- By Kevin Lyttle American-Statesman Staff
When the Round Rock Express close out the season Monday against the Iowa Cubs, it could bring down the curtain on an eight-year run with the Texas Rangers.
The Express are a free agent once the Pacific Coast League playoffs end, and the World Series champion Houston Astros almost are certain to come calling. The Stros’ player development contract with Fresno also expires in two weeks.
Yet the Rangers don’t want to leave one of the fastest-growing markets in the country.
Tampering rules prevent both major and minor league teams from making their wish lists known, but several officials from Ryan Sanders Baseball, which owns the Express, told the American-Statesman what they could about the impending decision.
“I’m excited for the chance to sign a new PDC,” said CEO Reese Ryan. “We’re a high-value franchise in an area that continues to have explosive growth. We’re coming off a PCL home attendance title. We’re going to have great options.
“We will carefully weigh our choices and do what makes the most sense for us.”
A two-week window from Sept. 16-30 provides clubs the opportunity to make contact, discuss and negotiate new two- or four-year deals.
“It’s kind of like going to the eighth-grade dance,” Ryan said. “You look around, size it up and say, ‘Well, I’d like to dance with that person.”
Many fans at Dell Diamond have told the Statesman in recent weeks they believe it’s almost inevitable the Express switch sides in the Texas MLB rivalry.
“The Astros are riding high. They won the World Series, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they repeat,” said Jamie Case of Round Rock. “They bring a lot more to the table than the Rangers right now.”
Long-time Express backer Mary Beth Mancini of Pflugerville said, “These guys have their roots with the Astros.”
Astros President Reid Ryan is credited with founding the Express, who were a Stros’ Double-A then Triple-A affiliate from 2000-2010. The team is named after Reid and Reese’s father, Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher known as The Ryan Express. Nolan is currently a special advisor for the Astros.
“Obviously there are the family ties to Houston,” said Express President Chris Almendarez. “But we’ve developed a strong connection with the Rangers.”
Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels told the Statesman back in May, in part, “We understand the factors in play and certainly have respect for the role that family plays.”
Either Texas or Houston could easily slot next year into San Antonio, which is luring Colorado Springs’ team. The contract of the Brewers’ top affiliate is up this month, along with those in Nashville (Athletics), Las Vegas (Mets) and Tacoma (Mariners).
Express officials said they are not concerned with backlash over their decision.
“We have baseball fans who have moved here from all over,” General Manager Tim Jackson said. “They aren’t necessarily hard-core Rangers or Astros fans. They come for the entertainment, the promotions, a variety of reasons.”
Almendarez said, “Central Texas used to be Astros country, yet it’s pretty well split now. That’s the reality of our market.”
The Express (65-73) are coming off their third straight losing season, finishing last in their division, but they remain popular, selling a PCL-high 616,636 tickets, or 8,809 per game.
Manager Jason Wood pointed out that player development is the No. 1 function of a farm club and said he was particularly encouraged by the growth of infielder Hanser Alberto (fourth in the PCL with a .330 batting average), outfielder Scott Heineman (.295 with 33 extra-base hits) and closer R.J. Alvarez (league-leading 24 saves).
“We also got a lot of players ready for the Rangers, and you see people like (first baseman) Ronald Guzman and (infielder) Isiah Kiner-Falefa maturing in the big leagues,” Wood said.
Still, it’s no Fresno. The Astros club is 81-56, won its division again and showcases much higher-ranked prospects.
One way or another the Express aim for a big 20th anniversary celebration in 2019. The Round Rock City Council unanimously approved Aug. 23 an expenditure to install all new seating at Dell Diamond.
“We work together really well, and I don’t see that ever changing,” Ryan said of the city and the club. “Every year we do things to improve this ballpark. We strive to keep it relevant and one of the best.”
Heineman doesn’t want a change of venue for the Rangers’ Triple-A players.
“If it were up to me, we’d stay,” the 25-year-old said. “The suburb, the park, the fans … I love it here.”