SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Several times a week, we'll take a look at some of the key players involved in position battles this spring. Of course, there aren't that many position battles for the back-to-back AL champions, but they need a center fielder, left-handed reliever and utility infielder.
Today's player: Julio Borbon
The 26-year-old arrived at spring training fresh off a full season of play in the Dominican Winter League. He hit .193 with a homer, seven RBIs and five stolen bases in 29 regular-season games. He got better as the season progressed and hit .357 in the playoffs as his team, Escogido, won the Caribbean Series championship.
"I think because I played the whole time, I've kept my rhythm here in spring," Borbon said. "I feel good and relaxed and want to get as many at-bats as I can just to keep going."
Borbon didn't arrive in Surprise as the de facto center fielder, something that has helped him feel a little less pressure. No one has been handed the center field spot, so Borbon is fighting with the rest of them. He played most of the two intrasquad games last week and hit the ball pretty well. The left-handed hitter faced his share of left-handed pitchers and held his own. We'll see how that plays out once Cactus League play begins today.
Borbon is healthy this spring, following a 2011 season that was filled with injuries. He started the season as the Rangers' center fielder and was 7-for-39 (.179) in the first 15 games. Just as he started to hit the ball better, he strained his left hamstring in early May and went on the disabled list. He never returned to the big leagues after that. Borbon went to Triple-A Round Rock, struggled early on and then started to find his swing. But he injured his left ankle sliding into second base July 8 and needed ulnar ligament repair surgery and was out for the rest of the season.
That's where the winter ball season was so important for Borbon to get into playing shape again. He has very good speed and is working hard on improving his bunting skills, something Washington is watching closely.
"He's trying," Washington said. "We want him to do that when he plays at least once a game so he can perfect it to the best as he possibly can. He's hit left-handers, stayed in there and gotten some knocks. We're going to let him play. He didn't play a whole lot of baseball last year, but went to winter ball and stayed the whole time. I'm very appreciate of that, so his game should be pretty good down here."
Borbon is getting more and more comfortable with his bunting. Washington said his sacrifice bunting and bunting for a hit are steadily improving. Borbon had a .309 on-base percentage in 2010 and was at .305 in 2011. If he's to have staying power in the big leagues, he's got to get on base more. Washington said that's simply part of youth.
"He's got to continue to play, continue to learn and get better," Washington said. "He has a lot of ceiling for getting better. He hasn't arrived yet."
Borbon is approaching the Cactus League games more like a veteran. Rather than worry about every at-bat and every play, he's focused on having a solid overall spring and doing the little things needed to improve.
"I do feel relaxed because I've done this a few times now," Borbon said. "I've worked with [hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh] on simplifying things. He knows me and my swing and that helps. We've been on the same page since I got here. Defensively, I know the high sky and wind out here is a challenge, but I'm not going to let that bother me. I understand my game and what I need to get better at and that's my focus."
That's part of the mental game, something that Borbon has struggled with at times.
"He has to continue to acquire that too," Washington said. "That takes time also to understand and believe in yourself and the things you can do and stick to that and not get outside of yourself. We haven't done anything yet, but he's been working hard. He's been doing everything everyone is doing and looking good at it. Now that we're starting to play ball games, we'll see how he reacts to sitautions during the course of the ball game."