The Texas Rangers made a bit of a splash Thursday, selecting Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in baseball’s annual Rule 5 Draft, which allows teams to claim an unprotected minor league player from another club.
The pick cost the Rangers $12,000 and isn’t totally out of the blue – Wilson was a two-letter athlete in college and played in the minors under the Colorado Rockies’ system in 2011 and 2012 – but it was a surprise given the success Wilson has seen in his first two seasons in the National Football League. The playoff-bound Seahawks are tied with the Denver Broncos for the best record in the NFL, and are expected to make a significant run to the Super Bowl. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has no misconceptions about the possibility of luring Wilson away from his current job, telling the quarterback, “Don’t be insulted if you don’t hear from us again until you’re done playing.”
A cynical reading of the Rangers’ move suggests that it’s merely a marketing ploy to drum up attention in the offseason. The team has been busy this winter, most notably swapping All- Stars in a trade that sent second baseman Ian Kinsler to the Detroit Tigers for the big bat and bigger personality of first baseman Prince Fielder. With the loss last offseason of slugger Josh Hamilton, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and coupled with the probable departure of free agent Nelson Cruz, the Rangers could use some young star power. When Major League Baseball released its list of the top-selling jerseys for both the first and second halves of last season, not a single Ranger made the cut.
That doesn’t mean Texas is suffering from a lack of success, or even a dearth of fans. The team has won 90 games in four consecutive seasons, twice earning at trip to the World Series twice in that span. According to Bloomberg News’s valuations of MLB franchises, the Rangers are the 10th-most valuable team in the league and had the fifth-highest attendance during the 2013 regular season, though that figure was still lower than the previous year.
But there is a league-wide personality problem. Look at the long-term decline in All-Star Game viewership. In short, the Rangers, and baseball at large, are in danger of losing their mainstream appeal. While die-hard fans might relish the opportunity to see J.J. Hardy and Joey Votto play, casual fans have little inclination to tune into a game of All-Stars they don’t recognize from commercials and talk shows.
That’s where the Russell Wilson pick comes in. Given football’s dominance over the sports world, you’d be hard- pressed to find even a nonchalant fan who hasn’t yet heard of him. Perhaps the Rangers really are hoping the mere presence of Wilson’s name on their minor-league roster can help cultivate the next generation of stars. Wilson did express an interest in working out during spring training, where he could serve as a role model and motivational tool for younger players. Daniels told MLB.com’s Richard Justice that the organization values Wilson’s work ethic and his role as a team leader. But it’s more likely that the team is hoping to ride the coattails of the hugely successful Seahawks, whose TV ratings just keep rising.
For the 10th-richest franchise in baseball, $12,000 is a small price to pay to get casual fans talking about your team again.