Texas Rangers: Surprise position outlook

Surprise position outlook: Closer

January, 28, 2013
1/28/13
11:23
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Editor's Note: Our final installment of the Surprise position outlook is upon us. We end things with, of course, the closer.

Today's position: Closer

[+] EnlargeJoe Nathan
H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports/US PresswireJoe Nathan had 37 saves last season and converted 31 straight at one point.
While there are plenty of questions about how exactly the bullpen will line up until the ninth inning, there's no doubt who will come in to get those final big three outs. Joe Nathan answered any lingering questions about his health and ability to get batters out consistently with his performance in 2012.

Nathan, now 38, was 3-5 with a 2.80 ERA and 37 saves. He converted all but three of his save opportunities and had a streak of 31 straight conversions from April 15 to Sept. 12.

He had a 1.86 ERA (11 earned runs in 53 1/3 innings) with nine walks and 65 strikeouts in 54 games during that streak. Nathan managed to get one of his saves on just one pitch, inducing a ground ball double play on April 24 vs. the Yankees.

Nathan also became the first pitcher with a blown save and a save on the same day, when he blew Game 1 of a doubleheader with the Angels before nailing down the final three outs in a Rangers win that night (Sept. 30). The win clinched a playoff berth for the Rangers.

Do you remember Nathan’s first week on the job? He gave up four earned runs in his first four innings (four appearances) before putting up a 0.36 ERA in his next 26 appearances.

In other words: After that first week, he was as automatic as they come for most of the season. Nathan experienced some fatigue late in the year and has talked this offseason about making sure he gets stronger and does what he needs to do to keep himself in great shape to last a full season.

Nathan was on the disabled list in 2011 with a right flexor muscle strain, a little more than a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. But he returned and pitched well enough down the stretch to get a two-year deal with a club option for a third year from the Rangers. It certainly appears to be a good investment.

Nathan's velocity on his fastball has returned (and even gone up a tick at times). He has a slider that he can locate well and a curveball with some bite. Add it up and Nathan was an All-Star in 2012 and one of the top closers in the game. So that's not a position that has the Rangers concerned heading into spring. The key is that Nathan stays healthy and gets ready for the season.

One thing to remember from last year is that Nathan actually struggled for much of the spring. He gave up hits in minor league games and wasn't consistently getting outs. But he wasn't concerned. And after a rough first week in which he blew one save and let a tie game get away, Nathan settled down and was terrific.

Yes, he's now 38 years old. But with the surgery and how he responded last season, Nathan is confident that he'll stay effective and productive. He can use last season as solid evidence to support that. He heads into 2013 as one of the top closers in the game.

Surprise position outlook: Setup relievers

January, 27, 2013
1/27/13
11:30
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Editor's Note: We now shift to the bullpen as we wrap up our Surprise position outlooks.

Joakim Soria
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireJoakim Soria will likely be the Rangers' primary setup man once he finishes rehabbing from elbow surgery.
Today's position: Setup relief

It may not be the most glamorous part of a baseball team, but the bullpen is critical. And the Rangers had a lot of work to do this offseason on that relief corps. Scott Feldman, Mike Adams and Koji Uehara are gone. Robbie Ross is being stretched out as a starter and will compete for the No. 5 spot in the rotation if the club doesn't sign someone else. Alexi Ogando is in the rotation for sure, so he's out of the bullpen mix.

But the Rangers' front office has shown the ability to re-assemble bullpens on an almost yearly basis. If that means making deals at the trade deadline (like for Adams and Uehara) or taking a risk on players coming back from injury or making offseason trades that yield relievers, they'll do it. We've seen in recent years that there are few guarantees in the bullpen. So Texas likes to give itself plenty of options and see what happens.

We know that Joe Nathan is closing, and we'll talk about him Tuesday. Down the stretch, the plan is for Joakim Soria, who was signed at the winter meetings in December, to be the primary setup man. Soria continues to rehab from Tommy John surgery and expects to be ready at some point in June. If all goes according to plan, he could provide a big boost to the bullpen. He has closing experience, which means he can step in when Nathan needs a break. And he's got enough experience to help some of the younger pitchers, too.

Jason Frasor, signed to a one-year, $1.5 million deal earlier this offseason, is likely the primary setup man until Soria is ready. And even then, it will depend on how Frasor is doing. The veteran was on the DL for six weeks last season with right forearm tightness but returned and finished the final month.

There's a gaggle of folks who could end up in the club's bullpen, depending on how things go in Surprise. The list includes: Jeff Beliveau, Cory Burns, Josh Lindblom, Coty Woods, Tanner Scheppers, Nate Robertson, Neal Cotts, Kyle McClellan and more. Some could end up as long relief options and others as options for the sixth or seventh innings.

Lindblom came over in the Michael Young trade and had a 3.00 ERA with the Dodgers before being dealt to the Phillies at the trade deadline. The 6-foot-4 right-hander has a slider and fastball, but will mix in a curve and change. His goals: reduce the walks and home runs.

