Rangers looking forward after coming so close

The Texas Rangers used to go to spring training trying to fill out a starting rotation and hoping to get out of last place in the AL West.

When the Rangers report to camp this week, they will have Japan’s top pitcher and four returners who won at least 13 games last year. There are at least seven potential starters, even after losing their ace in free agency.

The Rangers will be taking the first step in their quest to get to their third consecutive World Series, and insist there will be no hangover after being so agonizingly close to winning it all last season.

“We’re every bit of a championship team, we just didn’t get that last out,” said Michael Young, the longest-tenured Ranger going into his 12th season. “We’ll definitely use it for motivation, but at the same time, if anything, we just want to go out there and prove how good a team we are all over again.”

Yu Darvish, the 25-year-old Japanese right-hander the Rangers committed more than $107 million to sign this winter, arrived at the spring training complex in Surprise, Ariz., on Tuesday, a day before the reporting date for Texas pitchers and catchers and two days before the team’s first official workout.

The first full-squad workout is Sunday. That will be the first time the entire team is on the field together since those last two World Series games in St. Louis last October, when they were twice within one pitch of winning a clinching Game 6 before losing in 11 innings. They then led 2-0 only four batters into Game 7 before losing 6-2.

As for what manager Ron Washington planned to tell his players to start spring training, he said he’s had many thoughts and written down several things. He said whatever he tells them will be private, unlike that secretly recorded audio of his clubhouse speech before Game 7 that was released on the Internet.

“You can’t get bogged down in the fact that we didn’t win it,” team president Nolan Ryan said. “You have to consider the year and all the good things that happened, and the opportunity to go back-to-back years and hope that not winning it can be a motivation for having another good year. We feel like we’re a good ball club, we feel like that we have some options this year going into spring training.”

The top-hitting lineup in the majors will be basically unchanged. The Rangers avoided salary arbitration with new deals earlier this month for slugging outfielder and ALCS MVP Nelson Cruz, catcher Mike Napoli and shortstop Elvis Andrus.

With those settled, the Rangers can look at possible extensions for second baseman and leadoff hitter Ian Kinsler and some of their young pitchers.

Josh Hamilton, the 2010 AL MVP, can become a free agent after this season. Talks about an extension were put on hold after the recovering drug addict’s admitted one-night relapse with alcohol during the offseason.

Hamilton hit .298 with 25 home runs in 121 games last season, when he missed six weeks with a broken bone in his arm, then had sports hernia surgery in November after playing injured throughout the postseason.

The Rangers and Hamilton were talking about a new deal and the slugger had said he wouldn’t have contract talks once spring training started. But that all changed after his night out in Dallas on Jan. 30. He is undergoing counseling and expected to be a full participant in spring training.

“Given what transpired last month, everyone involved agrees it’s just not time to look at that,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “The priority needs to be his recovery and his family, and then secondarily getting ready for the season. We’re not going to get in the way of those things with contract talk.”

Daniels said he expected to talk again “at some point” with Mike Moye, Hamilton’s agent, but said he didn’t know if that would be during the spring.

Darvish, who had a 93-38 record with a 1.99 ERA in 167 games the past seven years in Japan’s Pacific League, signed a six-year contract that guarantees him $56 million. The Rangers also had to pay a record $51,703,411 posting bid to his former team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

C.J. Wilson, who won 31 games for Texas the last two seasons after making the transition from the bullpen, left in free agency and is now pitching for the AL West rival Los Angeles Angels.

All five of the Rangers’ opening day starters remained in the rotation all last season. That group included Wilson, Colby Lewis (14-10), Derek Holland (16-5), Matt Harrison (14-9) and Alexi Ogando (13-8), an All-Star starter after joining the rotation at the end of last spring.

Scott Feldman was a 17-game winner for Texas in 2009 before right knee surgery. And the Rangers have already decided to switch hard-throwing closer Neftali Feliz to the rotation, a move possible because of the offseason addition of veteran closer Joe Nathan.

The 32-year-old Lewis, who was originally drafted by Texas in 1999 and returned two years ago after his two seasons in Japan, is the only Rangers starter not in his 20s.

“That’s certainly our hope that we’ve got not just a group that’s ready to perform now but can perform over a period of time at a high level,” Daniels said. “Outside of Colby you can make a pretty strong case that everyone else in the rotation, or candidate for the rotation, has yet to reach their potential. That’s what’s exciting about it for me.”