SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels walked into a meeting with his baseball staff Wednesday and quickly summarized why the entire club seems to have a renewed sense of excitement as spring training begins.
"We're preparing a team now, not picking a team," Daniels told them.
That's new territory for the Rangers. Sure, there are a few positions with some question marks. But for the most part, the Rangers didn't arrive in Surprise needing a few surprise performances to loft them into contention. They came to the desert with plenty more answers than questions.
That's especially evident on the pitching mound. It seems that every spring the Rangers might have one or two stalwarts in the rotation. Then it's a large group of either veterans hoping to recapture past glory (or find it for the first time) or young players thrust into roles earlier than anticipated.
On Friday, the Rangers' first true workout of the spring with pitchers and catchers will include a starting rotation that is mostly in place. Rich Harden, Scott Feldman and Colby Lewis have spots, written in pen. Tommy Hunter is the No. 4 starter, his place designated in heavy pencil with no eraser in sight. That leaves a group of young pitchers with some major league experience in a competitive fight for the fifth spot.
Pitching coach Mike Maddux believes his pitching staff can build off last season's success. Texas had a 4.38 ERA, nearly a full run lower than in 2008. The ERA was the team's lowest since 1993, and the opponent batting average was .260, the lowest against the Rangers since 1990.
"I think that we had a good learning year last year," Maddux said. "We did a lot of apprenticeship at the major league level. Other teams in the division improved themselves with acquisitions. I think we are probably the most improved team in the division, though, because our youth gathered experience. So we've improved on that."
The rotation certainly looks different in Surprise this year. Kevin Millwood, the No. 1 starter for the past four seasons, is playing for Baltimore. Vicente Padilla's corner locker is now the property of C.J. Wilson, who is hoping to grab the fifth-starter spot this spring. New arrivals include Harden, who has great stuff but has had trouble staying healthy, and Lewis, fresh off two productive years in Japan.
Maddux is focused on getting Harden to trot out to the mound for a full season.
"He's got swing-and-miss stuff," Maddux said. "I know there's a track record of not making 34 starts. The goal is to keep him out there 32 or 33 times. How do we do that? Well, we're going to have to devise a plan.
"When he's out there, he's fun to watch. I know the hitters aren't running up to the box on him. He makes a lot of people look bad."
When Maddux arrived at spring training last year, he was busy learning names and getting to know his staff. He was also working to make sure the pitchers understood what was expected of them in conditioning and preparation for the season. Pitchers threw live batting practice, something club president Nolan Ryan implemented, and were told to be in better shape before showing up in Surprise.
Now that's expected, and the players have responded. Maddux was pleased with how his pitchers looked when they arrived Thursday. That means they can get right to work, stretching the arms out and getting all the mechanics in order for the season.
As he did last year, Maddux will have his pitchers throwing to hitters from the first day.
"You don't just sit there and go through the motions of throwing on the side," Maddux said. "You get actual feedback. You get used to pitching to contact right away. There's a consequence for throwing the ball over the plate. It increases your focus."
Maddux's focus will also be on that No. 5 spot. The club would prefer to have a left-hander in the rotation, giving Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and C.J. Wilson the inside track. But Daniels has made it clear that the best five pitchers will open the season in the big leagues. That means Brandon McCarthy and Neftali Feliz will each get a shot.
Should bullpen stalwart Wilson seize the No. 5 spot, it would make things interesting and alter some roles. But the Rangers have the pieces for that puzzle in camp. They would just have to figure out the proper places for those pieces.
But the bottom line is the Rangers have more pitching depth than they've had in a long time.
"In the past, some guys might have been rushed to the big leagues because of a lack of competition or a team need," Maddux said. "Now that we're deeper, the separation between Nos. 1-12 and 1-8 or 4-8 is not that great. We feel pretty good about 18 guys, and I think we might be ahead of other organizations in that regard."
One thing the Rangers don't have is a designated veteran leader among the starting group. Darren Oliver, back with the team for the third time, seems a logical choice to handle that role for the bullpen. But someone will have to step up among the starting group.
"Your nominees would be guys that have weathered the storms," Maddux said. "So you look at service time and production. Those are two ways you separate yourself as far as leadership goes. The fact that you don't have it is no reason to panic. I think you look at the guys that have been around, there's so much camaraderie and they hold everyone accountable."
That camaraderie and accountability officially starts Friday with the beginning of workouts. Let the preparation begin.