Life after A-Rod for Rangers

Editor's note: Joe Morgan will take your questions in chat on Friday at 10:30 a.m. ET.

How 'bout them Cowboys -- I mean, how 'bout them Texas Rangers!

After four straight years of finishing in last place in the AL West, the Rangers are tied for first with the Anaheim Angels. I broadcast ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" game in Arlington, and it was my first time seeing this year's Rangers firsthand (they defeated the Boston Red Sox 4-1).

I saw a collection of young, aggressive players who have become a close-knit group. I spoke with the Texas coaches, including hitting instructor Rudy Jaramillo. He told me that he's never coached a group of young players who are so eager to learn and improve. Remember, Jaramillo coached some great hitters with the Houston Astros, including Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.

Jaramillo has especially helped second baseman Alfonso Soriano get back on track at the plate. You'll recall that Soriano came to the Rangers from the New York Yankees in the Alex Rodriguez trade. Many fans focused on the Yankees acquiring A-Rod in that big offseason deal, but New York had to give up Soriano.

While A-Rod is one of the most talented baseball players ever, Soriano is one of the most talented second baseman ever. A-Rod is the reigning MVP, while Soriano hasn't reached that level yet. But I believe both teams will be pleased with the players they acquired, so this is probably a win-win deal.

In the first month-plus, Soriano is batting .315 with three home runs and 19 RBI. After a slow start, A-Rod is batting .275 with five home runs and 11 RBI.

It might seem like a small thing, but because Jaramillo speaks Spanish, he's been able to communicate more effectively with Soriano (Spanish is his first language). Even though Soriano does speak English, sometimes things get lost in translation when an American-born coach tries to convey something to a Latin player. So in that respect, Jaramillo has an edge in terms of helping Soriano.

With the 28-year-old Soriano, 27-year-old shortstop Michael Young (.356, 4 HRs, 20 RBI) and 23-year-old third baseman Hank Blalock (.316, 5, 21), the Rangers have a young nucleus they can build on. These three players will grow together, and I see a bright future for the franchise. Jaramillo said his young hitters are like a group of ants -- they hang together before and after the game and they're always talking baseball. By the way, the Rangers lead the majors with a .308 batting average.

I also talked with Soriano about the significant strides he's made toward becoming a good defensive second baseman (as well as a good hitter). After making three errors in the season's first three games, he hasn't made an error in the past 23 games.

Based on my observations from Sunday's game, he's a much better second baseman than he was last year. He looks more relaxed and less stiff, and he's bending his knees better on ground balls.

The requirements for being a good fielder are the same as the requirements for being a good hitter: concentration, good hand-eye coordination and a willingness to work. You have to want to be a good defensive player. It doesn't just happen.

Everyone wants to be a great hitter. But you have to work just as hard at defense, if not harder, to be a great fielder. Now I see that attitude and that desire in Soriano.

In a 3-2 win over the Kansas City Royals last week, he made two plays in the ninth inning that saved the game. With the bases loaded, Soriano made a great throw to the plate for a force-out. Then he made a nifty backhanded play on a grounder, tagged second and threw to first for a game-ending double play.

What about Soriano switching positions? The Yankees had discussed a move to the outfield, and the Rangers also have considered a position switch (to the outfield or shortstop). But I'm glad Soriano is still at second base. Long-term, I don't think he should switch to the outfield, because I believe he'll become a high quality second baseman. Time will tell whether he can become a Gold Glove-caliber fielder.

The Rangers have been succeeding with more than just good hitting and defense. Under the direction of pitching coach Orel Hershiser, Texas has the second-best ERA in the American League (4.03).

Meanwhile, manager Buck Showalter -- in his second season with the Rangers -- runs the show. Showalter has a history of working well with young players and bringing a young team along. He's done so previously with the Arizona Diamondbacks and with the Yankees. Both the D-Backs (2001) and the Yankees (1996) won the World Series in the year following his departure, and Showalter had a lot to do with the world championships won by both clubs.

