By Mark Miller
After two seasons as World Series participants, the Texas Rangers entered the ensuing spring trainings brimming with confidence and with only a few unknowns.
But after falling apart at the end of 2012 and losing their only playoff game, this year is quite different. They will be spending much time in Arizona trying to regain their old swagger while answering numerous questions that will help determine if they remain contenders or return to the pretenders they were before 2010.
Can two former Chicago catchers make up for one in Boston?
At this time last year, Geovany Soto was the starting catcher for the Chicago Cubs while A.J. Pierzynski was the same for the Chicago White Sox. This year, they will share duties for the Texas Rangers.
Whether they can replace Mike Napoli, who moved to Boston after two years as the Rangers’ No. 1 backstop, will be one piece to the 2013 puzzle.
If Pierzynski remains the steady player he always has been, this could turn out quite positive. A career .284 hitter, the left-handed hitter had a great 2012 with a career-high 27 home runs, a career-tying 77 runs batted in and a .278 average. He’s only made 55 errors in 1,559 major league games, a .995 percentage. And he’s a two-time All-Star who was part of the 2005 World Series champions.
Though he batted just .198 in 2013, Soto had a combined 11 home runs and 30 RBI in 99 games. And he played a key factor in starting pitcher Yu Darvish’s strong 2012 finish.
Which Lance Berkman will show up?
The Rangers knew they were taking a chance signing the Waco native this season. Injuries limited the 37-year-old switch-hitter to 32 games and just 81 at-bats in 2012. But he played in 145 games in 2011 with 31 homers, 94 RBI and .301 average. He also was instrumental in the St. Louis Cardinals beating the Rangers in the World Series with a .423 average in 26 at-bats.
So which Berkman the Rangers get in 2013 largely depends on his health. The plan is for him to be the primary designated hitter and play some games at first base.
Is Mitch Moreland an every day player?
He will be if he can fare better against left-handed pitchers. Moreland batted .281 with 12 home runs and 41 runs batted in against right-handers in 2012 but just .239 with three homers and nine RBI against lefties.
When outfielder David Murphy finally proved he could hit all pitchers last year, he became the regular left-fielder. The same opportunity lies ahead for Moreland.
Who will occupy the bench?
The Rangers really had no bench in 2012, a big reason why Manager Ron Washington didn’t call on anyone there in September. Such overuse of the starters was one of the major reasons for the team’s late collapse.
Unless rookies Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt have stellar spring trainings, they will start the season at Class AAA Round Rock. That would leave four players to earn Washington’s trust. One is Brandon Snyder, who played 40 games with the Rangers in 2012, hitting .277 with three homers and nine RBI. Two others would be rookies Leury Garcia and Yangervis Solarte.
Don’t be surprised, however, if veteran Jeff Baker makes the team. The 31-year-old appeared in 83 games last year split between the Cubs, Tigers and Braves. His strength is hitting left-handers at a .296 career clip.
Will the Gentry-Martin platoon work?
The Rangers aren’t replacing Josh Hamilton with one player but two. Craig Gentry will play center field against left-handed pitchers and rookie Leonys Martin will play against righties.
Their work-sharing arrangement should help the Rangers reinvigorate their running game and Gentry has proven he can hit lefties (.343 last year). But neither has been an every day player at this level.
How will the Rangers score runs?
Napoli, Hamilton and Michael Young are gone permanently. Nelson Cruz might be out for an extended period depending on an investigation into his name appearing on a client list of a Florida clinic tied to performance enhancing drugs. Thus, the team will not strike as much fear into opposing pitchers.
That means manufacturing runs through getting on base and returning to the aggressive, yet smart pressure offense Washington likes to use.
All these questions involve the offense because that phase of the game had previously been so steady. Sure, there are plenty of pitching questions too, ones that will become clearer by the last exhibition game March 30 in San Antonio. But pay close attention to what happens at the plate between now and then. It will go a long way to determining how excited you should be in 2013.