Texas Rangers: Position series

Positional outlook: Pitching coach

March, 8, 2010
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We conclude our positional outlook today with pitching coach Mike Maddux. Shameless plug: I'm working on a Mike Maddux story slated to run next week, so look for it. And because of that, I won't make this a long outlook.

[+] EnlargeMike Maddux
John Williamson/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesThe Rangers pitching staff made a big improvement under Mike Maddux in his first season.
You know what Maddux helped do for this team in 2009. The staff ERA, worst in the AL by a long shot, improved by nearly a full run. Think about that. The staff allowed one fewer run on average in 2009 than it did in 2008. That was good enough to jump into the middle of the pack in ERA in the league.

Maddux managed to take a group of different personalities and mold them into better conditioned pitchers with solid strategies for getting hitters out. He did it with a fun-loving personality and attention to detail.

The challenge now is to do it again. No, I don't mean lowering the ERA by a full run. But making the Rangers' starting rotation and bullpen a more consistent unit from top to bottom. Maddux must do what he can to monitor pitchers and keep them healthy (especially Rich Harden) and do what he can to help young pitchers such as Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Scott Feldman continue to improve and gain even more confidence. In Feldman's case, last season gave him that confidence. Now Maddux can help him prove he can pitch that way every season.

Maddux was one of the club's biggest offseason acquisitions before the 2009 season, and he said he arrived at spring training with a very different feeling in 2010. Instead of spending weeks or months feeling everyone out and getting to know everyone, he comes in knowing much of the staff already. That has allowed him to focus in on getting to know the details of the new faces he's seen in camp.

Don't underestimate Maddux's value to Ron Washington. He helps the manager think a few innings ahead, noting who might be up in the opposing lineup and the relievers that could best get them out. Washington makes the ultimate call, but he relies heavily on Maddux (as he should), who has a good pulse on his pitchers.

It will be interesting to see how Maddux and the staff does in 2010. One safe bet: He'll get the most out of them.

Position outlook: Hitting coach

March, 5, 2010
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We are in the final stretch of our positional outlooks as we turn our focus to Clint Hurdle.

After a disappointing 2009 season on offense, Hurdle joins the Rangers to try to help get things turned around. Longtime hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo decided to take a multi-year offer from the Cubs. So it's Hurdle's job now to aid the Rangers' hitters.

Before we go any further, Click here to listen to Hurdle's interview with Ben & Skin on 103.3 ESPN FM.

Hurdle seems re-energized, taking the job after spending much of 2009 out of baseball. He was fired as manager of the Colorado Rockies on May 29 of last season after the team got off to a struggling start. And the months away from the field only made Hurdle miss it more.

[+] EnlargeVladimir Guerrero
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallWith big bats like Vladimir Guerrero and Josh Hamilton in his order, Clint Hurdle has the tools to restore the Rangers' offense.
His mission is to make the Rangers' offense more versatile. You know all the stats from last season -- the runs were the lowest the club has produced since moving into Rangers Ballpark in Arlington -- and the organization has talked about needing to do the little things to get better. There's a focus on moving runners over, getting productive outs and making every at-bat count.

Of course, much of what Hurdle preaches, Jaramillo did too. But sometimes a different voice can make an impact. We'll see if that's the case with Hurdle.

He came in during the offseason and worked with a handful of hitters at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and also called many of them on the phone to have general conversations about their philosophies. Hurdle is one of the hardest-working guys at spring training. He's at the park early to hit the cages with some of the players and he stays late if anyone wants extra work after the day is done.

Hurdle is also big on the mental side, texting players and coaches famous sayings he likes. Hurdle is careful to caution that all hitters are different and that he isn't out to change swings completely. But he does want to make sure that players understand the proper strategy for each situation.

Michael Young talked about hitting to the scoreboard. If you need to move a runner over, know where you have to hit the ball and find a way to get it done. If you can swing away, take advantage of it. But don't waste at-bats. That's the message Hurdle is delivering.

Judging by the box score of Thursday's game, some of that is going on. Players are understanding when they can let it rip and when to play a little small ball. The other weapon the Rangers will use to produce runs is speed. They were 3-for-3 in the stolen base department on Thursday. And they've got speed in all over the lineup, giving Ron Washington more options.

A revamped lineup that includes Vladimir Guerrero and, the Rangers hope, better seasons from Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler, should make them more dangerous. Hurdle wants to make sure they are supremely prepared.

Will it all translate to better offense in 2010?

Positional outlook: Manager

March, 4, 2010
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video
We might as well take a look at the coaching staff while we're exploring each position on this team. We've gone through the starters and depth players on the roster, so what about the man that manages them?

Ron Washington enters his fourth season as Rangers manager and does so with a club that feels like it has some momentum following an 87-75 record in 2009.

"Ron came with a wealth of baseball background and knowledge, but was a first time big league manager," Rangers president Nolan Ryan said. "He has grown with a team that was developing and he's grown as a manager. I think that since I've been here, I've seen him develop and mature as a manager.

Ron Washington
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRon Washington
"We feel like this club needs to be competitive and we need to come out and play well and stay in the race all year and play to the level we feel like we’re capable of playing. As a manager, the challenge he has is to try to get the most out of those 25 guys on a day-to-day basis."

Washington will be the first to say that he feels like he's a better manager now than he was three years ago and I think that's true. Washington has a keen eye for people and understands what it takes to motivate players.