“I just come after guys,” Lindblom said in December. “Last year, I walked way too many guys. The long ball was a problem for me last year and part of that was a problem of pitching up the zone too much. I want to continue to get better and continue to get used to that role of throwing 70 to 75 games a year, hopefully.”

Lindblom walked 35 batters in 71 innings in 2012 and allowed 13 home runs. Lindblom allowed the third-most home runs among relievers in the majors last year.

Scheppers, 26, comes in after going 1-1 with a 4.45 ERA in 39 appearances (32 1/3 innings) for the Rangers in 2012. He was also 1-1 with a 4.45 ERA in Triple-A Round Rock (31 innings). Scheppers made progress with his control in 2012, allowing four walks to 31 strikeouts in Triple-A (9 walks and 30 strikeouts in the big leagues).

Cotts, if you'll remember, nearly made the club last year before an injury ended his bid. He was basically in the final two with Robbie Ross for that left-handed spot in the pen.

McClellan is a guy that could end up in a variety of spots. He's capable of starting, but could end up as a long relief option or a middle reliever.

Manager Ron Washington, pitching coach Mike Maddux, bullpen coach Andy Hawkins and the rest of the coaching staff and front office will have plenty of folks to evaluate as spring training gets underway. It should be a very interesting part of camp to see who jumps up and claims some of those key bullpen spots.

Who do you think will stand out in spring training? Anyone you expect to surprise and grab a spot?

Surprise position outlook: No. 5 starter

January, 24, 2013
1/24/13
11:30
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Editor's Note: We finish off the starting rotation this week before heading to the bullpen as part of our spring training preview series.

Today's position: No. 5 starter

We've been able to assign specific names to each of the first four spots in the rotation -- Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando -- but that's not the case for the final spot.

[+] EnlargeKyle Lohse
Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports/US PresswireInternal candidates will compete for the No. 5 spot in the rotation unless the Rangers acquire a pitcher such as Kyle Lohse.
A lot of things could happen there. First, an outside option could still end up in the rotation. The Rangers have kept in contact with Scott Boras, the agent for Kyle Lohse, and if a deal for the veteran pitcher is reached, Lohse would slide in at that spot and there wouldn't be any open competition in the rotation.

But an internal fight is shaping up if Lohse isn't a Ranger. Texas has some pitchers that have either recently made their major league debut and want to get back for good or have pitched in another role and are looking to start or have come in as extra arms hoping to impress coaches and earn the job.

The main internal candidates: Justin Grimm, Martin Perez and Robbie Ross.

Grimm, 24, appeared in five games (two of them starts) for the Rangers in 2012, going 1-1 with a 9.00 ERA in 14 innings. He had a solid first big league start, struggled in his second and didn't get another chance after that as he was filling in while the club worked around some injuries.

Grimm spent the rest of the season in Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock and was 9-3 with a 1.72 ERA with 73 strikeouts and 14 walks at Frisco, helping him earn Texas League South Division All-Star team honors. He had a 25-inning scoreless streak as part of his stint in Double-A. At Round Rock, Grimm was 2-3 with a 4.59 ERA in 51 innings (nine starts). He had 30 strikeouts and 16 walks as he tried to adjust to Triple-A hitters.

Perez, who turns 22 in April, made six starts for the Rangers in 2012 and was 1-4 with a 5.88 ERA in those outings. He was recalled from Triple-A when Colby Lewis went on the disabled list on June 26 and made his big league debut the next night. He went back and forth, being used when needed based on depth and injury. He spent the rest of 2012 in Round Rock at 7-6 with a 4.25 ERA in 22 games (21 starts) in 127 innings with 69 strikeouts and 56 walks. He was inconsistent, but the club has shown plenty of faith in him and he's considered a top prospect.

Ross, 23, is the most experienced big leaguer of the group, having been one of the surprises of spring training last year. Ross came in to fight for a left-handed relief spot and pitched well enough to earn promotion to the big leagues despite just 38 innings in Double-A Frisco. Ross was 6-0 with a 2.22 ERA in 65 innings (58 appearances) for the Rangers in 2012. All of his action was out of the bullpen. He was 6-0 with a 0.95 ERA at the All-Star break. He ended up with 47 strikeouts and 23 walks.

Ross wants to start and has started in the minors. He was 9-4 with a 2.26 ERA in 21 games (20 of them starts) for Class A Myrtle Beach in 2011.

Others could wiggle their way into the discussion. The club has invited Kyle McClellan to camp as a starter, though he could end up in the bullpen. Perhaps Michael Kirkman surprises some folks. And others could be added to the mix between now and when spring training opens.

Who do you think will win the fifth starter competition? Will the Rangers sign someone else or do you think it's going to be an internal competition?

Surprise position outlook: No. 4 starter

January, 23, 2013
1/23/13
11:30
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Editor's Note: We stick with the starting rotation in our preview series for spring training.

