Yu Darvish sets tone out of camp
Pitcher's progress steady, but Rangers could place heavier load on Josh Hamilton
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Texas Rangers' stay in the Arizona desert is now over. After six weeks of conditioning drills, pitchers' fielding practice, one-on-one infield sessions with manager Ron Washington, plenty of work on fundamentals and, of course, Cactus League games, the two-time defending American League champions are nearly ready to begin their quest for a World Series championship.
So as the club bids Surprise goodbye for another year, let's take a look at 10 things we learned from this six-week journey:
1: Darvish is making the adjustment just fine
The fastball command was a bit wobbly to start and Darvish had to figure out a rhythm from the windup, but under the watchful eyes of pitching coach Mike Maddux, bullpen coach Andy Hawkins and future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, Darvish leaves spring training fresh off a quality start against a lineup full of Colorado Rockies regulars. He had 11 strikeouts Friday and left no doubt that if he commands his fastball, the breaking stuff is going to fool a lot of hitters in 2012.
It makes April 9 one of the most anticipated opening-week dates in baseball.
2: Hamilton will probably play more center
The hope coming into spring was that someone -- Craig Gentry, Julio Borbon or Leonys Martin -- would seize center field and make it easy for Washington to shift Hamilton to left field as often as he could to try to decrease the wear and tear on his body.
But Gentry was slowed by nagging injuries (wrist, hamstring, virus) and didn't hit well. He can still run and is likely to make the club, but how willing is Washington to put Gentry in center on a regular basis?
Borbon started camp off well and has improved his defense but wasn't able to consistently do the little things. We'll see if that means he starts the season in Triple-A. As for Martin, he shows a lot of potential but needs a little more time in the minors. Don't be surprised if you see him in Arlington this season.
The bottom line: Hamilton is the club's best center fielder, and at this point, the best outfield alignment is David Murphy in left, Hamilton in center and Nelson Cruz in right. That's what we'll probably see most of the time.
3: Feliz still has work to do, but he's progressing
There was never a doubt as to whether Neftali Feliz, if healthy, would start in the rotation. That call was made in November with the signing of Joe Nathan as the closer.
But Feliz came in determined to work on his off-speed stuff, particularly his slider, cutter and changeup. He knows that to be a successful starter, he has to do more than light up the radar gun.
Feliz still has work to do, but the pitches are improving. They are much better than they were last spring but need more consistency. That was evident in his final spring start Saturday, when he walked three batters in the second inning. Part of that was lack of fastball command, too.
Feliz has thrown his secondary stuff in various counts and attempted to see how hitters will react after seeing his fastball in the mid-90s.
The big advantage Feliz has is that he can reach back and fire the fastball near triple digits if he ever needs it. But he's done a good job this spring of avoiding that temptation most of the time and focusing on building arm strength and making his other pitches better.
4: Bullpen still raises questions
The addition of Robbie Ross to the bullpen means that we know five spots for sure: Nathan (closer), Alexi Ogando (super-versatile setup), Scott Feldman (long relief) and Mike Adams (setup), and the lefty Ross.
But that leaves two spots open. With Yoshinori Tateyama's tight lower back preventing him from pitching the past few days, it seems likely he would start the season on the disabled list, putting Koji Uehara and Mark Lowe in the bullpen.
Lowe and Uehara had inconsistent springs and will look to improve as the season gets going.
5: Ross earns deserved bullpen spot
The 22-year-old Ross found out Sunday that he will be in the Rangers' bullpen heading into the 2012 season. He was invited to big league camp based in part on his consistency in the minors last year. Ross moved up to Double-A after posting a 2.26 ERA as a starter in 123 1/3 innings in Class A Myrtle Beach. In six starts in Frisco, Ross was 1-1 with a 2.61 ERA.
His cutter has jammed plenty of hitters and he's looked at not just as someone who can get lefties out, but someone who can pitch multiple innings. That could be valuable.
And after a crazy Saturday that saw Michael Kirkman optioned to Triple-A Round Rock and Neal Cotts injured in a game against Cleveland, Ross was the only left in the bullpen. And while the club still looks at him as a starter long-term, they will allow him to get a taste of the big leagues in the bullpen first.
The other advantage to this move: the message it sends to the farm. It shows the other minor leaguers that even on a club that has won the AL the past two years, if you pitch well, you can make the club.
6: Nathan is healthy, and his velocity is good
Nathan didn't come to camp concerned about his health, but even after a solid second half in 2011, the right-hander was still less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery.
But Nathan said when spring training started that he felt healthy and was excited to have a spring in which he felt 100 percent. And it's showed in his velocity. His fastball has stayed around that 93 mph range, which is right where he wants it.
The results, however, were mixed. Nathan had fastball command issues for the first few weeks of spring, but in his last handful of outings he's been getting outs and going about his business. It's his job to get those final three outs in 2012.
7: Andrus could be driving the ball to gaps more
Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus arrived in the desert stronger, especially in his upper body. It was an attempt this offseason to add strength at the plate. He's not trying to go up and hit home runs. But he knows he can drive balls better to the gaps.
We've seen that this spring. And with Andrus' speed, a drive to the gap is a sure double, with a chance for more. He's worked on going with pitches that are outside and not trying to pull everything, adding an element of gap power to his ability to run his way on, making him even more versatile offensively.
On the defensive side, Andrus also had a solid spring and is primed for the season.
8: Wrist hasn't bothered Moreland
After a wrist injury bothered Mitch Moreland in the second half of the 2011 season and the playoffs, the first baseman had offseason surgery. As a result, he arrived in Surprise a little behind schedule, but he hasn't had any issues with it.
Moreland said he doesn't even think about it much anymore, except to get treatment a few times a week. The past week, Moreland's bat has picked up, too. He hit just under .300 this spring with a few homers. But the bottom line: The wrist is fine.
9: Utility infield job up for grabs
It's likely to come down to the final days, but by Wednesday morning the Rangers must choose a utility infielder. They are comfortable choosing between Alberto Gonzalez and Luis Hernandez. Both were in camp from the beginning and separated themselves from Greg Miclat and Yangervis Solarte as spring progressed.
Both have had their highlight moments in the field, though overall, Gonzalez seems a little more sure-handed out there. And both have had similar numbers at the plate.
10: Double-A Frisco's infield should be fun to watch this year
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Add in Leury Garcia, who should trade off with Profar playing shortstop and second base, and you've got a pretty fun infield to watch when the Rangers are out of town. Olt will also play first base as the organization tries to add to his versatility.