If you watch the Texas Rangers in the closing days of this fifth straight losing season, you may be pleasantly surprised by all the young players you see diving for balls, flying around the bases at a full sprint, and grinding out at-bats as if game seven of the World Series were on the line. Or, your attention might center on a string of hard-throwing kid pitchers who light up radar guns and mix in the occasional knee-buckling slider. The downside? Their control isn’t the best, and when they aren’t missing the strike zone, they’re throwing too many pitches over the heart of the plate, where opposing batters have been turning them into pulverizing lessons in tough love.
Six weeks ago, the Rangers committed to a full-blown rebuild after a 15–34 stretch throughout June and July prompted a housecleaning of the roster’s few recognizable faces who hadn’t already been dealt away. This made the remainder of the Rangers’ season an open audition for their young players, and that’s when manager Chris Woodward challenged them to “play with their hair on fire.” On that measure, at least, his team is delivering. “These guys are coming up and busting their tails and trying to seize the opportunities they have,” general manager Chris Young told Texas Monthly. “These are opportunities they would not get elsewhere.”
Are the Rangers good? Nope. Not even close. They might not be good next season, either, but that’s beside the point. As they finish last in the American League West for the third time in four seasons, the Rangers finally appear headed in the right direction—as painful as it might be to watch for a fan base that had grown accustomed to success (five playoff appearances, including two trips to the World Series, in seven seasons from 2010 to 2016). But at least the team’s shortcomings this year haven’t kept it from being great fun to watch, and that’s been the surprising part in all of this. There’s a certain purity in watching these youngsters attempt to prove they’re good enough to stick in the big leagues.
The Rangers have used 26 rookies, tops in Major League Baseball, this season, including 13 who have made their debuts. Of the 54 players Texas has used, including a whopping 32 pitchers, 10 have been younger than 25. The roster is the second youngest in baseball, with an average age of 27 years and 54 days. Outfielder Adolis García—American League All-Star and Rookie of the Year front-runner—is one of those players. In Arlington, Garcia is getting the kind of opportunity he might never have gotten with the 76–69 St. Louis Cardinals, the club whose organization he began his MLB career with. Garcia has produced for the Rangers this season—contributing thirty home runs and infusing the lineup with energy and a sense of joy. “He has seized the opportunity,” Young said. “He’s 28 years old, but not a finished product. It’s his first time facing the best players in the world for a full season, and there’s still improvement for him.”
Lefty pitcher Taylor Hearn is another standout. The Rangers are his third stop in the majors, but the first team to simply hand Hearn the baseball with a chance to prove he deserves a regular role in an MLB pitching rotation. He seems on his way to doing that. “The growth this kid has shown has been pretty remarkable,” Woodward said of Hearn. “He goes out there with a presence. He’s got command. He’s got conviction and composure—everything you ask for a starting pitcher to have.”
The Rangers picked 25-year-old outfielder DJ Peters off waivers from the talent-rich Los Angeles Dodgers last month and immediately inserted him in the lineup. He has shown flashes of power and made some highlight-reel defensive plays. He has also looked overmatched at times. “We saw a very talented player who really hasn’t gotten his major league opportunity,” Young said. “We are providing him that, and we’re hopeful he will seize that and become a very good major league player.”
There are stories like his in every corner of the Rangers’ clubhouse. The franchise will go through plenty of disappointment and many more losses before the Rangers can return to their winning ways, but after years of acquiring veterans to patch the roster together, the Texas front office gave in to the inevitable and embraced the rebuilding project ahead of them. Mike Minor, Robinson Chirinos, and Todd Frazier were traded away at the 2020 trade deadline. Two of the franchise’s most popular players, shortstop Elvis Andrus and second baseman Rougned Odor, were traded before this season after years of disappointing production. Pitcher Lance Lynn was also dealt during the offseason, and then at this year’s July 31 trade deadline, Joey Gallo was sent to the Yankees and pitchers Ian Kennedy and Kyle Gibson to the Phillies.
In return, the Rangers got enough prospects to restock the franchise’s depleted minor league reserves. Based on evaluations by MLB Pipeline, the Texas farm system, which began the season ranked twenty-first out of thirty teams, is now the sport’s eleventh-best. After using their 2021 first-round draft pick on Vanderbilt pitcher Jack Leiter, the Rangers now have five of MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects: Leiter (number 12), third baseman Josh Jung (50), pitcher Cole Winn (62), second baseman Justin Foscue (85), and catcher Sam Huff (94).
“What we see is a real depth of talent throughout our player development system,” Young said. “Our player development side has done a great job. Our coaches have done a great job. I think the culture is in place, and we are creating winning expectations.” Young, 42, is a Dallas native, Princeton grad, and former big league pitcher who spent thirteen seasons in the majors. He pitched for five teams, including the Rangers in 2004 and 2005, before taking a job at MLB headquarters in 2018 soon after retiring.
When the Rangers asked Young to come home, he leaped at the chance. Former Texas general manager Jon Daniels, the architect of those five playoff teams, was given the title president of baseball operations and still has final say on team-building decisions. But Daniels seems likely to turn over full control to Young at some point down the road. The Rangers have also reorganized a significant portion of their baseball staff. “As someone who grew up a die-hard Rangers fan and having my kids live in the Metroplex and bleed Rangers, red, white, and blue the same way I did, this is special,” Young said. “It’s been a great learning experience. We have a lot of great people that I’ve really enjoyed working with. We have a ton of work to do and are not even close to our goals. But I do love it.”
If things work out the way the franchise hopes, the Rangers will do what their cross-state rivals did a decade ago. Ten years ago, the Houston Astros were coming off a 106-loss season when Jim Crane bought the franchise and hired general manager Jeff Luhnow to turn around the team’s fortunes. Houston lost 107 and 111 games in the next two seasons, respectively, and Luhnow’s personalized license plate—“GM 111″—was a daily reminder. But those lean years paid off, as the Astros stockpiled talent, made it back to the playoffs in 2015, and have since won more regular-season games than any other American League team.
Luhnow was fired in the wake of the Astros’ 2019 sign-stealing scandal, but the organization he built is on its way to its sixth playoff appearance in the last seven seasons. Other teams—the Kansas City Royals, Atlanta Braves, and San Diego Padres, for example—have attempted similar bottom-out-and-rebuild strategies in recent seasons, but no franchise has done it better than the Astros. The Rangers would love to achieve anything close to the kind of success Houston has enjoyed—minus the cheating, of course.
Young said the team’s short-term goals for this season were to establish the right kind of culture and work ethic and to begin identifying players who could potentially contribute to a future championship team. “These are things you don’t see in terms of wins and losses,” he said. “But in terms of the way we play the game and some of the recognition we’ve received from other coaching staffs about how we play the game, how we work, how we prepare—they’ve noticed it. It’s been fun to hear that feedback.”
Also: these young Rangers have played energetic, fearless baseball during an otherwise hopeless moment in franchise history. It’s been fun to watch.