I know fans question some of his in-game decisions and strategic calls, but he tries to mix going with his gut with going with the book. Sometimes he makes the wrong calls and sometimes he makes the right calls. And sometimes he makes calls based on the future too (letting a player get a big at-bat in a key situation so he gains some experience).

Washington was general manager Jon Daniels' choice to replace Buck Showalter. And that move was made before Nolan Ryan was named club president. But Washington impressed Ryan enough to get the one-year extension during last season. Washington's contract expires at the end of this season, so the club could take the same approach, waiting to see how things unfold before deciding on Washington's future.

To Washington's credit, he doesn't let his situation impact his job much. His players like playing for him and it was clear they played hard in 2009.

Washington has learned that he has to do what's necessary to keep players healthy. That means telling guys they have to take a day off or shifting them to designated hitter to get them off their feet. He'll be particularly careful with Vladimir Guerrero and Josh Hamilton. And when it comes to making sure guys get mental breaks, Washington will monitor that too. He's already talked about giving young Elvis Andrus chances to step back and watch things every once in a while to rest his body and mind.

If managers are based on their wins and losses, Washington deserves some credit for having a team that has improved each season since his arrival. The Rangers had 75 wins in 2007, 79 wins in 2008, 87 wins in 2009 and will likely need more than 90 in 2010 to win the AL West. Washington was fourth in the AL manager of the year voting in 2009.

Like it was in 2009, the pressure is on Washington and the Rangers to get off to a good start. This is a team with expectations of winning the AL West. They got out to a much better start in 2009 than they did in 2007 and 2008. They'll need to do that again.

The schedule won't be easy. The Rangers play AL West opponent Seattle during the first homestand and head on the road to face the Yankees and Red Sox on the road. But if they get through that stretch OK, it should give them some solid momentum as they settle into the season.

I think Washington has done a good job of helping this young team grow. That should continue in 2010.

Can he help take them to the next level where they see the fruits of that labor in a division title?

Positional outlook: Utility infielder

March, 3, 2010
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Things have certainly changed the last few weeks on the utility front. This was supposed to be all about Khalil Greene, who was signed in the offseason to handle the infield positions.

[+] EnlargeKevin Reece/Icon SMI
Kevin Reece/Icon SMIJoaquin Arias came to the Rangers organization in the trade that sent Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees.
Greene's decision not to report to camp (the club ended up voiding his $750,000 contract) means that the utility position is up for grabs. The intention at this point is for an internal candidate to win that job, though the Rangers will continue to look around (possibly Julio Lugo?) and check the waiver wire as spring training comes to a close.

But this is a big opportunity for Joaquin Arias.

Arias is out of options. At one time, he was one of the club's top prospects. But arm and shoulder issues slowed him and surgery means he'll likely never fully regain the arm strength he had a few years ago. Arias, though, comes into spring training on a mission.

"I don't want to play in Oklahoma again," said Arias the day he reported, referring to Triple-A Oklahoma City. "I want to play in the big leagues. It's my time."

Arias, 25, was acquired from the Yankees in the Alex Rodriguez-Alfonso Soriano trade in 2004. He made his major league debut in September of 2006 and was on pace to keep improving. But he spent all of 2007 on the disabled list and had surgery on his right shoulder. He says he feels healthy and even better than he did last spring training. He must prove he can make the throws necessary. The Rangers will see if he can seize the opportunity.

"He’s in a better position now to be considered for this job than he’s been the last two years," general manager Jon Daniels said. "That’s what spring training is for. Joaquin’s going to be given a chance to compete for the job, but he’s going to have to go out and win it."

Both Daniels and manager Ron Washington said the most important component of a utility infielder is the ability to play shortstop. That's Arias' natural position and one that he played in winter ball leading up to spring training. He also played some at second base in 2008. Arias is not a first baseman, but Max Ramirez could be a candidate to back up at first base (as well as play catcher if needed) as the 25th man on the roster. Or the Rangers could go out and get a right-handed hitting first baseman as a backup.

But Arias would give them a backup that can play in the middle of the field. That position is an important one. Omar Vizquel did a solid job in that role in 2009. He was there to help mentor Elvis Andrus, but when injuries occurred -- to Ian Kinsler and Michael Young -- Vizquel was able to step in and produce.

Arias must show he can limit mistakes and earn the trust of his teammates and the manager. Arias had a solid stay in the Dominican Winter League, hitting .296 with 11 RBIs, 14 runs and six stolen bases in 27 games. He had 504 at-bats for Triple-A Oklahoma City last season, batting .266 with five homers, 52 RBIs and 24 stolen bases (in 27 attempts). Arias would give Washington another pinch-running option late in games as well.

Arias isn't the only player who will get a look. Ray Olmedo and Esteban German are both in camp, though not on the 40-man roster. Washington said he didn't know much about Olmedo before camp, but he's working with him and discovering more about all of his reserve infielders as the spring progresses.

Do you think Arias is right for the job? Should the Rangers look outside the organization?

Positional outlook: Late-inning relief

March, 2, 2010
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We now shift our attention to the back end of the bullpen, a critical component of any contending team. This is another spot on the team that depends on what happens to the final starting rotation spot.

[+] EnlargeFrank Francisco
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallCloser Frank Francisco was effective when healthy last season but was limited by shoulder problems and a bout with pneumonia.
Right now, C.J. Wilson and Neftali Feliz are stretching out as starters and competing for the No. 5 position in the rotation. Should one of those hurlers earn a spot in the rotation, it would greatly alter the bullpen.

