SPRING TRAINING BEGINS

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

Rangers’ spring training will be in full swing Wednesday when position players are expected to report. Pitchers and catchers reported last weekend, and games will start February 27. There isn’t much suspense about the opening day roster as barring injury, 20 roster spots are already allocated.

Those players are the starting 10 position players (assuming the two catchers basically alternate) are catchers Geovany Soto and J. P. Arencibia, first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Jurickson Profar, third baseman Adrian Beltre, left fielder Shin-Soo Choo, center fielder Leonys Martin, right fielder Alex Rios, and designated hitter Mitch Moreland. Four of the five starting pitchers are expected to be Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Martin Perez, and Alexi Ogando. The bullpen spots allocated are right handers Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria, Tanner Scheppers and Jason Frasor. The lefties are Robbie Ross and Neal Cotts.

That leaves two pitching spots available – a fifth starter and another bullpen hand. The three position player positions are backup infielders and outfielders.

The biggest questions coming into spring training are who will be the fifth starter and who will be the closer?

First, it is assumed that Feliz will be the closer, or at least get the first shot at the job. Feliz was the Rangers’ closer in 2010 and 1011, making the All-Star team in 2010. His foray into the starting rotation in 2012 ended after just seven starts and eight appearances total before he underwent Tommy John surgery. He came back late last year, but appeared in just six games, pitching 4-2/3rds innings. Soria was also a premier closer for Kansas City in the past and has recorded 160 career saves. Tanner Scheppers has also said he wants to be considered for the slot. He has a 7-3 record with two saves and a 2.64 ERA in two Major League seasons for Texas. He has the big fastball that clubs like their closer to have and strikes out a little more than seven batters per nine innings. Having these three solid candidates to be the closer enabled the Rangers to say good-bye to Joe Nathan, which saved more than $9 million in salary to be utilized for the offense.

The Rangers signed Tommy Hanson last week, who becomes perhaps the leading candidate for the fifth starter position in the rotation. He was once a prized pitcher for the Atlanta Braves when he came up in 2009 and went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA. Last year with the Angels though, he was 4-3 with a miserable 5.42 ERA. His season was thrown off track by the untimely death of his younger stepbrother.

Other fifth starter candidates include Nick Tepesch, who was 4-6, 4.84 in 17 starts and two relief appearances last year as a rookie. Scheppers and Ross were also worked as starters in winter ball. lastly, Colby Lewis was re-signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to Major League spring training. He did not pitch in the Majors last year and has undergone surgeries to his arm and hip since being shut down last year. He says he feels great, and his early throwing sessions have gone well.

No matter how the rotation turns out, it is the team’s biggest question mark going into the season after Derek Holland, last year’s team leader in starts and innings pitched succumbed to a knee injury, which required microfracture surgery, incurred playing with his dog at home. He’s out until mid-season, and his effectiveness when he returns is a question. Matt Harrison is a question mark after undergoing more surgeries (three) than starts (two) last year. He was scratched Monday from a throwing session with stiffnes in his neck. Ogando has not shown that he can be a consistent starting pitcher over the course of a full season. Martin Perez was good last year after joining the team in late June, winning 10 games in 20 starts. However, he is still a second year player that has not started over the course of a full season.

In the bullpen, there are a host of veteran players and young strong arms as candidates for at least one spot. Joseph Ortiz was last year’s opening day roster surprise, but he is not one of those candidates. He was hit by a motorcycle as a pedestrian last month in Venezuela. He’s out for three months at least with a broken foot and has already been placed on the 60-day disabled list to make room for Hanson on the 40-man roster.

On the offensive side, the batting order is expected to be Choo, Andrus, Fielder, Beltre and Rios in the first five spots (in that order). Profar and Martin are expected to bat eighth and ninth in some order, leaving Moreland and the catchers for sixth and seventh. It’s a marvelous lineup on paper. Both Choo and Fielder as left-handed batters should benefit from the jet stream that boosts fly balls hit to right and right center. The addition of this pair may make this the best lineup in baseball.

Defensively, the team probably suffers to put such a pristine offense on the field. Fielder is below average at first base. Profar is really a shortstop. He’s learning second base, and he comes to camp with shoulder tendinitis that restrains his early workouts. The injury occurred lifting weights in Curacao after the winter league season. For the next week, he can bat and field. He just can’t throw. The backup infielder candidates at the beginning of camp are Adam Rosales, Brent Libbibridge, Josh Wilson and Kensuke Tanaka.

In the outfield, Choo is average. Martin is still a work in progress tracking down fly balls, but showed a surprisingly strong arm. Rios is better than Nelson Cruz in right field, but he doesn’t throw as well as Cruz. Cruz incidentally remains unsigned, and it is still possible that he returns to Texas on a one-year deal after striking out in his quest for a long term contract. Michael Choice, the U. T.-Arlington player acquired from the Athletics in the Craig Gentry trade, is a leading candidate for a back up outfield roster spot as is Engel Beltre.

The bottom line is that the offense should be terrific, the defense should be adequate, the bullpen should be strong again, and hopefully the starting rotation has enough depth to keep the team in games early. The bench could be an absolute disaster though. It will be adequate spelling starters once a week, but in case of an injury that requires a disabled list stay, the bench is in no position to chip in and hold the team together.

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