After the fall, Rangers pick up pieces

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Texas Rangers arrive in the desert as back-to-back American League champions but also as a team that has a slightly different look than the version that lost the World Series in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals.

There are new faces, such as 25-year-old Japanese pitching star Yu Darvish. He replaces C.J. Wilson, who is also in Arizona this month -- just not in Surprise. There are plenty of familiar faces, of course, including Michael Young, who comes to spring training without the drama that surrounded him last season. And there are players slated for different roles, such as Neftali Feliz's moving from closer to the rotation.

"It wouldn't be Rangers spring training without a little crazy in it," general manager Jon Daniels said. "We're used to that."

So in the spirit of the 2012 season, let's take a look at 12 things to watch for as the Rangers get ready to begin spring training.

Moving on from disappointment

This team is mentally strong, as evidenced by its ability the past few seasons to bounce back from rough losses and stretches and do what was necessary in the postseason to punch a ticket to the World Series two consecutive seasons.

But what happened in Game 6 challenges any team, even one as confident as Texas.

Spring training marks the first time everyone is together again in a work environment since watching St. Louis celebrate a championship. It's natural to think back to that time and, in a sense, partially relive what happened in Game 6. And it's OK to do that.

But then, the Rangers must move on. Manager Ron Washington believes many of his players have already done that and he's not concerned about focusing on 2012.

"It's not going to be an issue," Washington said. "They've proved their character and makeup in Game 7 after putting two runs on the board right away after experiencing what they experienced in Game 6."

Washington said he's written a few things down as to what he's going to say to the team before that first full-squad workout Feb. 26.

Starting fresh is priority No. 1 for Texas. The Rangers can't go back and play in the 2011 World Series again. It's time to use the disappointment as motivation for 2012. My bet is they will.

Dealing with Yu-mania

The size of the media contingent in Surprise will be greatly expanded thanks to the arrival of Yu Darvish. The Rangers have had about 170 media credential requests for the spring. Japanese TV cameras will follow Darvish's every move.

The Rangers made a considerable investment in the 25-year-old, sending $51.7 million to his team in Japan and then giving him a $60 million deal over six years. This is someone they believe can front the rotation for years to come. But the club has been careful to not put too much pressure on Darvish early, hoping to give him time to adjust.

This is when that adjustment period begins. His every bullpen session will be closely monitored by cameras pointed in his direction, as well as by pitching coach Mike Maddux, bullpen coach Andy Hawkins and others watching to see how he reacts to the preparatory work for the season.

Spring training is also when Darvish will get his first real taste of big league bats. He'll get a chance to throw live to the Rangers' hitters and also face other teams' once Cactus League games begin.

"My main thing is for him to relax and be who he is," Washington said.

All eyes will be on Darvish to see how he looks heading into 2012.

Does Feliz show starter's mentality, ability?

This isn't simply a question of whether Neftali Feliz has the secondary pitches to succeed as a starter. Certainly, his slider and changeup will be a focus this spring. But it's also about learning the mental game as a starter and showing he can put in the work to build up the stamina.

Working with catchers Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba will be important for Feliz as he plays around with pitch sequences and forces himself to throw more than just that electric fastball.

And how he does with strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez will be of high interest, too. Feliz has to build up his arm strength and overall conditioning to handle six-inning starts. That's different than going out and giving everything you've got for the ninth inning.

"I don't question his ability to start," Washington said. "What I'll be looking at is his work ethic -- preparing for the load as a starter as opposed to a reliever. Other than that, we do believe this guy will be able to handle the job."

Feliz must be fully committed to doing everything required to start.

Who plays center field?

One of the few positions of relative uncertainty for the Rangers is center field. The club is committed to putting Josh Hamilton in left field to ease the wear and tear on his body as much as possible.

But to do that, they need to feel confident about the starting option in center. Obviously, Hamilton will be there at times. He would probably play center on days when David Murphy is in left. But when Washington can do it, he'd like to have Hamilton in left.