Wilson must be one of the top two starters in camp to earn a spot, and the club has to decide if Feliz is ready for that role right out of the gate. If neither makes the rotation, Wilson slides into his eighth-inning setup role to get the game to closer Frank Francisco. And Feliz can be a seventh-inning (and eighth-inning at times) setup guy or even a two-inning pitcher in a close game.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux said Wilson "was the bullpen" last season. He was versatile enough to get a lefty out if needed (though that's not a preferred role for him), pitch a full inning late in a close game or close when Francisco was injured. It's difficult to assume that Francisco will stay healthy a full season in 2010 given that he had three disabled list stints last season. So it's a luxury to have someone like Wilson ready to go. Feliz could also grow into that role as the club hasn't decided if he's a starter long-term (I still want to see him start and think he could certainly do it) or a closer. It seems he could do either.

Wilson was 5-6 with a 2.81 ERA last season. He had 19 holds and 14 saves with84 strikeouts and 32 walks in 73 2/3 innings. Fans sometimes jump on Wilson because he has a rough inning here and there, but the reality is he was the club's most consistent pitcher in the bullpen from start to finish and stayed healthy, pitching in 74 games.

Francisco heads into the 2010 season as the club's closer. He's also in the final year of his contract. Francisco must show he can stay healthy after some issues in 2009. He had 25 saves last season, with 15 coming before the All-Star breeak. Francisco had a 2.28 ERA in 27 2/3 innings before the break and a 5.82 ERA in 21 2/3 innings (during most of his injury time) after the break. He's got great stuff and the mental makeup to handle the closer's job.

[+] EnlargeDarren O'Day
Kirby Lee/US PresswireDarren O'Day's sidearm delivery makes it hard for hitters to see what's coming.
He told me last week that he was most proud of learning how to handle the rough moments. He gave up six earned runs and blew a game against Boston in August, but went back out to the mound in a one-run game against the Red Sox two days later and got the save.

"The manager gave me another chance and I did the job," Francisco said. "That was important for me. I'm going to have bad games. I have to come out and pitch better right away when I do."

Darren O'Day is another reliable setup man that manager Ron Washington has at his disposal. O'Day had a strange entrance to the Rangers, arriving in Toronto and having to pitch in an extra-inning game (and giving up the game-winning double) wearing Kason Gabbard's uniform. But after that, he settled in and gave the club some important late innings. O'Day had a 1.94 ERA in 55 2/3 innings with the Rangers, including 20 holds and two saves. He had 54 strikeouts to 17 walks. O'Day's sidearm (submarine-like) delivery fooled batters and was made even more effective once Maddux had him move to either side of the rubber depending on what side the hitter was on.

A familiar face join the Rangers' bullpen this season in Darren Oliver, another critical late-inning lefty. Oliver gives the club a guy who can get out lefties, but also has the ability to pitch multiple innings if needed. Too often, Washington didn't have enough viable lefties in the bullpen. Oliver is a veteran leader and a guy that can help bolster that back end. He had 20 holds and a 2.71 ERA in 73 innings for the Angels last season.

The Rangers also traded for Chris Ray, who came over from Baltimore in the Kevin Millwood deal. Ray says he feels healthy and confident that his arm slot is in the right place after coming back from surgery (more on that later this week). He had a 7.27 ERA last season and is hungry to reclaim the form that saw him save 33 games with a 2.73 ERA in 2006.

Other pitchers could find their way onto the team at some point. Some of those include: LHP Ben Snyder, a Rule 5 pickup, Tanner Scheppers, who has solid stuff and could push his way toward the majors, and Geoff Geary is in camp as a non-roster invite.

The Rangers believe this bullpen and its depth can be a true area of strength this season. It was a big focus of general manager Jon Daniels' offseason.

Positional outlook: Long/middle relief

March, 1, 2010
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We shift our attention to the bullpen as the positional outlooks continue. It's difficult, at times, to assign roles to specific players when it comes to the relief slots. But we'll take each position as it is and try to predict who might end up there.

Manager Ron Washington will tell you how critical it is to have pitchers you can trust to help get the game to the seventh inning. Obviously, the preference is the starter do that for you. But too often, that won't happen. That's when the middle and long relievers can make a huge difference.

[+] EnlargeDustin Nippert
John Cordes/Icon SMIDustin Nippert got 10 starts last season because of injuries in the rotation and also was a strong option when Ron Washington needed to use the bullpen early in games.
To determine who those relievers might be, the club has to s0rt through the competition for the No. 5 spot. If C.J. Wilson or Neftali Feliz, don't make it, they'll end up with late-inning bullpen roles (Feliz could be used as a multi-inning guy in the sixth and seventh). But what about the long list of other names, like Derek Holland, Brandon McCarthy and Matt Harrison. One or more could end up in the bullpen to start the season.

Two stalwarts that helped this club in 2009, return in 2010: Doug Mathis and Dustin Nippert. Nippert, 28, provided Washington with a guy that could handle innings if a starter got roughed up early and a guy who could spot start, if necessary. Don't underestimate that kind of value. Thanks to injuries, Nippert was needed more as a starter than the team anticipated. He pitched 69 2/3 innings in 2009 with 50 1/3 of them coming in 10 starts. As a reliever, Nippert was 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA in 19 1/3 innings (10 appearances). All but three of Nippert's relief appearances were at least 1 2/3 innings. Nippert wasn't flashy, but he got the job done. Opponents batted .245 against him (just .197 in relief appearances).