Today's position: No. 4 starter

[+] EnlargeOgando
Kevin Jairaj/US PresswireAlexi Ogando's biggest challenge for 2013 will be avoiding the wall that has slowed him as a starter.
To understand why Alexi Ogando is slotted as the club's No. 4 starting pitcher in 2013 we have to go back two years. The Rangers had announced their rotation for the 2011 season with less than a week left in spring training in Surprise. Tommy Hunter was in it, with Ogando in the bullpen, where he had pitched so well in 44 games for the Rangers in 2010.

But the same day as the club announced the rotation (March 24), Hunter hurt his groin and the club had to make a quick adjustment to its staff. After discussion, Ogando, who had stretched out as a starter for most of the spring, was moved to the rotation. He ended up starting the season 7-0 with a 2.10 ERA on his way to the All-Star Game. Ogando finished 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA in 31 games (29 starts) in that 2011 season with 126 strikeouts and 43 walks. But Ogando ran into a wall that season, battling fatigue after pitching more innings than he had in his career. In fact, Ogando appeared to run into the wall twice -- once in the second half of the regular season and again in the World Series.

Ogando's 2011 proved he had the stuff to start. And while he wasn't as dominant in the bullpen last season as he was in 2010 and most of the 2011 postseason, he still has enough to start given an entire offseason knowing that's his role.

The biggest question for Ogando is probably centered around whether he can withstand the rigors of an entire season as a starter without hitting the wall again. That's where going through a season as a starter can help Ogando. He knows what to expect and how his body will respond. And he knows what he has to do the rest of this offseason and spring training to be ready.

Ogando is certainly taking the opportunity seriously. He has decided that it would be best for him to concentrate on full spring preparation rather than participate in the World Baseball Classic. That couldn't have been an easy decision. But it means he'll be watched carefully by the Rangers' coaching staff and can progress as needed throughout the spring under the watchful eyes of those in Surprise.

Depending on what happens with that fifth starting spot, Ogando could be the oldest member of the rotation at 29 years old. But after visa issues and a career spent mostly in the bullpen, Ogando still has plenty of growth left. The Rangers hope to see more of that in 2013 as Ogando becomes a full member of the rotation.

Surprise position outlook: No. 3 starter

January, 22, 2013
1/22/13
11:30
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Editor's Note: Pitching is still on our minds this week with our Surprise position outlooks.

Today's position: No. 3 starter

Derek Holland took a step back in 2012. And he knows it. After a terrific finish to 2011 where he put up one of the best postseason performances in franchise history in his Game 4 World Series start, Holland arrived at spring training ready to prove that what he accomplished in the second half of 2011 was something he could duplicate for a whole season.

[+] EnlargeDerek Holland
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesDerek Holland wasn't at his best last season and struggled with the long ball.
Holland signed a five-year, $28.5 million deal with two club options before the season began. He's slated to be a part of this club's core for years to come. But to solidify that spot, Holland must step up in 2013.

He was 12-7 with a 4.67 ERA in 27 starts (175 1/3 innings) in 2012. His ERA was nearly three-quarters of a run higher than in 2011 and he didn't pitch as many innings, thanks to disabled list stint for left shoulder fatigue. Holland wasn't at 100 percent for the whole season and that's one thing he wants to fix in 2013.

But the long ball was also a problem. Holland allowed 32 home runs in 2013, fifth most in the American League. That's something Holland wants to cut down.

Holland is a hard worker and he wants to get better. He's been working this offseason on getting stronger and is highly motivated for the upcoming season. He said he wants to follow Matt Harrison's blueprint (a smart move) and he asked and received a chance to sit down with Rangers CEO and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan to discuss what he could improve on. Among the things that Holland talked to Ryan about: Working different sides of the plate and staying in the game longer. The key is location.

"He said I’ve got to stay focused out there and not do too much to over-think things," Holland said earlier this offseason. "Just go out there and grind it out. He agreed with me on working on location, which is something I asked him about. The only time I got beat was missing spots. And if I got beat, too, it would be a home run. I gave up too many. It’s not that I was trying to pitch like I did in the minor leagues where I could blow a fastball by you anywhere and not have to worry about location, it was that I missed spots."

It's a big year for Holland to prove he can get back to the guy that was so solid down the stretch in 2011 and in Game 4 of the World Series. The good news for Rangers fans is that Holland knows it and is already at work.

Surprise position outlook: No. 2 starter

January, 21, 2013
1/21/13
11:30
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Editor's Note: Our look at the starting rotation continues today in our Surprise position outlook series.

Today's position: No. 2 starter

What made 2012 so important for left-handed starter Matt Harrison was that he built on 2011, when he finally showed what he could do over an entire season when healthy.

[+] EnlargeMatt Harrison
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesMatt Harrison won a team-high 18 games for the Rangers last season and was rewarded with a five-year, $55 million contract.
Harrison had multiple chances to stay in the Rangers' rotation in previous seasons and couldn't do it. But he showed staying power in 2011, pitching 185 2/3 innings and making 30 starts while finishing 14-9 with a 3.39 ERA. It was the most innings of his big league career. At least until 2012. Harrison won 18 games last year to lead the Rangers. He had a 3.29 ERA (similar, though slightly better than 2011) and made 32 starts, pitching 213 1/3 innings.

