Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 5/19/12
HOUSTON It almost felt like Nolan Ryan was taunting beleaguered Astros fans, mashing their collective faces in the remnants of the club's egregious decision to eschew re-signing him following the 1988 season. He sat in the visitor's dugout at Minute Maid Park late Friday afternoon sporting a polo shirt emblazoned with the Texas Rangers' logo. As the media horde fawned over unquestionably the most legendary pitcher in Astros history, Ryan dutifully and sincerely expressed fondness for the organization deeply rooted in the metropolis he always called home. Greatness and Ryan seem intrinsically linked, and while true Astros fans would never begrudge Ryan for the wondrous success he is enjoying as the Rangers' CEO and president, a twinge of bitterness stains the palate. The Rangers are everything the Astros should aspire to be. With patience they developed a winner, and of greater significance, a sustainable one. Their roster is flush with talent and their farm system is highly regarded. That Ryan has his fingerprints all over their prosperity must leave Astros fans loyal to both feeling a tad conflicted. "We all take a lot of pride in what's happened with our ballclub," Ryan said. "When you look at our organization it truly is a team effort, not only with the players on the field, the managing and the coaching staff, but the front office, the scouts, everybody. I take a lot of pride in the fact that we've had the success that we've had and the people that are so committed to our organization. "It's a good organization to be involved with. I think that you'd find the pride factor probably with our organization, everybody from myself to our ushers to our parking lot attendants, is higher than it's ever been." How could it not be? Prior to their 4-1 win over the Astros (17-22), the Rangers (25-12) led the majors in run differential at a whopping plus-2.0 per game. Their American League West rivals, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, responded to the Rangers' second consecutive AL pennant in 2011 by dumping a boatload of money at the feet of free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, formerly of Texas. The Rangers have responded with a seven-game lead over the scuffling Angels. Their 25-man roster represents an ideal balance of shrewd trades, deft drafting and judicious free-agent signings. Seven Rangers are farm raised, including second baseman Ian Kinsler, left-handed starting pitcher Derek Holland, right-handed reliever Scott Feldman, and first baseman Mitch Moreland. Seven more were signed as free agents or had their contracts purchased, with right-handed pitchers Yu Darvish (six years, 56 million), Colby Lewis (three years, 8 million) and Joe Nathan (two years, 14.5 million) playing vital roles on the staff while third baseman Adrian Beltre (five years, 80 million) supplies exceptional defense and a potent bat. Eleven Rangers were acquired via trade, with their fleecing of the Braves at the 2007 deadline netting shortstop Elvis Andrus, right-hander Neftali Feliz and southpaw Matt Harrison (for slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira), and exemplifying their commitment to building from within. Ryan was named team president the following February. In 2007, the Rangers were in the throes of 10 consecutive playoff-less seasons, with half of those campaigns concluding with last-place finishes. But they placed second in the AL West in 2008 and '09, and then followed that ascension with consecutive World Series appearances. The average age of their roster is just under 30 years old. They are experienced but not yet old, and having grown together, the Rangers are as bloated with intangibles like camaraderie as they are in tangible skill. "It's awesome for us, especially for myself or people like Darvish who just signed contracts that have long extensions," said Holland, 25, a 25th-round selection in 2006. "We're very excited to be here and to be a part of the growth of the Texas Rangers. Obviously we do have a strong minor league system, coming through the system a lot of good guys coming up. If we keep winning it's going to be hard to get rid of most of these guys because we're going to be trying to keep everyone together." Even if the Rangers suffer some attrition on the big-league level, their minor leagues are stacked with touted prospects. Baseball America ranked the Rangers' farm system first in the majors entering this season and listed five prospects among their top 100 in baseball: shortstop Jurickson Profar; left-handed pitcher Martin Perez; third baseman Mike Olt; outfielder Leonys Martin; and third baseman Christian Villanueva. While the Rangers were ranked third as an organization by Fangraphs, the Astros entered the season ranked 29th. Their farm system, bolstered by the prospect haul landed with the jettisoning of cornerstone outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn last year, was elevated to 18th after being mired near the bottom of the majors for several seasons. The Astros underwent a philosophical metamorphosis through their ownership change last season. With Jim Crane came the addition of general manager Jeff Luhnow, whose experience as an executive with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals gave the Astros some organizational cache. For the first time in a long while the Astros appear to have some semblance of direction. A model to follow isn't far away. "They've done a nice job and you have to give them their due," Astros president and CEO George Postolos said. "Getting to the World Series twice is a great accomplishment two years in a row, and this year they're playing very well again. But I think you try and do things your own way, and we don't want to copy someone else. We want to do it as well as we can do it. "Jeff Luhnow is the right GM for our franchise. We love the team he's put together in the front office. They're going to be strong on the analytics; they're going to be strong on the scouting. They're going to do a great job of blending the two together. And we're trying to set him up for success and put all the ingredients that are necessary around him for him to be successful. Part of that is about having clear priorities and stating them publicly, and part of that is about having the resources available to where we're making the investments to have all the tools that you need." With the first, 41st and 61st selections in the upcoming First-Year Player Draft, the Astros are positioned to take the next step to supporting the prospects they added to their system last summer. They desperately need organizational depth and, after spending so many years carelessly tossing money at middling veterans, have hunkered down to rebuild. The Rangers bit the bullet and are now reaping the benefits of their sound approach. This weekend the Astros will get a clear view of an organization constructed to win for the duration. While they make baby steps toward respectability, the Astros can't fall victim to comparisons. "Let's just go do what we can do," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "A lot of times when you start doing that you want to go out and try to do some extra. That's not us right now. We want to continue to get better, and doing that is continuing doing what we can. I think these guys have proven that on any given day, they're going to measure up." For what it's worth, Ryan sees the same commitment to excellence the Rangers exercised five years ago serving as the foundation for the Crane-led Astros. Awash in the essence of superiority, Ryan could not help but to say something pleasant about the franchise that let him walk out the door to embrace new challenges up north, with exceptionality tagging along for the journey. "You have to have owners that are committed to having a winning product on the field," Ryan said. "You have to have that mindset, and I think they do. With Jim Crane I think they are going to try to be as competitive as they possibly can be." Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda
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