Mathis, 26, pitched 42 2/3 innings for the Rangers in 2009 (starting in June). He made two starts and neither was particularly memorable. But as a long reliever, he was solid. Mathis had one save and a 2.14 ERA in 33 2/3 relief innings. He had 21 strikeouts and eight walks in the bullpen and opponents hit .218 against him.

Others could end up making an important contribution in the middle/long relief spots. It just depends who end up in the rotation. Holland went back-and-forth between the rotation and the bullpen for part of the 2009 season and was 2-1 with a 5.48 ERA in 21 1/3 innings. If Holland, who is back on the mound after missing a week with a knee sprain, doesn't win the No. 5 job, the club must decide if he's better off in the bullpen or starting every fifth day in Triple-A Oklahoma City.

McCarthy could also end up in the bullpen should he not earn the fifth starting spot. Injuries have been McCarthy's biggest issue since he was traded for Texas, but he was pitching well last season when it was discovered that his shoulder blade was fractured for the second consecutive season.

As general manager Jon Daniels points out: You can never have too much pitching depth. That means other pitchers could be in and out of the bullpen this season, especially in mutli-inning roles. Guillermo Moscoso, Luis Mendoza and Warner Madrigal (who is dealing with forearm stiffness this period) are on the 40-man and in camp. Moscoso made five appearances in September last year and all were Rangers losses. But he had a 1.59 ERA, including 2 1/3 shutout innings against the Angels to finish the season and give him some momentum.

Mendoza arrived at camp feeling good about his pitches. He's been almost forgotten about, but he has a solid sinker and says he's gained more confidence with his curve during winter ball. We'll see if he can make some kind of statement this spring. Willie Eyre is also in camp, but is currently not on the 40-man roster. And others could also find a way into the mix.

It will be interesting to watch how things shake out for this group this spring.

Surprise positional outlook: No. 5 starter

February, 26, 2010
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This is one of the more interesting position battles in camp this season. It appears the first four rotation spots are pretty set (barring injuries, of course) with Rich Harden, Scott Feldman, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter. But who will be the No. 5 starter?

A gaggle of candidates are in Surprise, Ariz., now to compete for that spot. The current foursome does not include a left-hander, possibly giving an early edge to Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and C.J. Wilson. But general manager Jon Daniels has made it clear that the best pitcher will get the job and it won't simply be handed to a lefty.

The good news for the Rangers is that this shows how much more depth they've developed among the pitching staff. Besides Holland, Harrison and Wilson, Brandon McCarthy will get a shot to compete. So will flamethrower Neftali Feliz. Doug Mathis and Dustin Nippert are probably more long-relief options.

[+] EnlargeDerek Holland
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesDerek Holland was 8-13 with a 6.12 ERA last season, allowing 26 home runs -- which was tied for 10th most in the American League.
Going into camp, I felt like Holland had the best shot. He gained valuable experience in the majors last season and is a lefty, which would be nice to have in the rotation. His sprained right knee has set him back about a week (assuming he starts throwing off a mound sometime this weekend), but that doesn't mean he's out of the running.

Fortunately for Holland and the Rangers, the minor injury occurred early in camp, and he has time to get going and get in the mix. Holland was 8-13 with a 6.12 ERA in 138 1/3 innings last season. He was 6-12 with a 6.23 ERA with 94 strikeouts and 40 walks in those 21 starts. What hurt Holland was a string of five straight starts in August and into September where his ERA jumped from 4.72 to 6.17. He allowed 26 home runs, tied for 10th most in the American League among pitchers with at least 120 innings. Opponents hit .288 against him.

But Holland also had flashes of true brilliance. He threw a complete game, three-hitter against the Angels in Anaheim and allowed one earned run in 8 2/3 innings against Seattle in a memorable start just before the trade deadline. He clearly has a ton of potential. The question is whether he learned enough last season to go into 2010 a smarter, better pitcher. And one that can be in the rotation from the beginning. One thing he's talked about is pitch sequence and learning a lot about that in 2009. He's one to watch this spring.

It's tempting to see what Feliz can do as a starter, isn't it? He teased everyone with his performance out of the bullpen last season, blistering balls at 100 mph. But his velocity did come down a bit by the end of the season, probably thanks to a little fatigue. Still, Feliz is special. That much is obvious. The Rangers have to figure out how best to use him, something discussed more here. He wants to start and he'll be given that chance in spring training. I still think he ends up in the bullpen to start the season, but we'll see. And even if he does, that doesn't mean he can be stretched out and put in the starting rotation at some point in 2010. One way or the other, he'll get a chance to start. I can't wait to see that.

Wilson is also getting a chance to start this spring. He'll have to be one of the top two starters in camp to be thrown into the rotation. Why? Because he's too valuable in the bullpen. But he's hungry to show he can start and is excited about the opportunity. In Mike Maddux's words, Wilson "was the bullpen" for the Rangers last season. He stepped in when needed for Frank Francisco and ended up 5-6 with a 2.81 ERA with 84 strikeouts and 32 walks in 73 2.3 innings. Wilson was last a starter for parts of the 2005 season, including six starts with Texas.

Harrison arrived at camp 30 pounds lighter than this time last year, something he talked about here. Harrison is coming off surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and must show he's healthy and back to form. He's got a lot to prove, but he's a lefty that has shown potential. He even had two complete games in 2009.

McCarthy is also trying to prove himself. Since the Rangers made the trade for McCarthy, which involved lefty John Danks, McCarthy hasn't been able to stay healthy. He was 7-4 with a 4.62 ERA in 17 starts last season. What could help him in the race for the fifth spot is that he was starting to find his form before developing a stress fracture in his right shoulder blade for the second consecutive season. McCarthy was 3-2 with a 3.79 ERA in May. He returned in September and pitched well, finishing 2-2 with a 3.45 ERA that included two quality starts.

Who do you want to see get that fifth spot?

Surprise positional outlook: No. 4 starter

February, 25, 2010
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Here’s our look at Tommy Hunter, who goes into spring training as the No. 4 starter. It’s his job to lose after a solid 2009 season.

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Tommy Hunter remembers a conversation he had with Michael Young on a quiet plane ride back from Boston in August of 2008.

Hunter started against the Red Sox at Fenway Park and couldn’t get out of the second inning. He gave up nine earned runs on seven hits and was pulled in a 10-0 loss.

“He told me that stuff happens and you have to come back next time and try to improve,” Hunter said. “He told me I couldn’t give up.”

Hunter used the troubling start as motivation.

“It’s one of those things that you can’t do any worse than what I did the year before,” Hunter said.

He was 0-2 with a 16.36 ERA in 11 innings (three starts).

Hunter had a conversation with his dad before spring training last year, telling him that if he got five consecutive starts, it would determine whether he had the stuff to make it in the major leagues.

[+] EnlargeTommy Hunter
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireA cutter and an improved changeup helped Tommy Hunter recover from a tough stretch.
He was called up for a spot start in May and pitched well, but was sent back to the minors for a month. When he returned, Hunter knew he was going to get his chance to show if he was worthy of staying in the Rangers’ rotation.He allowed just three combined earned runs in his first three starts and then faced Boston and Josh Beckett in late July.

“It was one of those hurdles that you’ve got to get over,” Hunter said. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘This could be a good turning point.’ I got a win and the start went pretty well. Things went from there.”

Hunter allowed one run in six innings in a 4-2 Rangers’ win.

It was during that stretch that Hunter’s cutter became a topic of discussion. His fastball delivery had a natural cut to it at times, but he said if he threw one it was “by accident.” He and catcher Kevin Richardson experimented with it in a bullpen session before he was called up last season and Hunter tried to throw in a game a few days later.

The pitch, along with an improved changeup, added another dimension to Hunter’s game. His confidence continued to increase as the season progressed. He ran into some fatigue issues, which contributed to his final few starts (he gave up 13 runs in eight innings in two of his last three starts). Hunter worked this offseason to get his strength up and be prepared to pitch well for the entire season.

“I have to keep it going and keep working,” Hunter said.

The 23-year-old is another example of a young pitcher showing steady improvement for the Rangers. The club wants to see if he can take the next step and become an integral part of the rotation from start to finish in 2010.

Surprise positional outlook: No. 3 starter

February, 24, 2010
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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Colby Lewis rejoins the Rangers in a much different mindset than he was when he was a first-round draft pick in 1999.

[+] EnlargeColby Lewis
AP Photo/Koji SasaharaAfter two years in Japan, Colby Lewis comes back to the Rangers with a fresh outlook.
That's what two years in Japan finding your game will do for you after shoulder injuries and struggles. After spending part of 2007 in the Oakland bullpen, Lewis figured it was time to see if he could make some money and pitch better overseas.

He did both. And after two solid seasons playing for the Hiroshima Carp -- 26-17 with a 2.82 ERA in two seasons -- he's returned to Texas as the No. 3 starter. Lewis isn't in Surprise to fight for a rotation spot. He has one already, part of a contract that pays him $5 million in guaranteed money the next two seasons and could net him another $3.25 million in a club optoin for 2012. What the Rangers hope to see is the same guy that found his command in Japan.

Lewis' most impressive number is his strikeout-to-walk ratio. Lewis, 30, struck out 183 batters and walked 27 in 178 innings in 2008. Last season, he pitched 176 innings and had 186 strikeouts and 19 walks.

"I found my command and got more consistent about locating the ball," Lewis said.

All of this comes after shoulder injuries and an inability to consistently find the strike zone had Lewis going back and forth between the majors and minors. Right shoulder surgery in 2004 forced Lewis to miss the 2005 season. He bounced around some more after that before landing in Japan in 2008.

Lewis added a cutter while overseas to go along with his slider, changeup and curve. He has a more compact delivery since Ranger fans last saw him. He's not throwing quite as hard (though he says he can hit 96 mph on the gun at times) in an effort to be sure and find the location. It's a formula that worked for him in Japan.

Now the question is: Can it work here? The Rangers are certainly banking on it. Lewis seems very calm and collected at spring training so far, going about his business and making sure he's in top shape for the start of the season. He has a quiet confidence about him. We'll see if that translates into a solid 2010.

BTW, check out some of Lewis' thoughts of Japan here.

What are you expecting from Lewis this season?

Surprise positional outlook: No. 2 starter

February, 23, 2010
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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Scott Feldman arrives at spring training in a much different mind-set than a year ago.

[+] EnlargeScott Feldman
Jesse Beals / Icon SMIScott Feldman set a Rangers record with 12 road wins last year.