The No. 1 candidate for center field is Craig Gentry. The 28-year-old was called up in May when Nelson Cruz went on the disabled list and stayed on the active roster the entire season (except for a 13-day stint on the concussion DL). He hit .271 with one homer, 13 RBIs and was 18-for-18 in stolen bases in 64 games (133 at-bats).

It was a small sample size, but Gentry showed great speed and range in the field and the ability to get aggressive on the bases (the Rangers believe Gentry can steal even more as he gains more knowledge about the pitchers).

But there will be other outfield candidates in camp who could make a push. Julio Borbon returns after struggling to start the 2011 season, going to the DL with a strained left hamstring, staying in the minors and then missing the final few months with a left ankle injury that required surgery. Borbon played in the Dominican Republic this winter with hopes of improving and showing something this spring.

Leonys Martin is still considered the center fielder of the future, but is that future now? He hit .348 in 29 Double-A games but struggled at Triple-A at times. Another stint in the minors wouldn't hurt, but we'll see what he's got in spring training.

"We've got some depth there," Washington said. "The best thing for us to do is, with plenty of talent there, let it play out. We'll make a decision as we move through spring training and judge the growth of the guys playing center field and where they are."

Moreland's wrist

The Rangers flirted with Prince Fielder, meeting with him in Dallas and imagining what he might look like at first base and in the lineup. But he's with the Detroit Tigers now. The club has maintained confidence in Mitch Moreland, who played through a wrist injury last season and wasn't the same hitter who impressed everyone in the second half of 2010.

Moreland is motivated to show that he can be a consistent performer, but he'll arrive at spring training a little behind schedule. He had wrist surgery this offseason and won't be 100 percent when full-squad workouts begin.

Still, Moreland and the club believe he'll be ready when Opening Day arrives. He's the starting first baseman and it's important he gets completely healthy and gets a chance to refine that swing this spring.

Starting pitching depth

The Rangers have a nice problem on their hands. They begin camp with more starters than spots in the rotation. This provides nice insurance in case someone gets hurt but also presents some interesting decisions if everyone stays healthy.

The club has said that Feliz is in the rotation. As it stands now, it's fair to assume that Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Darvish are in, as well. Matt Harrison heads into camp with a likely spot, too, which would shove Alexi Ogando to the bullpen.

But the Rangers will let everything play out and see what happens. The club is confident enough in Harrison that it didn't want to promise Roy Oswalt he could start and take Harrison out of the rotation.

Scott Feldman, who won 17 games in 2009, is also healthy and could start.

"Our hope is that we've got not just the group that's ready to perform now, but can perform over a period of time at a high level," Daniels said. "I think really Colby is the guy that is the workhorse of the group. We know what he's about, the heart he brings, his postseason performance, his résumé, the whole deal. Outside of Colby, everyone else in the rotation or a candidate has yet to reach his potential. That's what's exciting."

So the club has insurance but may also have to move a guy who was an All-Star starter in the first half of 2011. Moving Ogando would bolster the bullpen and give the club someone with versatility in the late innings.

The reason it's deeper is because those young starters, particularly Holland and Harrison, showed last year that they could handle an increased workload and could overcome rough outings. They'll need to validate that in 2012.

Left-handed relief

If there's a hole in the Rangers' bullpen, it's the fact that Texas comes into spring training with no situational left-handed pitcher out of the bullpen. Now, that doesn't mean it won't have a lefty in the 'pen. Michael Kirkman comes to spring training hoping to compete for that job. But as far as free-agent options, the club doesn't have many.

The Rangers did sign some pitchers to minor league deals with invitations to spring training, and one of those was Mitch Stetter, who pitched with Milwaukee last season. Left-handed minor leaguers such as Robbie Ross, Martin Perez and Ben Snyder will also get a look in spring training.

But the club wants to make sure it has options down there to get lefties out late in games. That doesn't mean the pitcher has to be left-handed, by the way. But Washington wants to be sure he has that card at his disposal when needed.

Who fills vacancy at utility infielder?

It's a spot that may produce one of the more intriguing position battles. The job is open for someone to seize it.

