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After loss, Rangers front office faces big decisions
ARLINGTON -- Rangers general manager Jon Daniels wandered through the clubhouse Friday night, talking quietly with players and staff members. He wasn't ready to talk to the media after his team's stunning exit from the playoffs.

"I'm going to need a few days to regroup," Daniels said.

The Rangers organization as a whole will need time to regroup after a 5-1 loss to the Orioles in the one-game Wild Card playoff that brought their season to a sudden end. After two trips to the World Series and a 93-win season in 2012, the Rangers are facing a long winter searching for answers.

"It's kind of shocking," TBS broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley said. "Texas was supposed to be the best team in baseball most of the season. At the All-Star break, I was picking Texas ... last week, I was picking Texas. I think they are as shocked as anybody."

They have to get over their shock. Decisions have to be made, issues have to be addressed and potential moves have to be considered. One big story and one big non-story loom.

The non-story is manager Ron Washington. Club officials have given a strong indication that Washington remains in good standing despite the Rangers' sudden fade. As of right now, after two trips to the World Series, the front office isn't ready to throw the blame at the manager's office over what's happened in the past two weeks.

The big story is Josh Hamilton. He will be a free agent after five seasons with the Rangers. It has been a prime topic of discussion for the past year, but now it will become real after the World Series when he officially takes his free agency.

"I haven't thought too much about it [the contract situation] because it ended so abruptly," Hamilton said Friday night. "It was one of those things where I'll go home and spend some time with the family and figure out what's going on and enjoy them right now, then think about what's going to transpire from here on."

Hamilton said he will give the Rangers the first chance to sign him. The Rangers will likely pass on that offer. They still have some interest in signing him, but it's highly unlikely they'll jump in quickly with a pre-emptive bid. It's more likely they'll wait and see what kind of market develops. Everybody has opinions, but nobody really knows where this is headed.

Hamilton, who hit .285 this year with 43 home runs and 128 RBIs, is widely recognized as one of the best all-around players in the game. He is a five-time All-Star who can play at a high level on both sides of the game.

He is also 31 and an outfielder. He deals with physical issues almost on a daily basis. He has quirks that can be maddening. His past problems with drugs and alcohol remain a consideration for any team, but the single biggest factor with Hamilton is if he can hold up physically over the length of a highly lucrative contract of $20-plus million annually.

The Reds didn't think he would last this long. That's why they traded him to the Rangers five years ago for pitcher Edinson Volquez. They were worried about Hamilton holding up physically, but they were wrong and the deal worked out well for the Rangers. It was a great decision at the time. Another decision looms, for the Rangers and other clubs.

There is no clear-cut team expected to bid on Hamilton. The Yankees are always a threat to sign any big free agent, but have talked about getting their finances under control. A quick exit from the playoffs could change that. Other clubs talk about financial restraint, but things have a tendency to change over the winter.

For whatever risks Hamilton presents, he is still far and away the premier position player on the free agent market. The best of the rest would include B.J. Upton, Torii Hunter, Michael Bourn and Melky Cabrera.

"Josh has been the centerpiece of our organization almost from the time he got here," outfielder David Murphy said. "He deserves the right to be a free agent."

The Rangers' approach to Hamilton may go beyond money. The bigger question may be a philosophical one. Do the Rangers spend big dollars trying to reload for one more run with the group they have, or is it time to start transitioning to a new and younger group?

Hamilton and catcher Mike Napoli will be free agents now, but Murphy, outfielder Nelson Cruz and infielder Michael Young are eligible after next season. Second baseman Ian Kinsler was headed in that direction until he signed a five-year, $75 million contract that keeps him in Texas through 2017.

The Rangers have three highly-regarded position prospects in infielder Jurickson Profar, third baseman Mike Olt and outfielder Leonys Martin. The question is if they are ready to commit to them at this point in their development. There will be strong sentiment to get Profar in there, possibly at second base with Kinsler moving to the outfield. That possibility remains a topic of discussion.

Another part of the Rangers' philosophical foundation is that pitching takes priority. Big money spent toward Hamilton could divert financial resources away from a starting rotation that has two holes to fill behind Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Yu Darvish, or from the bullpen. Veteran relievers Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Mark Lowe, Roy Oswalt and Scott Feldman are all headed for free agency and the Rangers will have to rebuild their bullpen.

The Rangers have multiple issues to address this winter. Catching is another. The big one is Hamilton. Once that is resolved, other issues can be brought into sharper focus.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.

Texas Rangers, Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli