Pitching brightened year for Rangers

Pitching brightened year for Rangers

ARLINGTON -- The one constant in the Rangers organization is change, and 2009 saw potentially the biggest change of all.

As the memorable year came to a close, Rangers owner Tom Hicks announced this month that he was entering into exclusive negotiations with a group headed by Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan to buy the club.

That announcement brought an end to a nine-month search by Hicks for new investors. Hicks will remain a part of the Rangers ownership group as a minority investor, but, once a deal is struck and the transaction is approved by Major League Baseball, Greenberg will take over as managing general partner while Ryan will remain on board as club president.

The uncertainty surrounding Texas ownership was the biggest story of the year, but the franchise still enjoyed a rewarding season on the field. With dramatically improved pitching and defense, the Rangers finished 87-75 and in second place in the American League West.

January: The Rangers started off the new year with major drama when the club announced that Michael Young had been asked to move to third base to make room for rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus. Young, who had just won his first Gold Glove at shortstop, resisted and asked the Rangers to trade him.

But ultimately, with the intervention of Ryan, the problem was solved when Young agreed to make the switch. The Rangers then signed 11-time Gold Glove-winning shortstop Omar Vizquel to be their utility infielder and a mentor to Andrus.

February: The Rangers began the month by signing free-agent left-hander Eddie Guardado to a Minor League contract. They also came to an agreement with free-agent pitcher Ben Sheets on a two-year deal, but a physical revealed that he would require surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow.

That prompted the Rangers to nullify the agreement. Sheets did not sign with any club, and spent the entire year in rehabilitation.

But the Rangers added two more veterans as they signed outfielder Andruw Jones and pitcher Kris Benson to Minor League contracts with invitations to Spring Training. Jones had been released by the Dodgers after hitting .158 with three home runs and 14 RBIs in 75 games and 238 at-bats in 2008. Benson was trying to overcome an arm injury that had kept him out of the Major Leagues for two seasons.

March: The Rangers went 8-9 in their first 17 exhibition games but 13-5-1 over their last 19 games to finish 21-14-1 for the spring. It was the third best record in the Cactus League.

Jones made the team as a backup outfielder as the Rangers released Frank Catalanotto. There were several surprises on the pitching staff coming out of Arizona. Benson made the team as a starter, and Jason Jennings earned a spot in the bullpen.

Another surprise was Scott Feldman opening the season in the bullpen after coming to camp as a leading contender to be in the rotation. But the Rangers had come to the erroneous conclusion that Benson would be better in the rotation and Feldman in the bullpen.

April: After former President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch, the Rangers opened the season with a 9-1 victory over the Indians at the Ballpark in Arlington. Kevin Millwood held the Indians to one run over seven innings to earn the first of his 13 wins on the season.

On April 15, the Rangers pounded the Orioles, 19-6, as Ian Kinsler became the fourth player in club history to hit for the cycle. Kinsler went 6-for-6 with two singles, two doubles, a triple and a home run on Jackie Robinson Day in the Major Leagues. He was the first player in 118 years to go 6-for-6 while hitting for the cycle.

The Rangers lost nine of their first 16 games, but the season started to turn around on April 25 when Feldman re-entered the rotation and beat the Orioles, 6-5, at Camden Yards. Feldman would remain in the rotation the rest of the season and become the Rangers winningest pitcher with a career-high 17 victories.

The Rangers also reinforced the pitching staff by acquiring Darren O'Day off waivers from the Mets and calling up left-hander Derek Holland from the Minor Leagues. O'Day ended up being a huge acquisition for the Rangers, posting a 1.94 ERA in 64 games.

Marlon Byrd jumped off to a good start, hitting .333 with two home runs and 13 RBIs in 16 games. He had come to Spring Training unsure about his role on the team, but he would end up hitting .283 with 20 home runs and 89 RBIs.

May: The Rangers roared into first place in the AL West by going 20-9 during the month of May. It was the second most wins by the Rangers in one month in club history, behind a 21-win September in 1978.

Josh Hamilton started the month by going on the disabled list with a strained ribcage muscle, the first of a series of injuries that would limit him to just 89 games on the year. Closer Frank Francisco, dealing with shoulder inflammation, also went on the disabled list for the first of three times. But C.J. Wilson, Jennings and O'Day were outstanding out of the bullpen, while Matt Harrison, Brandon McCarthy and Feldman each had three wins in the rotation. Wilson and Francisco shared the closing duties for much of the rest of the season.

Outfielder Nelson Cruz, finally establishing himself as a regular at the Major League level, helped make up for the loss of Hamilton by hitting .311 with eight home runs and 19 RBIs in May.

June: Going into the month, the Rangers were 10 games over .500 with a 4 1/2 game lead in the AL West. But they went 11-15, and their lead was down to 1 1/2 games by the end of the month.

Hamilton missed the entire month with a torn abdominal muscle that required surgery and kept him sidelined until just before the All-Star break. Despite his injuries, Hamilton was voted into the AL lineup by the fans for the second straight All-Star Game.