In fact, Showalter was the architect for the expansion Arizona franchise, which entered MLB in 1998. He built the organization from the ground up, so he knows how to put together a young team. Besides Showalter's presence, the Rangers have the veteran leadership of outfielders Brian Jordan, 37, and Eric Young, 36.

Showalter told me a story from Saturday's doubleheader against the Red Sox. After winning the first game 4-3, the younger Rangers were back in the clubhouse, eating a big meal. Showalter said that Young yelled at them, "You haven't done anything yet! We've got another game to play -- you can't sit here and gorge yourselves until after you win the second game." The Rangers went out and took the second game 8-5, beating Pedro Martinez.

Sometimes that's what young players need -- veteran leaders who teach them what it takes to be a winner.

Jordan, meanwhile, was activated from the 15-day disabled list last week (sprained left MCL). But when he was ready to play he told Showalter that his backup, Kevin Mench, was swinging the bat better. So Jordan said he should sit a while longer. That's more veteran leadership -- showing young players that the team comes first (and that attitude rubs off).

Owner Tom Hicks, Showalter, the coaches and all the young Rangers are on the same page -- so I expect to see a competitive Texas team throughout the season.

Still, we'll need to wait and see how the heat of the summer affects the Texas players, pitchers and hitters alike. It's difficult to play a full season in the stifling summer heat of Texas, which can wear you out down the stretch of a pennant race. It's tough when you're playing under more difficult conditions than other teams face, but clearly the Rangers are on the right track.

OBP important, but RBI and runs trump OBP
Since the beginning of the 1990s -- early in my time as a broadcaster for ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" -- I've tried to make fans more aware of on-base percentage on our telecasts. To my knowledge, we were the first network to use OBP as a statistic.

On-base percentage has always been an important stat, but RBI and runs scored are the truest tests of what a player does to help his team win. Once runners get on base, someone needs to drive them in.

OBP by itself does not equal success. How often does a team get four walks in an inning to drive in a run? OBP is essential, but a good OBP alone does not guarantee a win or a successful season.

The perfect example of this is the defending World Series champion Florida Marlins. Florida finished 15th last year in OBP (.333) among 30 MLB teams. But when the Marlins got runners on base, they were good at forcing the issue -- using the hit-and-run, stealing bases and exhibiting aggressive baserunning ... all of which help produce runs.

As I see it, a good hitter either scores runs or drives in runs -- and a great hitter does both. Great hitters will account for about 200 runs per season (a combination of runs scored and RBI). When you look at baseball history, that's the benchmark for great hitters like Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays (as well as today's great hitters, like Barry Bonds). The most important stat in baseball is the combination of runs scored and RBI.

Walks obviously are the difference in on-base percentage. No one will hit .450, but a patient hitter with a good sense of the strike zone can have an OBP of .450 or better.

For example, Ichiro Suzuki led the AL in batting in his rookie season (2001) with a .350 average. But he walked only 30 times, so his OBP was .381. That same year, Barry Bonds batted .328 (seventh in the NL) but had an OBP of .515, thanks to 177 walks. Since then, Bonds has maintained an OBP of well over .500, while Ichiro has yet to crack a .400 OBP.

While RBI and runs scored are the most important stats (helped by OBP), Aaron's home-run record (755) remains the most impressive record in baseball. You can accumulate home runs just one swing at a time, but you can accumulate up to four RBI per swing. So it's harder to hit a home run than to drive in a run -- in fact, it's harder to hit a home run than to do anything else offensively.

I view baseball as an individual game within a team concept. It's individual because, whether you're hitting or pitching, you're the one standing there. But everything is done in the context of teamwork and team play (putting the team first). RBI and runs are the ultimate measure of a player's contribution to a team, and they're also dependent on teammates. Home runs, though, are the ultimate measure of a power hitter's individual accomplishment.

An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series and MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76. He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.