Then, Feldman was vying for a rotation spot but ended up in the bullpen. He was simply trying to improve on his 6-8 record and a 5.29 ERA. He was an important innings eater in 2008 and the Rangers expected him to handle a big role as a long man and spot starter in 2009.

"I tried not to get too frustrated when I was in the bullpen," Feldman said. "I wanted to be starting, but it's not going to do any good to complain about it or pout around. I tried to keep a positive attitude and once I did get the chance, I was ready to do it. It's what I wanted to do. "

He got that chance on April 25. After the Kris Benson experiment failed, the Rangers turned to Feldman. He made an immediate impact, coming out of the pen to start and give the club five innings (allowing one run) in a win against Baltimore. It was his first of 17 wins in 2009.

"I think probably at the begining of the year I didn't think I'd win 17 games," Feldman said. "That had a lot to do with the team being good. I felt like if I could just keep improving on 2008 that I'd be OK. I thought if I had an ERA around 4.00, it would have been a good year."

Feldman was a road warrior. He was 12-4 with a 3.56 ERA away from Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. The 12 wins were tied for the most in the majors in 2009 and set a club record. His road ERA was the lowest for a Rangers pitcher with at least 81 road innings since Ken Hill in 1996.

Feldman had a solid arsenal of pitches in 2009: sinker, cutter, curve and changeup. Feldman will spend the spring refining those pitches and making sure they are ready to make an impact again in 2010.

The big question with Feldman: Can he repeat his 2009 success this season?

In terms of record, that's probably unrealistic. But the Rangers see a pitcher who is still learning and still improving. They think he can be even better as an overall player. Feldman isn't spending any time this spring thinking about how many wins he might have in 2010.

"I think you try to build on last year," Feldman said. "I want to go out there and compete and have fun during the games in spring training and try to refine all my pitches and get my location back. I did that last year, too. I think that's part of spring. You go out there and get the feel of playing again."

One other difference for Feldman this spring is that he looks around the clubhouse and sees younger pitchers looking to him for leadership. He was the Rangers' top starter last season, and with that comes even more respect from others, not to mention questions about how he goes about his business.

"Last year, pitchers followed Kevin Millwood around," general manager Jon Daniels said. "This year, I see them following Scott Feldman around."

Feldman remains the same humble guy. He's confident, certainly. But he just goes about his business, works hard and does everything he can to help make the team better. We'll see if that translates into another solid season on the mound.

How do you think Feldman will do this season?

Surprise positional outlook: No. 1 starter

February, 22, 2010
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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Our positional outlooks continue all week with the five starting spots. For the purposes of this assignment, we'll slot some guys in spots where they could end up. In fairness, Scott Feldman was the club's top starter last season, though Kevin Millwood was considered the No. 1 starter. But for this outlook, the No. 1 spot goes to Rich Harden. He's expected to seize that role this season. Feldman will be featured on Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeHarden
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRich Harden has had seven stints on the disabled list in the past five seasons and has pitched more than 148 innings just once in his career.

Part of general manager Jon Daniels' offseason work included trading Millwood to Baltimore to free up the money necessary to sign Harden, a free agent. The Rangers believe that Harden is worth what is $6.5 million in base salary in 2010 (he has some incentives) and a mutual option for 2011 at $11.5 million. Why? Because when Harden is healthy, he's shown ace-like stuff. He made 25 starts in 2008 between the Cubs and A's and was 10-2 with a 2.07 ERA. He made 26 starts last season and had a 4.09 ERA, but also 171 strikeouts in 141 innings.

The reason the signing is a big risk: Harden has made seven trips to the disabled list in the last five seasons. He's pitched more than 148 innings in a season only once. And that was 2004.

But Harden arrived in Surprise committed to showing he can become a durable starter. The Rangers certainly need that. How important is a true No. 1 starter? Well, there are certainly examples of teams that have made the postseason with an overall solid rotation, but no true ace. But, as Michael Lynch at ESPN Stats & Information points out, three of the last four AL West titles for the Angels were won with a starter that had a 3.50 ERA or lower and who pitched at least 175 innings. In the entire decade of the 2000s (2000-2009), the Rangers had only one pitcher accomplish that feat: Kenny Rogers in 2005.

I have a column online now that talks about Harden's health and his focus on decreasing his pitch count per inning. Because he's a big strikeout guy, he throws a lot of pitches. That can hurt his ability to go deeper into games. Of pitchers that threw at least 140 innings last season, Harden had the fifth-most pitches per inning at 17.7.

That's what you would expect from a strikeout pitcher. And he has sure had a bunch of those. Of the pitchers that threw at least 100 innings in 2009, no one had a higher strikeout rate per nine innings than Harden's 10.9. The list:

1. Rich Harden (10.9)

2. Tim Lincecum (10.4)

3. Justin Verlander (10.1)

4. Jon Lester (10.0)

5. Yovani Gallardo (9.9)

So Harden comes in with the expectation that he can be a stalwart in this rotation. He's worked hard this offseason (in Arizona, actually) with his conditioning to be in position to throw a bunch of innings at the top of the Rangers rotation this season.

Will he do it?

Rangers' moves bolster spring hopes

February, 19, 2010
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video
ESPN Dallas' Richard Durrett analyzes the Texas Rangers' newest players and the team's hopes as spring training gets underway in Surprise, Ariz.

Surprise positional outlook: Catcher

February, 19, 2010
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Jarrod Saltalamacchia & Taylor TeagardenUS PresswireJarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden will be battling throughout spring training to become the Rangers' starting catcher.