Harrison, 27, made his first All-Star team and showed that he could handle pressure starts and an increased workload. Harrison's mental game has improved the past two seasons as well, something he he has talked about. Some fans may forget that Harrison started Game 7 of that 2011 World Series and after the Rangers snagged a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, Harrison gave it back in the bottom of that same frame. He didn’t allow that rough postseason experience to bury him and bounced back with another solid season. Harrison was rewarded by the Rangers with a five-year, $55 million deal.

He’s become a smarter pitcher, understanding what he has to do to win games. He won’t overwhelm you with strikeouts, but he can throw hard and isn’t afraid to rely on his defense. Harrison doesn’t walk a ton of guys and has done a better job of not allowing a rough at-bat or inning to turn into a bad outing.

His focus now is on continuing to get more consistent. He said during the club’s Fan Fest earlier this month that he wants to work on his slider. It was his fourth pitch and one he wasn’t confident enough in to throw with any regularity. He’d like to have it to go back door to right-handed hitters and as a show-me pitch at times to lefties.

But Harrison’s season has him squarely in the top portion of the rotation. I’ve got him No. 2 behind Darvish and ahead of Derek Holland, who we’ll talk about Wednesday.

I don’t see any reason why Harrison won’t have another season with an ERA of 3.30 or so and can keep his team in games. Health will be the key, as it always is, but he’s managed to stay healthy for two straight seasons. He made the decision not to participate in the World Baseball Classic, in part because he understands he needs to have a regular spring training coming off his career-high in innings pitched.

Surprise position outlook: No. 1 starter

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
11:30
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Editor's Note: Our Surprise position outlooks continue this week with the starting rotation.

Today's position: No. 1 starter

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish
Tim Heitman/US PresswireDespite a solid first season in which he established himself as the Rangers' ace, Yu Darvish remains eager to prove himself.
The final eight regular season starts of the 2012 season established Yu Darvish as the club's top pitcher heading into 2013. It was a year full of adjustments and changes for Darvish. He came into spring training amid all kinds of publicity with a host of Japanese reporters covering his every move.

He struggled with his command in the first half of the year but still collected wins. He won the fan vote for the final spot on the AL All-Star team but didn't pitch in the game. But a conversation with manager Ron Washington in Boston coincided with Darvish figuring things out. Washington said it was Darvish believing in himself and trusting what he was doing. The numbers reflect a major shift:

Before Aug. 6 start (Bos): 11-8, 4.57 ERA in 21 starts, 74 walks (3.5 walks per start), 154 strikeouts (in 134 innings), .238 opponent average

After Aug. 6 start: 5-1, 2.35 ERA in eight starts, 15 walks (1.8 per start), 67 strikeouts (57 1/3 innings), .176 opponent average

To me, the biggest thing was cutting down the walks. Darvish wasn't easy to hit. But when he got into trouble, it was usually because of walks. He dropped them by almost two per start down the stretch, helping him limit damage. He also pitched deeper into games, giving his team a chance to win on a consistent basis. In other words: He pitched like an ace.

I think Darvish gave big league hitters too much credit early in the season. He tried to use every pitch he had in his tool box, rather than just simplify things. The Darvish we saw down the stretch worked off his fastball, used his devastating slider and kept hitters off-balance with changes in speed (like well-timed slow curves). Darvish was aggressive, got ahead in counts and sent many batters back to the dugouts shaking their heads.

Darvish said nearly a week ago that he was pleased with his season but wants to build on it.

"Compared to last year, I feel so much more at ease," Darvish said. "After finishing my first year, getting to know the players, coaches, front office personnel and getting to know all those guys. I feel like I'm part of the team now. It's a totally different feeling."

Darvish goes into 2013 knowing how his body responds to pitching every fifth day and what it's like to pitch in the big leagues and play for the Rangers. Those won't be "new" things anymore. He said it's made his offseason work easier.

"I've been able to plan, relax and prepare the way I want," Darvish said. "Last year there was more of rush in trying to prepare at a much quicker pace. I'm going at my own pace, working out, not getting hurt. This offseason preparation has been much better."

Darvish is focused on improving, hoping to put up numbers like he did at the end of 2012 for most of 2013. He was one of the top pitchers in the league for the final few months in 2012 and he's healthy. Perhaps, too, it will help that every single thing he does in spring training -- from an early bullpen session and intrasquad game to his Cactus League start -- won't be quite as crazy as it was last year, when he was doing all of those things for the first time. No doubt, he'll be covered intensely. But he knows what to expect now. That has to help.

I expect really great things from Darvish in 2013. He'll have Geovany Soto catching for him and he was behind the plate when Darvish competed so well down the stretch. Darvish is hungry to prove himself and with a year under his belt, he should be even better.

