With sale done, Rangers look to future

With sale done, Rangers look to future

The Rangers have a new ownership group. They have a first-place team and a farm system loaded with talent. They have a plan for the direction they want to go.

Now they need to execute the plan and begin checking off the promises that were made during the long and arduous process that essentially ended in the hours before dawn Thursday when a group led by Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg and club president Nolan Ryan emerged victorious in the auction of the franchise.

On Thursday morning, the lenders who hold the debt on Hicks Sports Group officially signed off on the sale in a confirmation hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The next step is approval by Major League Baseball and that is expected to be forthcoming at the next owners meeting on Aug. 12. At that point, the new ownership known as Rangers Baseball Express will take over from current owner Tom Hicks.

"I think we're going to continue what we're going to do," Ryan said Thursday afternoon. "We're not going to promise them something that we don't know if we can't obtain or deliver on. We've said if we were able to acquire the franchise, that we anticipated that we can be competitive in salaries. We're going to do those things. We're not going to go out and promise them something that we don't know if we can deliver."

There are issues to address and the most immediate focus will be on the Rangers' approach to their pending free agents. The Rangers currently have eight such players on the roster, but foremost on everybody's minds are pitcher Cliff Lee and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero.

"It's too early to say," general manager Jon Daniels said. "Our feelings on those guys are known. Priority No. 1 right now is winning. Anything that distracts from that is something we need to put aside. Right now our focus is on the team. We'll wait to take care of that at the appropriate time."

The other six potential free agents are pitchers Frank Francisco and Rich Harden, catchers Bengie Molina and Matt Treanor, and infielders Cristian Guzman and Jorge Cantu. Pitchers C.J. Wilson and Darren Oliver can be free agents after next season and outfielder Josh Hamilton after 2012. The Rangers have explored a long-term contract with Hamilton in the past and that is likely to be on the agenda this winter.

"The first thing after some things that are time sensitive that we need to put into action, we will then sit down and start the budget process in September," Ryan said. "We'll have a budget on who is eligible to go to arbitration and free agency. We'll get that budget put in place and start trying at the end of the season to fill our needs off that budget."

Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, Elvis Andrus and Darren O'Day aren't close to free agency but they are approaching the big-raise period of arbitration in the next year or two. There is no possible way the Rangers can stay competitive, re-sign the players they want without significant increases in the payroll. The Rangers have been operating in the $65-70 million range but that will go up.

"We had projections that over the next two or three years, we'd run it up in the $90 million category," Ryan said "So I can't tell you the exact number because obviously things change. We felt like those were numbers to be competitive were what we would have to be prepared to do."

Manager Ron Washington is also a pending free agent. Washington, who is the leading candidate to be the American League Manager of the Year, is unsigned beyond this season and the Rangers are likely to address that in the near future.

Ryan said Washington will be back next season but they have yet to discuss length or value of a contract extension. The Rangers will also look at an extension for Daniels, who is signed through 2011.

"Our policy has been that we try not to do things during the season that could be disruptive or take away from our focus," Ryan said. "As far as JD is concerned, his contract runs concurrent with mine and we have next year. Wash is up after this year. We've told Wash we want him back and we've told him we'll address it at the proper and appropriate time.

"He's very comfortable with that. Obviously, we anticipate him being back next year."

The Rangers ended up spending somewhere between $80-100 million more to purchase the club after getting involved in Wednesday's auction with a group headed by Mark Cuban and Jim Crane. That was money needed elsewhere, but Ryan said the Rangers are ready to move forward as planned even though that was a direct hit on their investment.

"We budgeted to purchase the ball club," Ryan said. "Obviously, that budget was adjusted last night to a level that we didn't anticipate. But we felt like it still made sense for us. We didn't do it at the expense of some other aspect of the game or our organization. We haven't really changed what our intentions were or what our goals are."

There is more to be addressed beyond the field and baseball operations. There are other areas that have suffered worse while waiting for the sale to be completed. The Rangers have been without a vice-president for marketing and another for ticket sales. The Ballpark in Arlington, despite excellent day-to-day maintenance by vice president Rob Matwick and his staff, is in need of upgrades, including a new video scoreboard that is planned for center field.

"We're going to put more emphasis obviously on the marketing side of it," Ryan said. "We feel like we have a product to market. We feel like with the history of the ball club over the last eight to 10 years, the product on the field wasn't to the level that we hoped. I think that over the last few years that's been improving.

"There will be some upgrades to the ballpark. One of the challenges that we had with the bankruptcy filing and the time delays that we had is the lag time it takes in deciding what you're going to do in getting people out here to be able to accomplish that, to build the product, get it here, get it installed and be ready for Opening Day. It was starting to get close to that deadline and we're going to have to move pretty quickly on some aspects."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.