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Fittingly, as pitchers and catchers get going here at spring training, we turn our attention to them in our positional outlooks. We'll look at catcher today and then shift to the five starting rotation spots next week just to give you a glimpse of each position and player.

One of the biggest questions of the spring is whether Jarrod Saltalamacchia can show he's healthy. If he is, he's expected to be behind the plate on opening day. But that doesn't mean it's simply Saltalamacchia's job to lose. Taylor Teagarden will get his opportunity as well.

So far, Saltalamacchia has progressed nicely since returning to baseball conditioning in January. He had a setback in winter ball, feeling some discomfort in his arm in his first few games. He was shut down for a month, but it was determined that he didn't suffer any additional damage to his shoulder or arm.

Saltalamacchia, 24, started the 2009 season as the No. 1 catcher, but played in just 84 games because of complications from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Saltalamacchia had right shoulder soreness and was having trouble throwing the ball back to the mound at times. He batted .233 with nine homers and 34 RBIs and had 97 strikeouts (and 22 walks) in 283 at-bats.

[+] EnlargeJarrod Saltalamacchia
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesJarrod Saltalamacchia played just 84 games last season because of shoulder injuries. He batted .233 with home runs and 34 RBIs in 283 at-bats.
Saltalamacchia has talked this offseason about focusing on staying healthy and getting more consistent at the plate. The reality is the Rangers didn't get much offensively from the catching position all season. Rangers' catchers hit .234 with 17 homers and 71 RBIs. They had 188 strikeouts in 568 at-bats. Only the first base position had more strikeouts for the club last season. The catching batting average was 23rd in the majors and the strikeouts were No.1. But it wasn't all bad news from an offensive standpoint. The Rangers' catchers had 74 runs, eighth in the majors.

But there's no doubt, getting more from the catching position on offense is something the Rangers need this season. Taylor Teagarden could have a say in that as well. He was Saltalamacchia's backup last season and struggled at the plate himself. He hit .217 with six homers and 24 RBIs (with 76 strikeouts and 14 walks in 198 at-bats). The Rangers, needing some help at catcher, traded for Pudge Rodriguez in August when Saltalamacchia went down. But he's not back this season.

They did bring in veteran catcher Toby Hall as insurance should Saltalamacchia experience some setbacks.

But the Rangers want the two young catchers to grab the job. Manager Ron Washington talked last season about making sure both of them got to know the pitching staff and could call a good game. Both improved steadily in that area in 2009. And they'll start right now getting used to the new faces on the Rangers' staff. Saltamacchia's catching ERA was 4.10 with Teagarden at 4.60. They had a combined 13 errors in 2009.

The club considers both quality defenders and it's a part of the game they continue to work hard at. The key will be finding that balance of handling pitchers well, playing solid defense and contributing a little more at the bottom of the order with the bat.

"There's nothing wrong with some healthy competition," Washington said Thursday. "It's what I've always preached I've wanted to see from my catchers: handling the pitching staff, getting them through innings, helping through bad times. It gets back to leadership too."

Catching will be fun to watch this spring.

Surprise positional outlook: DH

February, 18, 2010
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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It's time to talk about Vladimir Guerrero.

Last season, manager Ron Washington utilized his DH position in a rotation of sorts. He could get players some time off their feet by making them the DH in many games. But the lineup lacked some punch and they didn't have it at the DH position. As a DH position in 2009, the Rangers hit .242 with 38 homers and 97 RBIs. It's why general manager Jon Daniels moved to address that need this season.

By signing Guerrero, the Rangers eliminate a player that was a terror against them for his career. Mark Simon at ESPN Stats & Information (by way of Elias Sports Bureau) looked up the players since 1980 with the batting average versus a team before being signed by that team (minimum of 200 at-bats). Here's that list:

[+] EnlargeVladimir Guerrero
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesAfter victimizing them for years with the LA Angels, Vladimir Guerrero will don the Rangers' colors this season primarily as the designated hitter.
* Jim Eisenreich: .405 vs. Dodgers (joined them in 1998)

* Guerrero: .396 vs. Rangers (joined them in 2010)

* Dante Bichette: .379 vs. Reds (joined them in 2000)

* Nomar Garciaparra: .370 vs. Athletics (joined them in 2009)

* Orlando Cabrera: .356 vs. Twins (joined them in 2009)

* Jeff Blauser: .351 vs. Cubs (joined them in 1998)

Guerrero, of course, had an even higher average against the Rangers if you just look at his Angels years (he hit .404 against them in 57 at-bats last season). So Rangers fans are certainly familiar with his success at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington (he hit .440 with a homer in 25 at-bats in 2009).

The key is Guerrero's health. He played in just 100 games in 2009 (after playing in 143 in 2008). He's 35 years old, so he's not getting any younger. Guerrero said at his introductory news conference that he feels good and the Rangers are confidence he'll stay healthy. He comes in as the fulltime DH. He could play some in the outfield, but there's no doubt he's the cleanup hitter and DH.

That helps another area that could be improved over last season for the Rangers: No. 4 hitter. Texas had a .249 average with 39 homers and 103 RBIs. The homers and RBIs were good, in fact tops on the team at any spot in the order. But the average could be better. That's where Guerrero comes in.

And instead of moving that slot around in 2010, Washington can write Guerrero's name down and know that he provides critical protection for Josh Hamilton. That's another important part of Guerrero's presence: He can help those around him. Hamilton could be the biggest beneficiary. Opposing pitchers can't afford to pitch around Hamilton to get to Guerrero. He remains a very feared hitter.

