You’d be forgiven for not paying attention when the poor, pitiful Texas Rangers told us that the 2023 baseball season would be different. Of course—what else would they selling? A ski resort in Arlington? Six straight losing seasons told a different story.
In that time, the Rangers finished an average of twenty games behind the Houston Astros, their downstate rivals in the American League West. On the other hand, spending $800 million opens even skeptical eyes, and that’s a big part of what the Rangers were selling when they said their rebuilding days were done.
Every MLB franchise fills notebooks with spring training bravado, and all of it is about as meaningful as a bucket of cold nacho cheese, if that. But the Rangers are off to a promising start backing up their preseason talk about turning around the team’s fortunes. At 3–1, they’ve matched their best start since 2013, and those three victories weren’t just any short winning streak to open the season. They were a three-game sweep of the defending National League champion Philadelphia Phillies, and the Rangers hadn’t been 3–0 since 2011, when they made the last of back-to-back World Series appearances.
They did it in style too. Won with big ball. Won with small ball. Rallied from five runs down to win 11–7 before a packed house at Globe Life Field on opening day. Collected seventeen hits to win 16–3 the next day. And hung on for a 2–1 victory the day after that, thanks to great pitching and a handful of eye-catching defensive plays.
Afterward, the new manager gushed about what he had seen. Plenty of managers say similar things. Only this one, Bruce Bochy, has something no other active manager has: three World Series championship rings, along with the kind of league-wide credibility the Rangers have never had in previous managers.
“The whole weekend we executed so well,” Bochy said after the sweep. He ran down a list of what caught his eye, from the defensive play of outfielder Adolis García to the turning of timely double plays to the team’s aggressive and smart baserunning. “That’s what I was really proud of,” he added.
Four games isn’t even an eyelash-size slice of a 162-game regular season, and the Rangers are far from a sure bet to live up to the expectations they’ve set for themselves. But a win’s a win, and hope has been hard to come by in Arlington for more than half a decade. A strong start could be the first baby steps toward building confidence around the team after so many losses.
It’s hard to resist comparing the Rangers with Texas’s other MLB franchise, the Astros, who made four World Series appearances in the past six seasons. The Rangers are 35–70 against them over the past six seasons, including 5–14 in 2022. But those Rangers are not these Rangers. In the past two off-seasons, the Rangers’ front office leaders took a unique (for them) approach: spend money. Gobs of it.
To fast-track the rebuilding process, the organization spent on an array of big-time talent, from shortstop Corey Seager (ten years, $325 million) and second baseman Marcus Semien (seven years, $175 million) to Jacob deGrom (five years, $185 million), a two-time National League Cy Young Award winner during nine seasons with the New York Mets and one of the best pitchers of his generation. So complete has been the clubhouse turnover that first baseman Nathaniel Lowe, with all of 318 games under his belt, is the longest-tenured member of the major league club. He arrived via trade on December 10, 2020.
Six days before Lowe joined the team, Rangers owner Ray Davis had hired former major league pitcher and Dallas native Chris Young to begin the process of overhauling the club’s baseball operations. If it seemed like an odd hire at the time—Young, 43, had zero front office experience—it now looks like a stroke of genius. Young has improved virtually everything. He spent money on veteran talent while investing in the minor league system. He spent on technology and personnel to close the gap on the Astros, the Dodgers, and other organizations that had an edge on the Rangers in baseball analytics. He brought in former Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore in an advisory role. He hired an accomplished pitching coach in Mike Maddux.
And last October, Young flew to Nashville and pitched Bochy on the idea of returning to the dugout, four years after the manager had left the San Francisco Giants. Bochy, 67, said Young sold him on a vision for the organization. Like Astros manager Dusty Baker, Bochy has spent a lifetime in the sport. He was a first-round draft choice of the Astros in 1975, and one of his earliest career memories comes in the form of veteran Enos Cabell ordering Bochy to take his place in a round of batting practice against J. R. Richard, a fireballer who possessed only a vague sense of where the baseball was going once he released it. “First pitch, J. R. hit me in the foot and broke a toe,” Bochy recalled. Almost fifty years later, Bochy is still in baseball, and he’s seen almost everything the game can throw at a player, coach, or manager. His steady confidence appears to be the perfect fit for a club that’s trying to learn new, winning habits.
Young had firsthand knowledge of the impact Bochy could have on a team, having played for him in San Diego in 2006. “I think the best way to describe it is his unique ability to connect on an individual level, but also stand in front of the team and create an expectation for everybody,” Young told Dallas radio station 105.3 FM. “It’s an art to be able to do that.”
Besides deGrom, Young added two other free-agent starting pitchers, Andrew Heaney (two years, $25 million) and Nathan Eovaldi (two years, $34 million) to fill out a rotation that could rely only on Martín Pérez and Jon Gray from last season. For a franchise that historically has had lousy pitching, the additions could completely change how Rangers fans think of their team, especially if the wins keep coming.
“It’s a completely new year, and we’ve got a new rotation,” Eovaldi told reporters in March. “For me, everything is based on pitching. There’s going to be those times when the offense is going to come alive and obviously score a lot more runs when we give them up. But at the same time, I think pitching wins championships. You’re able to go out there and dominate the lineups.”
Young added depth to the roster with the addition of free-agent outfielder Robbie Grossman (one year, $2 million) and the promotion of top-prospect third baseman Josh Jung to the big leagues last September. Grossman and Eovaldi arrived with reputations for being good teammates who set an example with their work ethic and professionalism, say the right things to media, and put the team first. Lowe is cut from a similar cloth. “I’m trying to win a job,” Grossman said during spring training. “At the end of the day, whatever I can do to help the ball club win games this summer, that’s what I’m here to do.”
The organization’s spending sent a message to Rangers fans that there was a reason to start coming back to Arlington to attend games at Globe Life Field, the retractable-roof palace that opened in 2020. Entering this season, the Rangers had MLB’s ninth-highest payroll, at $183.6 million, a notch higher than the Astros ($180.9 million). “Two years ago, we committed to it,” Young said in a February radio interview. “We started rebuilding the farm system. And instead of letting that play out over time, ownership decided to commit the financial resources necessary to put winning players out on the field at the big league level, so that when our young guys reach the big leagues, they have the right veteran players around them. Our hope is that we have accelerated it and that we are going to compete for a playoff spot this year.”
Young also knows that pronouncements only go so far. Winning a few games is just the start, and the Rangers have a long way to go before they fulfill Young’s vision for the team. For now, though, they can settle for a 3–1 start.