age 28, works up a reasonable likeness of his once-brilliant game?

It’s unlikely all three will jump forward in 2018. For every Andrew Cashner, there’s a Tyson Ross, if not two.

But nobody expected Peacock and Morton to beast in 2017 — especially on the biggest stage of the year — and it’s not as if Houston traded its best prospects or invested $50 million or a 1.1 draft pick to pick either of them up.

The small moves matter.

Nobody else can match Jose Altuve for $15,000.

But every team has the opportunity to make the middle of the roster better, and while those guys aren’t going to find themselves on the cover of a wintertime book-or-magazine cover, without them the team probably doesn’t get the cover in the first place.

Write Texas off now, if you’d like. The winter’s not over and the season hasn’t begun and the standings are still asleep, but if you’re convinced that 2018 will be Houston’s year, or at least not the Rangers’, it will be easy enough to pay attention to something else once the weather starts to warm up, and let the season go on without you.

Maybe you’ve got a bead on how this all plays out this coming year, but if so I’ve got one request. No spoilers, please. I think I’m gonna go ahead and tune in to see how things turn out, and who checks the most boxes and, ultimately, scores the cover.

 
title_authors

Jamey Newberg

Dallas attorney Jamey Newberg has been commenting on Rangers from the big club down through the entire farm system since 1998.

Scott Lucas

Scott Lucas was born in Arlington, Texas, to Richard and Becky Lucas. He lived mostly in Arlington before moving to Austin, where he graduated from The University of Texas. Scott works for Austin Valuation Consultants, Ltd., and has published several boring articles about real estate appraisal and environmental contamination. He makes a swell margarita and refuses to run longer than ten kilometres.

Eleanor Czajka

Eleanor grew up watching the AAA Mudhens in Toledo, Ohio. A loyal Ranger fan since 1979, she works "behind the scenes" at the Newberg Report.

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