Surprise position outlook: Bench

January, 17, 2013
1/17/13
11:30
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Editor's Note: We finish off the infield, outfield and bench this week before shifting our attention to the starting rotation next week as we get prepared for spring training in Surprise.

Today's position: Bench

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish and Geovany Soto
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsGeovany Soto (right) and his right-handed bat will most likely be on the bench between Yu Darvish's starts.
Before you shrug your shoulders and think, 'Hey, the bench doesn't matter,' remember the 2011 World Series. Heck, the 2010 World Series too. In both cases, the National League team had the better bench. That was clearly evident in the St. Louis Cardinals, who used that bench to help them come back from a 3-2 deficit to win the title.

A good bench can be critical for a manager, even one on in the AL. So based on the various combinations of folks at catcher, infield and outfield, here's how that bench could look (at least at this moment) in 2013. A few things:

* A.J. Pierzynski is the starting catcher with Geovany Soto expected to handle most of Yu Darvish's starts. So when Pierzynski is in there, Soto and his right-handed bat will be on the bench.

* Assuming Justin Upton, Michael Bourn or someone else doesn't show up in Surprise to play center, Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry seem destined to platoon out there (as we discussed Tuesday). That means one of them will be on the bench while the other is playing. Martin is a left-handed batter and Gentry is a right-handed hitter. Both can run and could be in position to pinch-run late. Gentry also was a late defensive replacement many times in 2012. Gentry is 4-for-20 as a pinch-hitter in his brief career, by the way.

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New Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski joins Ben and Skin to discuss what attracted him to the Rangers, the influence he could have on the clubhouse and what he expects from the Rangers this season.

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* The Rangers will have a utility infielder. If Mike Olt and Jurickson Profar start in the minors, it could come from someone not currently on the 40-man roster. Yangervis Solarte, Brandon Snyder and Brandon Allen are non-roster invitees to spring training and all of them have some big league experience. Snyder played with the Rangers last season and was re-signed to a minor-league contract this offseason.

* Could Leury Garcia surprise folks and push for a roster spot? If he did, would he get enough playing time for that to be worth it?

* We could see times when Mitch Moreland is on the bench against certain left-handed pitchers with perhaps Pierzynski playing first base or even Lance Berkman later in the season if his knees are OK.

* Other names headed to spring training: outfielders Aaron Cunningham and Jim Adduci. We'll see what they've got in terms of depth.

It will be interesting to see how the bench shakes out and if the Rangers will make additions and alterations to it. In past spring trainings, we've seen the utility infield spot go down to the wire with candidates coming in and out of camp. And it could be a spot that the club looks to upgrade at the trade deadline, depending on how things are going.

Who do you think gets the utility infield spot?

Surprise position outlook: DH

January, 16, 2013
1/16/13
11:30
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Editor's Note: Our spring training preview series continues as we move from the infield and outfield to the DH spot, bench and the pitching staff.

Today's position: Designated hitter

Once Josh Hamilton signed his five-year, $125 million deal, the Texas Rangers knew they needed to find some more power. Combine Hamilton's exit with Mike Napoli's departure and the lineup had a power decrease.

[+] EnlargeLance Berkman
Jeff Curry/Getty ImagesLance Berkman will take over as the Rangers' primary DH and could also see some time at first base.
Trading Michael Young opened up the DH spot, which was initially planned to be a spot that manager Ron Washington could rotate when players needed rest. That was until Lance Berkman entered the picture.

After striking out on some early offseason targets, the Rangers decided that Berkman was a logical choice to help fill the void in the lineup. They signed him to a one-year, $10 million deal ($1 million buyout on option year makes it $11 million guaranteed) with a club option for a second year. That option vests if Berkman reaches 550 plate appearances. He surpassed that mark easily in 2011, when he had 31 homers and 94 RBIs and helped the Cardinals beat the Rangers in the World Series.

Berkman went through a complete physical and the club is satisfied that the two knee surgeries last year have him ready to go for 2013. Berkman says the key now is strengthening the area around the knee, but that he feels good. He'll be the primary DH in 2013, though he could see some time at first base if needed.

Last week, manager Ron Washington announced that he was penciling in Berkman as the No. 3 hitter in the lineup, a spot he's held many times in his career. Berkman has more at-bats in the 3-hole than anywhere else in the lineup (though only 67 more at-bats than at cleanup). He has a career .286 average batting third.

"It’s an interesting spot in the lineup because it’s the spot that makes the world go around in the lineup," Berkman said Saturday. "You need contributions up and down the lineup, I’m just saying that of all the lineup spots it’s the most critical. You’ve got to have someone hitting third that can get on base, drive guys in."

The Rangers hope that the 2011 Berkman is the one they see in 2013, not the guy that played just 32 games last season and couldn't stay healthy.

"If he’s in the lineup he’s going to produce for you," general manager Jon Daniels said.

With Young and Napoli getting most of the DH at-bats last season, the Rangers hit .265 (sixth in the AL) and had a .754 OPS (ninth).

