BY: Richard W. Humphrey

The Texas Rangers have been in training camp for about a week. Pitchers and catchers reported last Tuesday, though most arrived earlier. Position players were required to arrive by last Friday, and last Sunday the Rangers held their first full squad workout. For Ranger fans, it is the start of a new year.

This Texas team should contend, but it is a far different team than the one fielded by General Manager Jon Daniels in recent years. Gone are Michael Young, the ex-officio team captain, Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, not to mention a healthy portion of the bullpen that was one of the team’s strongest points last year.

This year’s team will likely have a more execution oriented offense – one that utilizes the sacrifice bunt, stolen base, and hit-and-run to move runners and create scoring opportunities. On paper this team does not look to have the offensive firepower to hit 200 home runs.

It is also a team that will likely rely on its starting pitchers, as the Rangers are finally starting to see the results of their pitching emphasis coming to fruition at the Major League level. Four rotation spots are spoken for as traning camp begins, and all four made their Major League debuts as Texas Rangers. Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish, both 2012 All-Stars, will start the first and second games of the season in some order. Darvish looks poised to build on his rookie season and step up to be one of the true aces in the American League, a pitcher in the class of Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, and Jered Weaver. Harrison has established himself as a solid, if not improving starting pitcher. This pair should win at least 35 games.

The enigmatic Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando complete the starting four currently in place. Holland was the team’s best pitcher over the second half of 2011 and along the way, turned in the finest post-season pitching performance in Ranger history, a gem in game four against the Cardinals in the World Series – 8-1/3rd innings, no runs and two hits. Last year, he stepped back, winning just 12 games, spending time on the disabled list, and struggling to get his ERA under five. Ogando returns to the rotation, where he made the American League All-Star team in 2011 after a one 0year hiatus in the bullpen.

Texas expects these four to be the core of a solid and possibly spectacular starting rotation, which will be the backbone of this year’s team. Colby Lewis is re-habbing from surgery, but is expected back in the rotation at some point this summer. In the mean time, Robbie Ross, Martin Perez and Justin Grimm are the internal candidates for the fifth starter job. Over the past week, two dark horse rookies have emerged as possible candidates – Nick Tepesch and Cody Buckel, both of whom split time at High A Myrtle Beach and AA Frisco last season.

The bullpen is more problematic. Joe Nathan is back as closer. Joakim Soria was signed this winter, but he like Lewis is recovering from arm surgery and will be available no earlier than late May or early June, most likely later. Josh Lindblom was acquired in the Michael Young trade. Jason Frasor was signed during the winter. The balance of the bullpen candidates are largely internal candidates that have had varying amounts of success and litttle Major League experience. The team badly needs for pitchers such as Tanner Scheppers and Michael Kirkman to step up early in the season to be an effective bullpen. The addition of Soria and most likely Neftali Feliz, who is also recovering from arm surgery, will likely make this an effective bullpen late in the season. Hopefully, the Rangers will still be in the race when they arrive.

Lance Berkman and A. J. Pierzynski have been signed as the two significant offensive replacements. Both have been significant offensive pieces in the past, but neither is young. Berkman especially is needed to bring some firepower to the middle of the lineup. He is a patient hitter that sees a lot of pitches and walks almost as much as he strikes out. He’s the type of offensive player that the Rangers have wanted since Ron Washington arrived to manage the team.

New hitting coach Dave Magadan is also a hitting instructor that teaches and preaches this type of approach at the plate. Magadan has his work cut out for him trying to bring back players that have been offensive threats in the past to being productive again after significant falloffs. Ian Kinsler and Geovany Soto, just to name two.

It’s a new year though. The Ranger offensive core is much different, but still very good. It’s a team that should be very competitive in a much improved division, as Texas will be battling the defending division champion Oakland A’s and the further re-tooled Los Angeles Angels. Even the Seattle Mariners can not be counted out.

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