Millwood carried the Rangers pitching staff by going 4-1 with a 1.30 ERA in five starts, and was the team's Player of the Month. He also won the award in April.

July: The Rangers fell out of first place right before the All-Star break and would trail the Angels the rest of the way despite going 17-8 in July. But their future was starting to take shape in July. Holland, after bouncing back and forth from the bullpen, entered the rotation and would stay the rest of the season.

Tommy Hunter also earned a spot in the rotation for the rest of the season by going 3-0 with a 1.11 ERA in four starts. Dustin Nippert also showed his value as a swingman by going 3-0 with 3.54 ERA in three starts and three relief appearances.

On July 5, the Rangers sent first baseman Chris Davis to the Minors. He was hitting .202 with 15 home runs and 33 RBIs as well as 114 strikeouts in 77 games. Hank Blalock, who began the season as the Rangers designated hitter, took over at first base until Davis returned in August. Blalock hit .290 with six home runs and 18 RBIs in July.

Hamilton went to the All-Star Game for a second straight season, while Young was selected for his sixth straight appearance. Young had gone five times as a backup shortstop, but this time he ended up as the AL's starting third baseman when Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria was forced out of the lineup with an injury.

A last-minute injury also allowed Cruz to make the All-Star team for the first time, and he finished second in the Home Run Derby.

August: Vicente Padilla was 8-6 with a 4.92 ERA in 18 starts for the Rangers in 2009. But Texas had other issues with him, and on Aug. 7, he was designated for assignment and eventually released. Padilla would end up the Dodgers and pitch brilliantly down the stretch through the playoffs.

The Rangers had other problems as well, as they tried in vain to keep up the Angels. Kinsler missed the first half of the month with a strained left hamstring, and by mid-August, it was becoming apparent that catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was having trouble throwing.

He was ultimately diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder and would miss most of the final six weeks of the season. To make up for his loss, the Rangers acquired catcher Ivan Rodriguez from the Astros on Aug. 17.

Texas went 14-15 in August, leaving the club three games behind the Angels going into September. The Rangers also called up pitcher Neftali Feliz and outfielder Julio Borbon during August, two more big pieces for their future.

September: Hamilton had a pinched nerve in his lower back. Young strained a hamstring muscle. They would combine to play in just 13 of the Rangers' final 32 games.

Texas staggered to the end. The team swept a three-game series from the Indians on Sept 8-9, moving to 4 1/2 games behind the Angels. The club also had seven games left with the Angels. But the Rangers lost 15 of their last 23 games, including five of seven to the Angels, and finished 10 games out of first place.

The Rangers closed out their home schedule with 7-6 loss to the Rays on Sept. 27, but finished 48-33 at home for the season. Texas drew 27,841 per game at home, an increase of 3,318 per game that was the largest in the Major Leagues.

October: The Rangers split their last four games to finish 87-75 on the season. It was just their second winning record in the last 10 years. The pitching staff finished with a 4.38 ERA, the lowest for the club since 1993 and almost a run better than the 5.37 ERA in 2008.

Millwood finished with a three-game winning streak to go 13-10 with a 3.78 ERA, which was eighth best in the AL. But Feldman lost four of his last five starts. He finished with a club-leading 17 wins but missed a chance to become only the fourth 20-game winner in club history.

The Rangers also scored just 784 runs, down from 901 runs the year before. That brought an end to a streak of 13 straight seasons of scoring at least 800 runs. Young led Texas with a .322 batting average while Kinsler finished with 101 runs scored. Byrd led with 89 RBIs, and Cruz led with 33 home runs.

After the season, the Rangers announced that hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo had declined an offer to return for a 16th season. He ended up signing a three-year contract with Cubs.

November: When the World Series ended, the Rangers announced the hiring of Clint Hurdle as their batting coach. Hurdle had been the Rockies manager for seven years before he was fired on May 29, and he had been their hitting coach for four seasons before that.

The Rangers also had seven players file for free agency: pitchers Guardado and Joaquin Benoit, catcher Rodriguez, infielders Blalock and Vizquel, and outfielders Jones and Byrd. Vizquel and Jones quickly signed with the White Sox.

December: The Rangers started making moves in December. Infielder Joe Inglett was claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays, and left-handed reliever Clay Rapada was acquired from the Tigers for a player to be named later.

On Dec. 9, the Rangers traded Millwood to the Orioles for right-handed reliever Chris Ray and a player to be named later. The player turned out to be left-handed reliever Ben Snyder, who was the third overall pick in the Rule 5 draft.

With the money saved by trading Millwood, the Rangers were able to sign right-handed pitcher Rich Harden to a one-year contract with an option for 2011. The Rangers also agreed to a deal to acquire third baseman Mike Lowell from the Red Sox for catcher Max Ramirez. But that trade was nullified when the Rangers found out Lowell would need surgery because of a torn ligament in his right thumb.

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