We will get to more predictions later, but I did find the projections from Accuscore interesting:

“Our simulations generally assume anyone who is not already injured, will be reasonably healthy, even someone older like Vald. Our season forecast for 2010 is: 135 GP, .292 Avg, 0.338 OBP, 78 Runs, 70 RBI, 19 HRs

No doubt, the Rangers would take that. A few other notes:

* Via Baseball-Reference.com, four players in Rangers history have hit 20+ home runs in a season in which they were 35+ by June 30th. They are Rafael Palmeiro (four times), Mickey Tettleton (24 in 1996), Ruben Sierra (23 in 2001) and Sammy Sosa (21 in 2007)

* If you’re a believer that Rangers players tend to wilt at the end of the season (September and October) due to fatigue from playing so many games in hot weather: Vlad has hit .330 or better in six of the last eight September/Octobers. The ones he didn’t were 2007 (.303) and 2009 (.262 with two HR in 103 AB)

As a reminder, check out the other positional previews: first base (Chris Davis and Justin Smoak), second base (Ian Kinsler), third base (Michael Young), shortstop (Elvis Andrus), left field (Josh Hamilton), center field (Julio Borbon) and right field (Nelson Cruz).

Surprise positional outlook: Outfield depth

February, 17, 2010
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It would not be fair to leave the outfield area until we've discussed David Murphy, who heads into the 2010 season as the fourth outfielder on a club with some depth. The plan is to start Josh Hamilton in left, Julio Borbon in center and Nelson Cruz in right. And with Vladimir Guerrero (we'll talk about him tomorrow) as the DH, the number of chances to get Murphy at-bats decreases.

Murphy, to his credit, isn't worried about that. He's taking the approach that if he wants to get at-bats, he'll have to earn them. And if he does that, everything will take care of itself.

David Murphy has belted 32 home runs and has 131 RBIs over the last two seasons for the Rangers.
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesDavid Murphy has belted 32 home runs and has 131 RBIs over the last two seasons for the Rangers.
The reality is as steady as Murphy was last season, manager Ron Washington will do what he can to be sure Murphy's bat is in the lineup as often as he can. That won't be easy. But he knows it's a luxury to have someone like Murphy around.

Murphy, 28, began the 2009 season 0-for-23 with six strikeouts. It turns out he got his big slump out of the way early. He batted .097 for April. But hit. 290 or better in every month after that except August. Murphy was one of the few Rangers players that was hitting consistently in June and July, when the offense was really struggling.

Murphy came over to the Rangers as part of the Eric Gagne trade to Boston. The Baylor grad has played steady, solid baseball since he arrived. He hit .340 in 103 at-bats for the Rangers after the deal was completed and then had more than 400 at-bats the last two seasons, hitting .275 in 2008 and .269 last season. In that two-year span, Murphy has 32 homers and 131 RBIs.

The left-handed hitter batted just .235 in 102 at-bats against lefties last season. But that's not Murphy's usual career numbers against southpaws. In the last three seasons, he has a .262 average against lefties. He's hit .286 against right-handers.

Murphy was one of the Rangers' more patient hitters in 2009. He had 49 walks, tied for second-most on the team. He was 10th among all American League hitters with at least 425 plate appearances in pitches per plate appearance with 4.16, tops on the Rangers. Alok Pattani over at ESPN Stats & Information (with an assist from Baseball-Reference.com) note that Murphy was tied for first in fewest percent of swings at pitches (41 percent) and first in fewest percent of swings on the first pitch (17 percent).

Murphy may not have a "wow" factor in the outfield defensively, but he doesn't make many mistakes and he's where he's supposed to be. He's a smart player and an important guy to have in the clubhouse. He stays positive, works hard and doesn't complain and all his teammates talk about how much they enjoy being around him.

As history shows (especially with the Rangers), injuries happen. Murphy should be ready to step in and help this team when they occur.

A couple of other outfielders will make their case to get a fifth outfield spot as a bench player. Craig Gentry and Brandon Boggs are two outfielders to watch. Gentry, a 26-year-old right-handed hitter, spent most of 2009 in Double-A Frisco, but was called up in September and got a chance to make five starts. Gentry, taken in the 10th round of the 2006 draft, was 2-for-17 in the majors after hitting .303 with eight homers and 53 RBIs in 127 games for Frisco. Where Gentry is particularly valuable is his speed. He had 49 stolen bases in Frisco in 2009, leading the league. It's not difficult to see Gentry as a guy that Rangers would like to have to pinch run for Vlad Guerrero and others late in ballgames.

Boggs, 27, played in just nine games for the Rangers in 2009 after appearing in 101 as a rookie in 2008. He has the ability to play all three outfield positions, which makes him versatile.

What do you think is the best way to get at-bats for Murphy?


If anyone missed our previous outlooks, here they are: first base (Chris Davis and Justin Smoak), second base (Ian Kinsler), third base (Michael Young), shortstop (Elvis Andrus), left field (Josh Hamilton) and center field (Julio Borbon).

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Yu Darvish
WINS ERA SO IP
8 2.97 142 115
OTHER LEADERS
BAA. Beltre .341
HRA. Beltre 13
RBIA. Beltre 50
RA. Beltre 50
OPSA. Beltre .930
ERAY. Darvish 2.97
SOY. Darvish 142