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Sunday, April 4, 2010
Which way will Rangers' season go?

By Richard Durrett

It seems as though the Texas Rangers have crammed enough activity for two or three offseasons into one six-month period.

Since the club last played a regular season game, a new ownership group -- led by Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg and Rangers president Nolan Ryan -- agreed to purchase the team from Hicks Sports Group and are working on final approval. The club surprised many with an active winter meetings that included dealing Kevin Millwood to Baltimore, signing free agent Rich Harden and nearly trading for Mike Lowell. The team also added Vladimir Guerrero to bolster the middle of the lineup and thought it had its utility infielder after agreeing to terms with Khalil Greene.

Spring training arrived amid plenty of optimism. But before the full squad workouts, the club learned that Greene would not be reporting because of social anxiety issues. Josh Hamilton was banged up trying to catch a fly ball in drills, Ian Kinsler turned his ankle the wrong way on the grass during drills, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia was still dealing with the effects of last season's shoulder surgery. Then, in the middle of spring, came the news that manager Ron Washington had failed a drug test last season.

So after all of that, it's finally time to start the season. As preparation, let's look at 10 players or things -- in no particular order -- to watch early this season as indicators of how this team may perform in 2010.

Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton

Washington said his biggest concern of the season is keeping Kinsler and Hamilton healthy. Kinsler starts the season with a high ankle sprain and still has not done much in the way of lateral movement. He wants to be sure he's completely healthy before returning so as to avoid a relapse.

Hamilton dealt with a few issues this spring, including a sore left shoulder after he fell while trying to catch a popup in drills. He also had a root canal infection that required dental work, and he was hit in the hand by a pitch.

But Hamilton hit well this spring in spite of it all, putting up a .373 batting average with three homers and eight RBIs.

Kinsler had a strong start to the spring before his high ankle sprain, going 4-for-10 in five Cactus League games. It's not known when he'll return.

Kinsler had 31 stolen bases and 31 homers in 2009 and hit .253. He'd like to get his average up and still provide power. He'll bat fifth when he's in the lineup.

Hamilton, coming off a great 2008 season, struggled early in the season and then had injuries. He finished with a .268 average with 10 homers and 54 RBIs in just 89 games.

"We have to keep those guys in the lineup as much as we can," Washington said. "They are a big part of what we're trying to do here, and they can produce if they're healthy."

Rich Harden

The Rangers traded Millwood to Baltimore to free up financial space to sign Harden, who has had ace-like stuff when he's healthy. But the question is whether he can stay that way. Harden has pitched more than 141 innings just once in his career -- in 2004 with the Oakland Athletics -- and has had seven stints on the disabled list the last five seasons.

He had an inconsistent spring training, finishing with an 8.87 ERA in 22 1/3 innings with 15 walks and 21 strikeouts. But he is healthy, and his velocity, which started the spring in the high 80s, was clocked consistently in the low 90s in his final start. Harden didn't seem concerned about his spring and is confident he's ready to start the season.

Harden has performed well in April the last three seasons, sporting a 2.40 ERA in eight starts. The Rangers need him to get off to a good start and, along with Scott Feldman, to help set the tone for the rotation.

Chris Davis
Will the Rangers get the early 2009 version of Chris Davis, which was demoted to the minors, or the version that closed the season with a flourish?

First base

Texas didn't get enough from the first base position in 2009. Rangers first basemen batted .226 and had 84 RBIs -- both figures were the second lowest in the American League. The early struggles of Chris Davis were a big reason for the disappointing numbers.

But Davis went to Triple-A Oklahoma City and seemed to figure out his swing issues. He returned more disciplined at the plate and gained confidence thanks to hitting .290 in September (and going 8-for-17 in October). Davis arrived at spring training as the starter but knew he needed a solid showing to fend off talented players behind him such as Justin Smoak. Davis did that, hitting the ball well in the spring (.364 with two homers and 13 RBIs).

Davis is going to have a fair number of strikeouts. That's not going to change. But he must limit the number and show some power and ability to drive in runs. His other challenge is to hit left-handed pitchers. He batted just .189 (in 122 at-bats) against them last season but did get solid hits off lefties this spring. The Rangers brought in Ryan Garko, who hits lefties well, as Davis' backup.

Julio Borbon

The Rangers are asking a lot from 24-year-old Julio Borbon, who made his major league debut last season and played in 46 games. Borbon will be the everyday center fielder and the club's leadoff hitter.

That's a large responsibility. Can Borbon handle it? We're about to find out. He has hit leadoff for most of his minor league career and spent the offseason honing his craft defensively in center field. Borbon has great speed, as 19 stolen bases in 46 games in 2009 show. Washington wants to see Borbon get on base and put pressure on the opposing pitcher with his speed once he gets there.

Outfield coach Gary Pettis has worked with Borbon on his throwing mechanics and his ability to read balls off the bat. Pettis said he's seen steady improvement from Borbon in both areas.

"I feel good about my throwing and defense," Borbon said. "All the work has paid off. I just want to keep it going and apply what I've learned to the games. I can't wait."

Marlon Byrd did a solid job for the Rangers in center last season. Borbon must be able to shoulder the load in 2010.


