By Mark Miller
Spring training 2014 has a decidedly different feel for the Texas Rangers.
Yes, the manager remains Ron Washington. And sure, players like Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre are still around. But for the first time since the 2010 camp, the team isn’t coming off a playoff run.
It’s been well documented what general manager Jon Daniels and his staff have tried to do to put the Rangers back in the post-season hunt. And while it will take an entire season to determine the outcome of those decisions, some will become clearer between now and the March 31 opener.
Here are just some of the questions needing answers in Surprise, Ariz.:
1. Who Will Make Up the Starting Rotation?
Okay, let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Even with a healthy Derek Holland, the five pitchers who would form the initial rotation were not set. But with the lefty out possibly until after the All-Star break, who will toe the mound in April? Much depends on health as every candidate except Holland missed some time in 2013.
Yu Darvish is the obvious ace even after missing two weeks at mid-season with fatigue and undergoing back treatments over the winter. He had a 13-9 record, 2.83 earned run average and 277 strikeouts in 209.2 innings last year. Martin Perez shined in his rookie season after missing the first month when he was hit by a ball in the spring. His 10-6 record and 3.62 ERA included a team-leading seven wins after the All-Star break.
In a perfect world, Alexi Ogando would be in the bullpen but in the Rangers’ world, he must start even after three trips to the disabled list in 2013. When healthy he was 7-4 with a 3.11 ERA.
Nick Tepesch was an inconsistent 4-6, 4.84 last year and only pitched in three games after the All-Star break. Non-roster invitee Colby Lewis missed all of 2013 and the last two months of 2012 because of flexor tendon surgery but if healthy is an option.
One potential candidate, 2013 Opening Day starter Matt Harrison, is questionable again after experiencing lower back stiffness just days after reporting to Arizona. After missing nearly all of last year following back surgery, he said he was in top form but it will take an MRI exam to determine his status.
Others in the mix are veterans Tommy Hanson and Jose Contreras and youngsters Robby Ross, Tanner Scheppers and Michael Kirkman.
2. Is Feliz the Closer He Was in 2010 and 2011?
With Joe Nathan now in Detroit after two seasons as the Texas closer, it may be a case of back to the future for that important role this year.
Neftali Feliz shined in 2010 (32 saves) and 2011 (40) before moving to the rotation in 2012. Unfortunately, he was hurt after seven starts and underwent Tommy John surgery. He returned in September for six uneventful relief outings but used winter ball in the Dominican Republic to work on regaining his velocity. If it truly is back, problem solved.
If not, former All-Star closer Joakim Soria returns though he too had Tommy John surgery in 2012 and didn’t seem completely comfortable in 28 outings last year (14 walks). If Feliz and Soria falter, look for Scheppers to become the closer.
3. Can Mitch Moreland Be a Full-Time DH?
With the acquisition of first baseman Prince Fielder, who rarely takes a day off, and the retirement of Lance Berkman, incumbent Mitch Moreland is the top choice at designated hitter. But for any chance to be there every day, he must be more consistent.
Yes, he hit 23 home runs and drove in 60 last year, but the left-handed hitter batted just .227 against right-handed pitching and .232 overall. He must improve on all of his statistics if he wants to remain a Ranger for very long.
4. Who’s on the Bench?
The Rangers made it a point to improve their reserve corps in 2013 and succeeded quite well with the likes of infielder Jeff Baker, outfielder Craig Gentry and catcher Geovany Soto. But Baker and Gentry are gone and Soto is the No. 1 catcher so who fills these important roles this year?
One likely candidate is veteran infielder Adam Rosales who joined the team late last year. Another is former University of Texas-Arlington outfielder Michael Choice, who came from Oakland in the Gentry deal. There’s also J.P. Arencibia at catcher and possibly outfielders Engel Beltre and/or Jim Adduci.
5. Will Soto, Arencibia Return to Previous Form?
Both Soto and Arencibia have enjoyed early career success as catchers with other teams. Soto was the 2008 National League Rookie of the Year with the Chicago Cubs while Arencibia enjoyed strong seasons in 2011 and 2012 with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Unfortunately, both have struggled in ensuing years prompting their initial teams to give up on them and both ending up on the Rangers. But they also hope Texas is their second chance. And their team desperately hopes both return to previous offensive form in addition to handling the pitching staff.
If they do, memories of last year’s solid performance by A.J. Pierzynski and previous success by Mike Napoli, ironically both now in Boston, will vanish. That will especially be true if the pitching staff continues to improve its statistics.
6. What Team Personality Develops in Arizona?
The Rangers clearly were a power-laden team during their playoff runs of 2010, 2011, and 2012 and more speed and pitching heavy last year. What’s their vibe in 2014?
Fielder, Beltre, and Alex Rios are a solid surge in the middle but they are surrounded by speed in Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Leonys Martin, and Jurickson Profar. So this team might establish itself as a combination of the past with balance the optimal word.
7. New Coaches
Gone are Washington’s long-time bench coach Jackie Moore and base coach Dave Anderson. In their place are Tim Bogar and Bengie Molina. Bogar is a former Boston Red Sox bench coach and Molina, who will handle first base and help with the catching, played for the Rangers the last part of 2010.
Another addition is assistant hitting coach Bobby Jones, a long-time Texas minor league manager, who knows most of the team’s younger players very well. How well the new coaches mesh with Washington and holdovers Mike Maddux, Gary Pettis, Andy Hawkins, and Dave Magadan in the spring could prove critical throughout the season.
It’s been a few years since the Texas Rangers played under the radar but that might bode them well. Letting the Angels, A’s, Red Sox, Yankees and Rays attract all the attention now would make it sweeter if the Rangers come out of Arizona strong.