Surprise position outlook: Right field

January, 15, 2013
1/15/13
11:30
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Editor's Note: Our swing around the outfield continues today as we look ahead toward spring training with our Surprise position outlooks.

Today's position: Right field

There's no question about who will handle right field in 2013, barring any other alterations before spring training. Nelson Cruz has handled that spot the last four seasons. The biggest hurdle for Cruz during most of those seasons has been staying healthy. He was on the disabled list five times in 2010 and 2011 combined, four of those times because of hamstring strains. But in 2012, Cruz stayed healthy. He played 159 games -- 35 more than 2011 and 51 more than 2010.

[+] EnlargeNelson Cruz
Jim Cowsert/US PresswireNelson Cruz had 90 RBIs in 2012, but that was just three more than 2011 when he had 110 fewer at-bats.
Cruz may have played more, but he wasn't able to produce at the same level. He hit .260, his lowest average since 2009 (when he also hit .260). He had a home run once every 24 at-bats, the lowest ratio of his career. By comparison, Cruz had 29 homers in 475 at-bats in 2011 (one every 16 at-bats). He also added 90 RBIs in 2012, but that was just three more than 2011 when he had 110 fewer at-bats.

We've talked on the blog about players that badly need to bounce back. Last week, Ian Kinsler was the focus of that conversation. Cruz is another one that the club needs to return to form. He's capable of incredible streaks where he carries an offense, but that didn't really happen in 2012. He admits that he didn't feel completely comfortable at the plate for some reason. Perhaps new hitting coach Dave Magadan can have a real impact on Cruz.

Last year, Cruz didn't really have that one breakout month that stands out. His best month was May, when he hit .284 with five homers. He also hit .282 with four homers in July. But the guy that took over the 2011 ALCS never really showed up in 2012.

Cruz is 32 years old and in the final year before he becomes a free agent. He will make $11 million in 2013. It's going to be an interesting call for the Rangers about what to do with Cruz after this season. If he puts up great numbers, they're likely going to want to re-sign him, but he'll be 33 years old. If he struggles, they may elect to go another direction.

Add all of that up and it's a big year for Cruz. His story is pretty incredible in that it appeared he wouldn't get another shot at the big leagues after no team claimed him and he played most of 2008 in the minors. But after a great September that season, he's been in the big leagues ever since. He's the type of guy that will do all he can to work to improve, and he's got a great attitude. I'd expect him to have a solid 2013.

With Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli gone from this lineup -- even with the additions of A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman -- there's not quite as much power as there was in 2012. It's not simply up to Berkman and Pierzynski to do something about that. Cruz must help, as well.

Surprise position outlook: Center field

January, 14, 2013
1/14/13
11:30
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Editor's Note: We continue our Surprise position outlook series as we get you ready for the start of baseball season.

Today's position: Center field

Josh Hamilton has dominated the center field talk ever since we've been doing these previews, either because the club wanted to find someone that could play center so Hamilton could shift over to left or because Hamilton was playing center because that was the best outfield alignment manager Ron Washington had.

[+] EnlargeLeonys Martin
AP Photo/Matt StrasenLeonys Martin (above) and Craig Gentry would likely split center field duties if the Rangers don't make another move.
Hamilton, of course, is gone now. That means the club has a true center field competition. For now, that involves Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin, likely as a platoon.

Martin, who turns 25 in March, is a player the Rangers made a big investment in a few years ago with the plan that he could become the center fielder one day. It's time to find out. He has played in just 32 big league games (and has hit .204), but in fairness, he didn't play on any kind of consistent schedule. In 55 games (231 at-bats) with Triple-A Round Rock, Martin hit .359 with 12 homers and 42 RBIs. He had 10 stolen bases (was caught stealing nine times) and a 1.033 OPS. In winter ball in the Dominican, Martin hit .253 with four homers and 19 RBIs in 37 games (146 at-bats).

Gentry, 29, is coming off the most games played in the big leagues of his career. He saw action in 122 games, though just 66 of those were starts as Gentry was a frequent late-inning defensive replacement or a pinch runner. He hit .304 with a homer and 26 RBIs in 240 at-bats. That included an extremely hot streak in June, where he batted .455 (24-for-40). He's a solid defender and has great speed, though he stole just 13 bases in 2012 (was caught seven times).

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The Rangers could, of course, still make a trade that would alter how the outfield lines up. Justin Upton is on the market, though the price may be too high to get him. Michael Bourn remains a free agent. But assuming it's a competition between Martin and Gentry, there may not be a "loser," either. Texas would likely platoon them, with Gentry hitting against left-handed pitchers and Martin batting against righties.

Gentry hit .343 in 99 at-bats against lefties with an .859 OPS. Martin has hit much better against righties (.217) than lefties (.125) in his big league games.

Hamilton's big bat and all-around game are gone from the outfield, meaning it's time for others to pick up the slack. That's Gentry and Martin's job this spring. How they progress and if they can do a good enough job to hold down the position should be interesting to see.

