For a second straight year, the Texas Rangers come to spring training in Arizona looking less like the team that went to back-to-back World Series in 2010-11. Only this year, the turnover is much more significant.
The post-Josh Hamilton era begins in earnest for the Rangers when the team opens camp in Surprise without the former MVP and five-time all-star outfielder, who left for a five-year deal with the Angels — following the path that starting pitcher C.J. Wilson took a year earlier.
For five seasons, Hamilton powered the Rangers’ offense, but more than that, he was the face of baseball in Texas and the player that took the Rangers to new heights. Now, the Rangers not only must move on without him, but battle with him on a regular basis in the growing AL West rivalry with the Angels.
Hamilton wasn’t the only Texas mainstay to two-step his way out of town. All-star catcher Mike Napoli joined the Red Sox in free agency, and infielder Michael Young was dealt to the Phillies after 12 seasons in Arlington.
That’s a lot of offense to replace.
The Rangers want to get younger, especially with star prospects like Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt waiting in the wings, but they filled their holes this offseason with veteran stop-gap options. In trying to replace some of Hamilton’s power, the Rangers signed designated hitter Lance Berkman. The 36-year-old played just 32 games last year for St. Louis due to injuries, but is only a year removed from hitting 31 home runs and driving in 94 runs.
While Berkman’s durability will be an ongoing concern and something to watch in camp, the switch-hitter should benefit from a move to DH. With less wear from the daily grind, Berkman could have another strong season offensively.
The Rangers got older behind the plate as well, but are counting on little or no drop-off offensively with the addition of longtime White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski. At 35 years old last season, Pierzynski put up the best offensive numbers of his career — 77 RBI, 27 home runs and a .827 OPS. Perhaps just as valuable as his bat, though, is Pierzynski’s leadership, which drew praise in Chicago.
The rest of the Rangers lineup remains familiar with the likes of Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz and Elvis Andrus. With the starting rotation topped by Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, a strong case to be made these Rangers are every bit as equipped as the Angels to win the AL West.
But with the division getting deeper every year — as evidenced by Oakland’s surprising ascension last season — the Rangers will be forced soon to commit more completely to getting younger. Recent reports indicated that Olt and Profar could find themselves on the Opening Day roster, as could Leury Garcia, another rising infield prospect. Young pitching prospects like Cody Buckel and Martin Perez may not be far off either.
For now, the Rangers still appear to be one of the AL’s best teams. That’s saying something for a team that let its superstar walk in free agency. But even so, the absence of Hamilton, Young and Napoli is certain to cause some adjustment pains in Rangers camp.
Who’s new: P Josh Lindblom, trade (Philadelphia); P Jeff Beliveau, waivers (Cubs); C Eli Whiteside, waivers (Blue Jays); 1B/DH Berkman, P Jason Frasor, C Pierzynski, P Joakim Soria, free agents; 1B Brandon Allen, IF Jeff Baker, P Collin Balester, OF Aaron Cunningham, P Kyle McClellan, P Evan Meek, P Randy Wells, minor-league free agents.
Who’s gone: P Mike Adams (Phillies), P Ryan Dempster (Red Sox), P Scott Feldman (Cubs), OF Hamilton (Angels), C Napoli (Red Sox), P Koji Uehara (Red Sox), IF/DH Young (Phillies); P Mark Lowe, P Roy Oswalt, free agents.
Battle grounds: There looks to be one spot in the starting rotation up for grabs, with Perez the favorite to land it after finishing 2012 as the team’s fifth starter. The Rangers have considered moving reliever Robbie Ross to the rotation, so they could tinker with that idea in camp. … Craig Gentry should be the Rangers’ Opening Day center fielder, but there’s at least an outside chance Leonys Martin takes the next step in his development and wins the every day job.
Health watch: Starting pitcher Neftali Feliz is still recovering from Tommy John surgery in August and isn’t expected back until July at the earliest. … Starting pitcher Colby Lewis had elbow surgery last July and is reportedly ahead of schedule in his recovery, but he is still not expected back until June at the earliest. … New Rangers reliever Joakim Soria also had Tommy John surgery last season, in April, and is hoping to return in late May.
Sneak preview: Many of the Rangers’ top prospects have already seen the majors, and a few of them could break camp on the big league roster, including top infielders Olt and Profar. But fans will get a look at different up-and-coming infielder in 21-year-old Garcia. He’s blocked by Profar at shortstop, his natural position, so he’ll likely end up at second base and could see the majors in a season or two. At 5-feet-7, 153 pounds, he’s not imposing at the plate, but reports say top tier speed and a good throwing arm should help him reach the majors.
Spring training info: Surprise Stadium, 15960 N. Bullard Ave., Surprise. First workouts Feb. 13 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 16 (full squad). First game: Feb. 22. Tickets: texasrangers.com or (800) 745-3000.