By Dic Humphrey
The Texas Rangers open Cactus League play this weekend with a trio of games against the Kansas City Royals, the team that shares the Surprise, Arizona training complex with Texas. These three games are the first of 38 scheduled games this spring, the most ever for the Rangers in spring training. The Rangers break camp in late March, returning to Arlington to play an exhibition game against a Mexican team on Thursday, March 28. They then proceed to San Antonio for games against the Padres in the Alamodome on Friday and Saturday. The season opener is the following evening in Houston (Easter Sunday), the Major League opening game of the season televised on ESPN.
Much of the focus this spring will be on the starting pitching, which, of course, is always a concern. However, unless there are injuries, the Rangers come to camp with four rotation slots allocated – Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando. All of them are under 30, and all but Holland have made an All-Star team. The rotation should be a strong point, if not the backbone of this season’s team.
The fifth slot is up for grabs with at least seven potential candidates. They are Martin Perez, who was actually in the rotation at season’s end last year, veterans Randy Wells and Kyle McClellan, and internal candidates Robbie Ross, Justin Grimm, Cody Buckel and Nick Tepesch. While there will be a lot of attention on the fifth rotation spot, there is a question as to how important this really is. On one hand, developing depth of starting pitching in case of injury is important. Ranger fans may remember a time in late June last year when six of the 12 Opening Day pitchers were on the disabled list, including three starters. On the other hand, there are often games lost to weather early in the season, and when combined with scheduled off days, a fifth starter is not always needed. This year, for example, the move of one of the opening series games with Houston to be the ESPN Sunday night season opener will allow the first four pitchers in the rotation to start twice before a fifth starter is required.
Also, Colby Lewis is coming off arm surgery but is expected to return to the rotation at some point this year. Early reports have him ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation, such that he may be back as early as late May. In short, the fifth starter need until Lewis returns may be only six or seven weeks – perhaps fewer than 10 starts.
Bullish on the ‘pen?
The more important focus should be on the bullpen, which was very good last year; a real strength of the team. Back is closer Joe Nathan, but gone are Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Scott Feldman, and Mark Lowe. Ogando has moved to the rotation, and Ross may join him. That’s a bunch of depth and good arms to replace. Michael Kirkman, who has been on a postseason roster each of the past three years, may have the inside track for a spot as a left-handed specialist. Josh Lindblom was acquired in the Michael Young trade this winter. He had an impressive performance this week in an intrasquad game, striking out the side on 11 pitches. Tanner Scheppers was inconsistent last year, but has a great arm and showed flashes of brilliance at times. Jason Frasor and Joakim Soria were signed as free agents.
It is generally assumed that Neftali Feliz will be headed to the bullpen when he returns later this year after undergoing arm surgery that ended his 2012 season prematurely. Soria also underwent surgery last year and will not be available until later this summer. His rehabilitation is said to be going well and there is some optimism that he will be available as early as late May. However, there is no assurance that either Soria or Feliz will be effective upon their return; even if they are, the Ranger bullpen could be problematic until they arrive. For certain, there are bullpen jobs up for grabs this spring and the Rangers will need some pitchers to step up early in the season to keep the Rangers in the race until the cavalry arrives later this summer.
Not as potent
On the offensive side, a whole bunch of firepower walked out the door this winter when Josh Hamilton signed with the Angels and Mike Napoli signed with the Red Sox. Manager Ron Washington promises a more execution oriented offense that utilizes stolen bases, sacrifice bunts, and the hit and run to create runs. The keys to the offense will be Ian Kinsler, Lance Berkman, A. J. Pierzynski and Nelson Cruz. Quietly lost in the hoopla over Hamilton, as well as Michael Young’s terrible 2012 offensive campaign, was that Kinsler had his worst season in the leadoff spot. His on base percentage – the all important statistic for a top-of-the-order-hitter – was .326, the worst of his career. He needs to get on base to ignite this execution-oriented offense, and a turnaround will be a significant factor to the Rangers having enough offense to compete in the West.
Berkman and Pierzynski are the free agent signings that have the promise to replace the home run firepower that left with Hamilton and Napoli. The question with Berkman is health. A knee problem shortened his 2012 season to 32 games. He is 37 and health problems often persist at that age. If he returns to the form he showed in 2011 (.301 with 31 home runs and 94 RBI’s), he’ll be a fine addition to the middle of the Rangers’ batting order. If injuries significantly reduce his playing time the Rangers are in big trouble, as there is no “plan B” at this point.
Pierzynski has the promise of taking up some of the home run slack. He hit 27 last year, which is actually a higher total than Napoli. However, he is 36, certainly an advanced age for a catcher, and last year might have been a blip on the radar screen, as 27 home runs was his career high by a large margin. He hit just 17 in the two seasons before last year combined, and 18 was his previous career high for a season.
The question with Cruz is the possible suspension for performance enhancing drug use. He has been linked to the investigation of a Florida wellness center that was supplying PED’s to players. If he is lost to a 50-game suspension, it would be a difficult blow to the Rangers’ offense.
The West stacks up to be a very competitive division. Oakland won it last year with young talent. They are back and they are experienced. Los Angeles is the favorite among most experts after signing Hamilton. Not only did the move add firepower to their batting order already anchored by Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Kendrys Morales, but the loss of Hamilton weakened the Rangers. Quietly, Seattle has greatly improved their team and could be a factor. The only softie in the division will be the new guys on the block – Houston, which is in the early stages of a massive rebuilding program.
The Rangers have a few “ifs” if they are to stay in the race this summer, but the starting pitching should be solid and that will hopefully keep them competitive. As David Murphy told reporters Friday, “We have every reason in the world to have the same expectations that we’ve had the last two or three years.” Ranger fans hope he’s correct.
- Spring training camps opened earlier than usual this year, as this is a spring that the World Baseball Classic will be played. The rosters were set this week, and the Rangers have six players in camp that will participate. They are: Derek Holland (USA), Elvis Andrus (Venezuela), Nelson Cruz and Leury Garcia (Dominican Republic), Engel Beltre (Spain) and Jose Felix (Mexico). Adrian Beltre originally agreed to play for the Dominican team, but withdrew when he sustained a mild calf strain early in Rangers’ camp. He has indicated that if the Dominican team advances past the first round and if the injury heals, he will participate in the second round. Garcia is also said to be having second thoughts about leaving the Rangers’ camp to play in the WBC and could withdraw. Felix is a catcher who is really in the Rangers’ system for depth purposes. The Rangers are excited for him to get the playing time with team Mexico.
- The starting pitchers for this weekend’s games with Kansas City are Derek Holland on Friday (pitched three innings, allowed six hits and no runs), Randy Wells on Saturday and Matt Harrison on Sunday.
- Baseball America announced their top 100 minor league prospects this week. Rangers included are Jurickson Profar at number one, Mike Olt (22), Leonys Martin (81) and Martin Perez (97).