Surprise position outlook: Left field

January, 13, 2013
1/13/13
11:30
PM CT
Editor's Note: We shift our spring training preview to the outfield as we continue to get you ready for pitchers and catchers reporting to Surprise, Ariz., next month.

Today's position: Left field

In previous years we talked about the importance of the club getting Josh Hamilton some time in left field to decrease the wear and tear on his body. And that meant questions about how much playing time David Murphy might get at that spot.

[+] EnlargeDavid Murphy
Jim Cowsert/US PresswireDavid Murphy showed marked improvement against left-handed pitching last season.
Things have clearly changed for 2013. Hamilton is in the Angels' outfield now and Murphy slides in as the starting left fielder heading into the season. It's the first time since he was traded to the Rangers (as part of the Eric Gagne deal in 2007) that he goes into the season as the unchallenged starter.

“I’d like to think I have a lock on the job and last year was obviously a good year, but I’m continuing wanting to build on what I’ve done,” Murphy said last week.

He's coming off a solid season in which he batted .304 with 15 homers and 61 RBIs with an .859 OPS in 147 games. Murphy had a career-high 457 at-bats.

The biggest step forward for Murphy was probably his improvement against left-handed pitching. Yes, it was a small sample size. But one year after hitting just .215 against lefties (in 107 at-bats), Murphy batted .347 against them (in 75 at-bats). Manager Ron Washington did a good job of picking and choosing when Murphy played against left-handers, but Murphy also put in the work to be a better hitter against them.

Murphy also wanted to improve his defense, and he did a good job of that, posting just one error and having the best zone rating of his career in left.

“I think the defensive side of it, I knew what I was capable of," Murphy said. "I had done it before, but struggled to do it at the major league level. I think I answered some questions last year. Performance against lefties, that’s something I need to buckle down on and prove I can be consistent and that last year was no fluke.”

Murphy has always had a good attitude and done what the club has asked. He probably would have started on a gaggle of other teams earlier in his career if he wasn't in Texas. But he's slated, barring any other moves, to get a shot in left field now. His mission: Prove he can handle that daily role, which means building on what he did last year defensively and offensively, especially against left-handed pitching.

Surprise position outlook: Shortstop

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:30
PM CT
Editor's Note: We finish our infield position outlooks today before we shift to the outfield as part of preparing you for spring training.

Today's position: Shortstop

For a guy who wasn't a free agent, Elvis Andrus' name was talked about plenty this offseason. That's what happens when your agent is Scott Boras and you're just two years away from free agency.

[+] EnlargeElvis Andrus
Kim Klement/US PresswireElvis Andrus didn't steal as many bases as he'd like in 2012, but his bat was as potent as it's ever been.
Of course, Andrus has plenty of value. He hit .286 with three homers and 62 RBIs in the 2-hole in 2012. He had 21 stolen bases (tied for the team lead with Ian Kinsler) and a .349 on-base percentage. It was no coincidence that Andrus' top months paralleled the offense's top ones (.343 in May, 339 in August) and his lows coincided with the struggles (.225 in July, .243 in September). Andrus was in the second spot because manager Ron Washington trusted him to lay down a bunt when necessary or hit a ground ball to get a runner over. And if Kinsler and Andrus got on together, they were a dangerous tandem on the bases.

Defensively, Andrus was solid at short. He was one of three finalists for a Gold Glove at shortstop after the 2012 season and made plenty of highlight-reel plays. He and Adrian Beltre made it difficult on hitters to get balls through the left side of the infield.

But Andrus knows there are some things he'd like to do better. For starters, he wasn't able to steal as many bases as he'd like. Andrus had at least 32 stolen bases in each of his first three seasons, yet could only manage 21 in 2012. That was a 16-steal drop-off from the previous season. But his batting average and OBP were the highest of his career.

Andrus' contract situation and his season made him the subject of trade speculation. But the bottom line is Andrus is a trade piece who should be dealt only for a top-flight player in return. Earlier in the offseason, the Arizona Diamondbacks wanted a shortstop as part of any Justin Upton deal. The Rangers weren't reportedly willing to include Andrus or Jurickson Profar in that kind of deal. But should something really big come up (a big-time pitcher like a David Price, for instance) than maybe the club listens. Perhaps that's the kind of thing that happens in July.

Or perhaps Andrus signs a long-term deal with the Rangers and is the club's shortstop for years to come with Profar moving positions or being a part of a major trade.

As we get closer to spring training, Andrus is slotted at shortstop. Will he bat second again? That's a question that has yet to be determined. I think Andrus could be an interesting leadoff candidate, should the club move Kinsler out of that spot. But Washington will see what his team looks like and then decide how players should be slotted in the lineup. He has time to play around with that at spring training.

Andrus is a critical member of this club, both offensively and defensively. And with the departure of Michael Young, he's another player who has to be ready to take on more of a leadership role. He's now had four years in the big leagues and should be ready for that kind of job. It will be interesting to watch him mature even more -- on and off the field.

Surprise position outlook: Third base

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
11:30
PM CT
Editor's note: This is the fourth installment in our spring training preview series.

