A busy Texas Rangers offseason that included an agreement for new ownership has finally given way to spring training in the desert.
And now that the club has acquired Vladimir Guerrero, traded Kevin Millwood to create the financial flexibility to sign Rich Harden and get a viable bullpen piece in Chris Ray, and added various pieces despite a limited budget, it's time to see how it all comes together.
So what should you watch for in Surprise, Ariz., during the next six weeks? Lots of things. We won't get into all of them right now, but we will as spring training progresses. Here are a handful of Rangers positional battles and players (in no particular order) to keep an eye on:
No. 5 spot in the pitching rotation
The Rangers already have three starters written into the rotation in pen and one in pencil. Barring injuries, Scott Feldman, Harden and Colby Lewis will start for the club once the season opens. Tommy Hunter is penciled in for the No. 4 spot based on his 2009 performance. That leaves one spot available with likely plenty of competitors.
Rangers manager Ron Washington and general manager Jon Daniels would prefer a left-handed pitcher in the rotation. That would give Matt Harrison and Derek Holland an advantage. But Daniels also made it clear that the club will go with its "five best" pitchers. That means Brandon McCarthy and even C.J. Wilson and Neftali Feliz will get a chance to try to win the job in spring training.
The safest bet is Holland at this point. But that's certainly one area to watch.
Bounce-back years for Hamilton and Kinsler?
If this lineup is to strike fear in opponents as it did in 2008, Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler must put up better numbers than they did last season. That starts, of course, with a solid spring training and building confidence.
Big things were expected from Hamilton in 2009 after he captivated the nation during the 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium and finished that season with 32 homers and an American League-leading 130 RBIs. But few things went right in 2009. Hamilton retooled his swing but started the season slowly and couldn't get into a rhythm. He battled injuries, including a strained left rib cage and a pinched nerve in his back, and never really found the same magic that he'd had in 2008. He later reverted to his old swing but struggled with that transition, too.
"Pitchers are going to keep throwing that stuff until I don't swing at it," Hamilton, who probably will hit third in the lineup, said last month. "It's up to me."
It should help him to have Guerrero batting cleanup and protecting him.
Kinsler started the 2009 season red-hot, batting .322 in April with seven homers and 20 RBIs. He also hit for the cycle, going 6-for-6 on April 15, Jackie Robinson Day. But Kinsler had trouble the next three months. His batting average dropped; he hit .157 in 89 July at-bats before going on the disabled list in early August with a strained hamstring. Despite a .253 average last season, Kinsler still hit for power, mashing 31 homers and 86 RBIs.
The Rangers plan to move Kinsler from the leadoff spot to the middle of the order, maybe fifth. That should help. But they also need Kinsler to become a more consistent hitter, more like the one who hit .319 in 2008 before a sports hernia ended a solid season.
Texas needs each player to return to his 2008 form to make the lineup more potent.
The Rangers signed Toby Hall as an insurance policy at catcher, but the club would prefer Jarrod Saltalamacchia to prove he deserves the starting job. To do that, he must first erase all doubts about his health.
Saltalamacchia underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in September and went to winter ball hoping to get in shape and start preparing for spring training. But as soon as he began to play in December, he experienced discomfort. Not wanting to take any chances on his shoulder or arm, doctors agreed the proper course of action was to shut him down for a month and let things rest. Saltalamacchia has since resumed baseball activities and has not had any setbacks. The test will get a little stiffer once all the drills and games begin in Surprise this month.
Taylor Teagarden also wants to show he can play, and the Rangers hope their young catchers can step up and provide more offense from a position that was nearly void of it last season. Saltalamacchia hit .233 with nine homers and 34 RBIs in 84 games; Teagarden batted .217 with six homers and 24 RBIs in 60 games. The club traded for Pudge Rodriguez at the trade deadline to help shore up the position down the stretch in 2009. The Rangers certainly hope they won't be in that same position in 2010.
Davis and Smoak at first base
Chris Davis arrives at spring training as the starter at first base after a roller-coaster 2009. Davis, who will turn 24 in March, struck out 41 percent of the time (114 punchouts in 277 plate appearances) during the first half of last season, hitting just .202 with 15 homers. But he played well in the field, allowing him more time in the majors to try to sort through his issues at the plate. Still, the Rangers finally had to do something in July, so they sent him down to Triple-A to work on things.