And if there was a leader heading into spring, perhaps it's Luis Hernandez, who played in Venezuela in the winter and also played in the Caribbean Series (even producing a big triple in one of the games). He's a solid defender and has played 120 games in the big leagues with Baltimore, Kansas City and the New York Mets. He can play shortstop, something that is critical as a backup to Elvis Andrus.

The Rangers also have Michael Young, who can play all of the infield positions, but still need that bench presence to be available in case of injury or late-inning opportunities.

Alberto Gonzalez is another player to watch at this spot. He played all four infield positions in 2011 with San Diego, though was mainly a second baseman and shortstop. He could factor into the equation.

Washington said last week that two of his bench spots may be utility-type players, meaning one who can help at shortstop but maybe another who can play first or the outfield or both. Should be fun to watch.

New closer

While Darvish claimed the majority of the offseason headlines, the Rangers made a major change at closer before the Darvish sweepstakes really got going. Texas signed Joe Nathan, making him the closer and moving Feliz to the rotation.

Nathan, 37, comes in motivated to prove that what he did in the second half of 2011 is more indicative of what he can do in 2012. Nathan had Tommy John surgery in 2010 and when he returned last year, he struggled. But after a stint on the DL, Nathan returned and converted 11 of 12 save chances and had a 3.38 ERA (28 strikeouts, five walks) from late June through the rest of the season.

He's a veteran who has plenty of experience closing games and pitching in critical, late-inning situations. We'll see if what he did late in 2011 carries over to 2012.

Can two young lefties step up again?

Last season was a big one for left-handed starters Holland and Harrison. Both were at the point in their careers where it was time to show something. The club had stayed patient with them, dealt with struggles and injuries, but saw enough promise to stick with them.

That paid off in 2011. Holland, 25, won a career-high 16 games and had a 3.95 ERA. That includes a 10-1 mark and a 2.77 ERA in his final 15 regular-season starts (97 1/3 innings). Holland's season finished with the best start of his life, considering the stage. He pitched 8 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 4 of the World Series, pulling his team even in the Fall Classic.

Harrison, 26, also had a career-high win total with 14 and posted a 3.39 ERA in 30 starts (185 2/3 innings). He didn't have the kind of playoff performance he wanted, but Harrison showed in 2011 that he was able to avoid allowing setbacks to keep him from bouncing back.

For both, though, 2012 is a chance to prove that 2011 was only the beginning of more consistent, solid starts to come. How well they step up -- starting with solid preparation in spring training -- will go a long way toward determining how well the Rangers do this season.

Avoiding injuries to key players

Like every team, the Rangers have had spring training injuries jump up and grab them in the past. The key is trying to avoid having those injuries find the key players.

Last year, it was a hamstring injury that slowed Adrian Beltre's preparation. And, of course, Tommy Hunter's groin injury the final week of spring training altered the Rangers' starting rotation even before the season began.

The year before, Ian Kinsler turned his ankle in a routine drill on the field and admitted this offseason that it hadn't been the same until surgery a few months ago.

Injuries happen. They are unavoidable. But the Rangers hope they can manage to get through spring with their starters healthy and ready for the season.

"The biggest thing is to get guys ready for the season and keep them healthy," Washington said. "We want to stay healthy."

A few players come in a little banged up and will use spring training to keep progressing. Beside Moreland, that includes Mike Napoli, who agreed to a $9.4 million deal to avoid an arbitration hearing earlier this month. Napoli injured his left ankle in Game 6 of the World Series and has spent the offseason rehabbing it. It's not quite 100 percent, though close. That's something to watch.

Progress of club's top prospects

When camp opens in Surprise, Ariz., it isn't just about the big league club. An entire minor league portion will commence in March and the club will also get a chance to see some of its better prospects, many of whom got invitations to major league spring training.

Could some of those prospects end up making the squad? You never know. But more likely, they could end up helping the club in some way in 2012. That just might not be on the Opening Day roster.

But watching Martin Perez, who's worked hard this offseason after some struggles in 2011, Neil Ramirez, Engel Beltre, Martin, Matt West (converted to pitcher), Roman Mendez, Fabio Castillo, Tommy Mendonca (who is now a catcher) and Mike Olt should be a lot of fun. Many more will also be around and visible on the back fields.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.