Today's position: Third base

[+] EnlargeAdrian Beltre
Rick Yeatts/Getty ImagesThe Rangers have many worries headed into spring training, but third base isn't one of them with Adrian Beltre at the hot corner.
When the Texas Rangers weren't able to sign Cliff Lee after the 2010 season, they decided to spend some of that money on shoring up the left side of the infield and adding a big bat to the lineup. How does that five-year, $80 million investment with a vesting option for a sixth year for Adrian Beltre look so far?

Beltre has exceeded expectations -- and they were high when he signed. He hit .296 in 2011 with 32 homers and 105 RBIs and played in just 124 games. Think if he hadn't missed five weeks because of a hamstring strain. Last season, Beltre was even better. He batted .321 with 36 homers and 102 RBIs in 156 games. He had a WAR of 6.5, second only to Miguel Cabrera (7.1) among AL third baseman.

Beltre batted cleanup in the order, offering protection for Josh Hamilton. He played with pain at times and showed his toughness. He was an important leader in the clubhouse. And, once again, he played phenomenal defense at third base. Beltre won his second consecutive Gold Glove Award. He had 13 defensive runs saved (third among AL third baseman).

Beltre, who turns 34 in April, gives the Rangers a steady, consistent option at third base. It means prospect Mike Olt is busy trying to learn other positions so that he can get on the field (and it allows the club to discuss Olt in trade talks because Beltre is the long-term option).

While the Rangers have questions they need to answer at spring training, third base isn't one of them. Beltre's mission for 2013 is to stay healthy and continue to play the way he has the last three years. Few players work harder, something that's always fun to watch at spring training as he takes a ton of grounders at third base to keep his skills up.

Beltre, along with Elvis Andrus, gives the Rangers to top left side of the infield in the big leagues. And in terms of the total package, I don't think there's a better third baseman in the league. Add in that Olt is one of the top prospects in the organization and third base is a position of true strength for the Rangers.

Surprise position outlook: Second base

January, 8, 2013
1/08/13
11:30
PM CT
Editor's Note: We continue our spring training preview with a spin around the infield.

[+] EnlargeIan Kinsler
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesIan Kinsler is coming off a tough season at the plate, so his spot in the lineup is up in the air.
Today's position: Second base

For the past seven seasons there's been little question about the Rangers' situation at second base. Ian Kinsler has held down that spot since being promoted to the big leagues in 2006. Earlier this offseason, the club talked about possibly moving Kinsler to first base to make room for Jurickson Profar. They even went so far as to talk about it with Kinsler, though they didn't make any firm decisions.

But on Monday, general manager Jon Daniels announced that Kinsler was staying at second base and that it was likely that Profar would start the season in the minors.

Kinsler, 30, is coming off a difficult season. He hit .256 with 19 homers and 72 RBIs as the club's leadoff hitter. It came one season after he was a 30-30 player (home runs-stolen bases) and scored a career-high 121 runs.

Kinsler still scored a gaggle of runs in 2012 -- 105 to be exact. That was tied for third most in the AL (Mike Trout scored a ridiculous 129 to lead the way). But the power numbers decreased (13 fewer homers and a .749 OPS as opposed to .832) and he stole nine fewer bases. With runners in scoring position, Kinsler hit just .226. He had 18 errors, the most by any AL second baseman, and his .970 fielding percentage was last among regular second baseman.

He knows it wasn't the season he wanted to have and is focused on bouncing back. His ankle bothered him for more than half the season and that appears to be fine now. It will also be interesting to see if Kinsler finishes 2013 at second base. Should Mitch Moreland struggle at first or if Profar gets off to a hot start in the minors, perhaps the club could revisit the Kinsler-to-first thought and slide Profar in at second base.

So where does Kinsler hit in 2013? His power gives him the ability to alter a game from the start. But he wasn't able to get on base as often last season as he has in the past. His on-base percentage was .326. Among players in the American League who led off at least 98 games, only Desmond Jennings had a lower percentage. Kinsler's 60 walks weren't bad, but they were 29 fewer than last year. That's one big reason that despite similar batting averages in 2011 and 2012, he had a better on-base percentage in 2011.

Before manager Ron Washington makes that kind of change, he has to have a suitable replacement. Perhaps Andrus could get a look there. But that's another question Washington and the Rangers will have to try to answer this spring.

Kinsler has become an important leader on this team and is a guy that wants to win badly. He'll look at every part of his game this offseason and in spring in an effort to improve. Remember, it was just two years ago that he hit .286, and even with the .255 batting average in 2011 he produced 32 homers and 77 RBIs. He can be a run producer on this club. And the Rangers need him to bounce back.

What kind of year do you expect from Kinsler?

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Colby Lewis
WINS ERA SO IP
10 5.34 126 163
OTHER LEADERS
BAA. Beltre .323
HRA. Beltre 18
RBIA. Beltre 75
RA. Beltre 77
OPSA. Beltre .876
ERAC. Lewis 5.34
SOY. Darvish 182