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A year ago, Wyatt Langford enjoyed life-changing moment. Now, his rise gives Rangers hope

Since being drafted in 2023, Langford has developed into one of the league’s best first-year players.

ANAHEIM — The Texas Rangers dragged themselves to the first-half finish line on June 9, 2023, at an oppressively humid Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. They had lost six of their last eight games and watched their once-commanding lead in the American League West whittle down. The general consensus among players and coaches was that the team, more than anything, needed a break.

They got a literal break when play paused leaguewide for the All-Star festivities. They caught a figurative one when — on the opposite side of the country, during the first round of the MLB draft in Seattle the same night of their final game against the Nationals — the three organizations that picked in front of Texas operated in the way that they did.

The Pittsburgh Pirates selected LSU right-hander Paul Skenes first overall and the Washington Nationals drafted his college teammate and superstar outfielder Dylan Crews one spot later. That left the Detroit Tigers (third) and the Rangers (fourth) to pick between a promising high school outfielder and the best college hitter still available.

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Detroit selected high schooler Max Clark out of Franklin, Ind.

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Texas drafted its cleanup hitter.

The Rangers drafted Florida outfielder Wyatt Langford one year ago to the day from Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Angels at Anaheim Stadium. All that the 22-year-old rookie has done since the Rangers signed him to an $8 million bonus later that July was climb the professional ranks as if they were step stools, earn his way onto the opening day roster, develop into one of the league’s best first-year players and, on Tuesday, hit cleanup for the reigning World Series champions.

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“To say, a year ago, that we knew he could be here doing what he’s doing?” general manager Chris Young said Tuesday. “I can’t say we were smart enough to predict that.”

Langford’s meteoric rise has been too unprecedented to predict, though Young identified the tools that he now showcases on a near-nightly basis in the major leagues — his power, his speed, his glove and his explosiveness — during a trip to last year’s Southeastern Conference championship with club special advisor Nick Hundley.

“I remember watching him,” Young said, “and Nick and I looked at each other and said, ‘That’s our guy.’ We just loved the way he played the game.”

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That’s now considered a shared sentiment. Langford leads all qualified American League rookies in WAR (1.7, according to Baseball Reference), batting average (.273) and on base percentage (.338). He ranks second in OPS (.752) and RBIs (39), third in hits (68) and fourth in slugging percentage (.414).

His .316 batting average since May 28 — the day on which he was activated from the injured list following a hamstring strain that shelved him for three weeks — leads all rookies leaguewide and ranks 12th-best overall in the AL. In that span, he has: bashed four home runs, driven in 28 runs, hit for the cycle, collected two four-hit games and made a handful of impressive defensive plays including a home run robbery last week vs. the San Diego Padres. None of that includes the inside-the-park home run which he hit in April.

The Trenton, Fla. native is now favored by sportsbooks to win the AL Rookie of the Year honor. Skenes is favored to win the NL Rookie of the Year award. The two SEC stars never faced each other in college, for what it’s worth, because Skenes did not pitch in the College World Series last year against Florida.

Langford began his professional career with the Arizona Complex League Rangers just one month after the Gators were eliminated in Omaha. He spent just three games there before Texas moved him to High-A Hickory in August; Langford played for Double-A Frisco by September, Triple-A Round Rock before the minor league season ended and received an invite to major league spring training where he led the Cactus League in home runs (six) and on base-plus slugging (1.137).

“Honestly, I had no expectations going into it,” Langford said Tuesday of his entrance to professional baseball. “I was just excited for what was going to happen, and I was just going to go from there. I had no expectations, and I don’t think I could’ve saw myself being here.”

It’s difficult to expect any of this.

Well, maybe.

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“I think a lot of people expected it,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “That’s how good we thought Wyatt was when he drafted him.”

Good enough to hit in the heart of a major league batting order? The Rangers seem to think so and Langford’s production (7 for 14) in that spot has validated it. Bochy inserted Langford into the cleanup spot on Sunday vs. the Tampa Bay Rays and the rookie responded with four hits. Bochy — who jokingly cited “superstitions” — hit him fourth again on Monday against the Angels and Langford drilled a two-run home run and a double.

Only one draftee — Pete Incaviglia in 1986 with the Rangers — has reached the major leagues and hit cleanup with fewer professional games under their belt.

“I didn’t reach the big leagues until I was 25 years old and there was still a major learning curve for me,” Young said. “Wyatt is still four years younger than that, and the game is better than ever, way better than when I played, so just from a player’s standpoint, having been through it, I know how hard this game is.”

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It’s just that Langford — in only one year — has made it look a little easy.

“It’s pretty cool that [the draft] was a year ago today,” Langford said. “Definitely a life-changing moment.”

It might’ve been a franchise-changing moment, too.

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