Washington said Saturday that he plans on having his catchers split time because neither vastly outplayed the other in spring training.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia & Taylor Teagarden
The Rangers are still waiting for Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden to seize control of the starting catcher position.

Saltalamacchia, 24, didn't stay healthy for all of spring, dealing with the effects of shoulder surgery last season. But he says he feels good now, and he did manage to hit .280 with one homer and five RBIs in 10 games. Taylor Teagarden, 26, hit just .225 this spring with no homers, six RBIs and 21 strikeouts, second most on the team behind Davis. Teagarden had 40 at-bats, meaning he struck out in more than half of them. But he's been healthy all spring and has played well defensively.

Washington wants to see both catchers call games well, contribute in the lineup and keep the pitching staff on track. He said he would consider altering his catching approach if one of them seizes the job.

Catching was in flux enough late last season that the Rangers traded for Ivan Rodriguez in August. Saltalamacchia and Teagarden have plenty of potential. The Rangers need to see some of that potential this season.

C.J. Wilson

When the idea of C.J. Wilson's becoming a part of the rotation was broached, there was no doubt that it would be a long shot. But Wilson approached it with steady determination, working in the offseason to get stretched out and mentally prepared.

He was clearly one of the club's best pitchers in the spring, which made the decision easy for team officials. Wilson, a valuable member of the Rangers' bullpen the last four seasons, showed he could get hitters out more than once through the lineup. He threw strikes, limited his walks and pitched with efficiency. And he did it from start to finish (concluding with five hitless innings at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Friday).

Wilson embraced the opportunity and earned it. He will really bolster the Rangers' rotation if he continues to pitch that way.


Neftali Feliz
Neftali Feliz was impressive this spring after he fell from the race for a spot in the rotation and focused on bringing the heat out of the bullpen.

The move of Wilson to the rotation alters the bullpen. It takes away a lefty who can handle late-inning relief and was a backup closer to Frank Francisco last season.

But the Rangers are confident they have the arms to handle that role. Darren Oliver was brought in for a setup role and has responded with an impressive spring. He had eight scoreless innings with one walk and six strikeouts. Opponents batted just .179 against him.

Flamethrower Neftali Feliz is another key component in the pen. He had a slow start to the spring as he competed for a starting rotation spot but impressed in his last couple of spring outings. He can blow his 100 mph fastballs by hitters and do so for one or two innings, giving Washington a nice option to get the game to Francisco.

It's a contract year for Francisco, who was on the disabled list three times last season. He was pleased with his spring. He pitched in five Cactus League innings, giving up two runs with seven strikeouts and no walks. But he also put up some strikeouts and scoreless innings in minor league games.

Darren O'Day dealt with a bone bruise near his elbow but appears ready for the season. He was important for this team last season, going 2-1 with a 1.94 ERA in 55 2/3 innings with 54 strikeouts and 17 walks.

Chris Ray, acquired in the Millwood trade, gives the team another pitcher with closer experience in the 'pen. Dustin Nippert and Doug Mathis give the club experienced long relievers. Nippert can spot-start if necessary.

Elvis Andrus' encore

The Rangers have a group of players heading into their second seasons (or first full seasons) in the majors. We've already talked about a few of them -- Borbon and Feliz, for example. But headlining the list is shortstop Elvis Andrus.

He finished second in AL rookie of the year balloting after showing off his glove with highlight-reel plays. And he also showed he could hit, batting .267 with six homers and 40 RBIs. He had 33 stolen bases and made 140 starts, the most ever by a Rangers rookie.

It was a great showing for a player who jumped from Double-A to the majors. Now the question is what Andrus can do in his sophomore season. He's had inflammation of his left wrist and received a cortisone shot but should be ready for Opening Day.

He didn't have a great spring at the plate, hitting just .211 with a homer and seven RBIs. But he went about his preparation and should be ready to go. Can he build on what he did in 2009?

Vladimir Guerrero

He was brought in to strengthen the middle of the Rangers' lineup, and while he still hasn't hit a home run in a Texas uniform, he had a productive spring.

Guerrero batted .333 with seven doubles and 10 RBIs. He ran the bases well and even got in a few games in right field.

One plus to the Guerrero signing is he won't be crushing Rangers pitching with the Los Angeles Angels as he has the last few seasons. He's the club's cleanup hitter, with the idea that he can not only drive in runs, but also protect Hamilton (much like what Milton Bradley did for Hamilton in 2008).

Ron Washington

He's worth watching early this season. This club needs a solid start, and Washington knows it.

The team has not allowed Washington's revelation of drug use last season to interfere with its preparations. But Washington also has to make sure he puts it behind him and focuses on the job at hand. He's likely to hear unkind words on the road. The club's first road trip goes through Cleveland, New York and Boston, all with notoriously vocal fans.

The record of Washington's teams has improved in each of his three seasons. And the club played better out of the gate in 2009 than it did in 2007 and 2008. He has also improved as a manager each season, growing into the job. His teams play hard for him, something that should not be overlooked. But this is a club with high expectations, and if it struggles early, there will be even more pressure on the manager.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.