CONTESTED ROSTER SPOTS

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

     The Rangers open spring training next week with pitchers and catchers reporting by February 22 and the full squad by February 25.  The team returns essentially the same core that won the American League last year, so most roster spots are set, barring injury.  Here is a look at what the roster will likely look like when the season opens on April 6.

     On the offensive side, 11 of 13 roster spots are allocated to catchers Yorvit Torrealba and Mike Napoli, designated hitter and back up infielder Michael Young, infielders from first around to third Mitch Moreland, Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, and Adrian Beltre, and outfielders Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton, David Murphy and Craig Gentry.  One of the remaining roster spots will go to a back up middle infielder.  A pair of veteran candidates coming to spring training are Alberto Gonzalez and Luis Hernandez. 

     Last year, Moreland’s offensive game fell apart over the final months of the season, and the team later revealed that he played through a wrist injury that required surgery this winter.  It’s questionable as to whether he will be fully recovered when spring training begins, and is an injury that bears watching.  As insurance, the team has signed non-roster invitees – Brad Hawpe and Conor Jackson.  Both have been very good in the past, both can play other positions, and both are looking to get their careers back on track.  Even if Moreland is healthy, one of these two could end up with the last roster spot.

     Center field presents a contested situation.  Manager Ron Washington has said that Hamilton will see action in center field, but that he expects most of Hamilton’s playing time to be in left, contending that there is less chance of injury in left.  The team settled into a center field platoon of Gentry and Endy Chavez last year.  Chavez is gone, but Julio Borbon and Leonys Martin are also left-handed batting center fielders.  Gentry wants to be the regular.  He has plus plus speed and does the job defensively.  The final position player roster spot then probably goes to one of Jackson, Hawpe, Borbon or Martin.

     The starting rotation theoretically is (probably in this order):  Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz.  If it works out that way, two other contenders – Alexi Ogando (an All-Star and 13-game winner as a starter a year ago) and Scott Feldman get shuttled to the bullpen.  However, last spring most projections had Brandon Webb and Tommy Hunter in the Rangers’ rotation.  Neither started a game.  Ogando and Harrison were ninth and tenth in the pecking order of starting pitcher candidates, and both pitched their way into the rotation and 27 wins for the season.  Things can change from what the consensus thought is now.

     For the bullpen, Joe Nathan was signed to take Feliz’s place as closer.  Mike Adams is back as the eighth inning set up man.  Ogando will be part of the late inning mix, and Feldman is slated to be the long man.  That leaves three bullpen spots available.  One will likely be allocated to a left-handed reliever, the spot that Darren Oliver had the past two seasons.  Michael Kirkman is one candidate.  Veterans Joe Beimel and Mitch Stetter have been invited to camp to compete for the job.  That leaves Mark Lowe, Yoshinori Tateyama and Koji Uehara fighting over two bullpen spots. 

     Rumors persist that the Rangers and Roy Oswalt still have mutual interest.  Even with camps opening, Oswalt remains unsigned.  One thought is that the Rangers are slightly over their payroll budget and need to clear some money to be able to afford him, assuming Oswalt will lower his salary demands from the $8 – $10 million he has been seeking.  Uehara is the most likely to be traded, and in fact Anthony Andro of Fox Southwest and Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News indicated on a television round table this week that they expected Uehara to be traded prior to the start of the season.

     One rule of spring training is that there are always a surprise or two.  Someone like Tanner Scheppers or Matthew West may be so overwhelming that they claim a bullpen roster spot.  The Feliz experiment may be more of a work in progress than expected.  There could be trades or injuries that change the landscape.  We’ll begin getting our daily doses of progress next week as the Rangers commence their defense of the American League Championship.

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