In the minors, Davis hit the ball better and, just as important, didn't strike out as often. He batted .327 and sported a .418 on-base percentage in 44 games, striking out only 20 percent of the time. So the Rangers called him back up in late August. Davis then hit .308 with six homers in 36 games and struck out 27 percent of the time, which was closer to his career numbers. He had 26 RBIs and showed he could hit for average.
Davis had trouble hitting fastballs to start the season but corrected that in the minors. After Davis was called back to the majors, he put fastballs in play at double the rate he had before being sent down, according to the folks at FanGraphs.com.
Davis' late-season performance has him coming into the 2010 season with momentum. But he has competition that seems to be growing larger in his rearview mirror. Justin Smoak also will come to spring training feeling good about his game. He had a memorable September as the MVP in the 2009 International Baseball Federation Baseball World Cup and led Team USA to the gold medal. In the tournament, Smoak hit .291 with nine home runs (a World Cup record) and 22 RBIs while scoring 16 runs.
Davis should earn the starting job out of spring training, but the switch-hitting Smoak is charging awfully fast.
Borbon in center field
The loss of Marlon Byrd combined with the Rangers' desire to lessen the wear and tear on Hamilton's body has thrust Julio Borbon, who will turn 24 later this month, into the starting center-field role. He's worked with outfield coach Gary Pettis to better understand the nuances of the position.
Borbon is slated to be the club's primary leadoff hitter in an effort to take advantage of his speed. He showed in 2009 that he can be very dangerous once he gets on base. Now he has to show he can do it with consistency. That same speed is why the club feels he can cover a lot of ground in center field. But the position requires more than speed; it also requires good instincts and a solid arm.
Borbon, a left-handed hitter, was taken 35th overall (as a supplemental first-round pick) by the Rangers in the 2007 MLB draft and was put on the 40-man roster as part of his contract. He got his first big league action in 2009, batting .312 in 157 at-bats, mostly as a leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching. Borbon had a .376 on-base percentage and stole 19 bases (in 23 attempts) in 46 games.
Finding playing time for Murphy (and outfield rotation)
The Rangers plan to start the season with Hamilton in left, Borbon in center and Nelson Cruz in right. But what about David Murphy? After an 0-for-23 start to the 2009 season, Murphy became one of the more consistent hitters on a team that struggled offensively. Now, he looks like its fourth outfielder.
Washington's challenge will be to get Murphy into the lineup when he can, and the Rangers' manager can use spring training games to try some different combinations. Unlike last season, when the team didn't really have a true designated hitter, Washington won't be able to move guys in and out of the DH spot as often this season. That spot belongs to Guerrero, and the Rangers certainly hope he's in the lineup a lot.
Murphy, a left-handed hitter, hit .269 with 17 homers and 57 RBIs last season. In the past three seasons, he's showed he can hit off both left-handed and right-handed pitchers. The Rangers could choose to give Murphy some work at first base and maybe work him in there, although with the left-handed hitting Davis slated to start, I'm not sure how many at-bats Murphy might get.
He'll get his chances, though. The challenge for Washington is to figure out the best way to work him in.
Feliz's ultimate location and role
Feliz is coming into spring training as a starter and a candidate for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. But the more likely scenario is that he'll pitch in the bullpen to start the season. If needed, the Rangers could have him join the rotation.
So what is Feliz's long-term role? Hard to say. The club certainly doesn't have to make that decision now. But it does need to figure out what approach to take with him in 2010. The Rangers did not want to take any chances with his arm in 2009, meaning that for every inning he pitched, he got a day off. If Washington used him for two innings in a game, he couldn't use him for two days.
This season, the Rangers aren't likely to be quite as careful. But Feliz has the ability to close or start. Maybe 2010 is when we'll find out his long-term role for sure.
"I'll do whatever the team wants," Feliz said through a translator in late January. "I'm excited to get a chance to start. It's what I've been doing."
New ownership's status
We should find out during spring training whether things are finalized with a new ownership group. Chuck Greenberg, along with Rangers president Nolan Ryan and a group of investors, have an agreement in place. But first they must gain the approval of Hicks Sports Group's 40 lenders and Major League Baseball.
That takes time. But for a franchise in position to contend in the AL West, it will be best for everyone involved if the ownership question is answered by Opening Day.