Cactus League countdown: Texas Rangers

It’s hard to imagine any motivation greater than falling one strike short of winning the World Series, so it should come as no surprise that the Texas Rangers refused to sit back idly and concede the American League West to the free-spending Los Angeles Angels.

Following a stunning loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, the Rangers suffered another loss when No. 1 starter C.J. Wilson bolted for the division-rival Angels. With the Angels also opening up the vault to sign megastar first baseman Albert Pujols, the task of winning another AL West crown and a third consecutive World Series berth suddenly seemed much more daunting.

So how did the Rangers respond? They got better, too.

The Rangers first added closer Joe Nathan, allowing Neftali Feliz to slide into the rotation, then won the bidding for Japanese ace Yu Darvish. The Rangers paid the Nippon Ham Fighters nearly $52 million for negotiating rights and later inked the right-handed Darvish to a six-year deal worth $60 million.

Darvish, 25, serves as the answer to Wilson’s departure. He was an impressive 93-38 with a 1.99 ERA during seven seasons in Japan. He’ll certainly be the most-watched player in Rangers camp this spring, but if recent history is any indication, his success is no sure thing.

The likes of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kosuke Fukudome and Kei Igawa provide the recent examples of imported players failing to live up to enormous hype and the monstrous salaries that come with it. Darvish comes to Major League Baseball younger than those predecessors, however, and if he can come close to living up to advance billing, the Rangers’ rotation won’t miss a beat without Wilson.

Nathan, too, comes with questions following an unimpressive return from Tommy John surgery in 2011. While trying to regain arm strength, he pitched the fewest innings (44 2/3) and posted the highest ERA (4.84) of his career as a reliever, losing the closer’s job in Minnesota. The Rangers are hoping another year’s recovery time makes a difference.

While both moves came with risks, they also displayed a very clear commitment to winning by Nolan Ryan and the Rangers organization. They’ve spent big on pitching to back the powerful offense in place and also made cunning moves like the one that brought Mike Napoli to Texas. The front office in Arlington has become one of the most highly regarded in baseball, and the product that arrives in Surprise this spring will reflect the many reasons why.

The offseason in Texas brought more than introductory press conferences, though, as All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton suffered a second relapse in his recovery from alcohol addiction just weeks prior to the start of camp. The Rangers are proceeding cautiously with the 2010 AL MVP and have hired Shayne Kelley as an “accountability” assistant to mentor and work with Hamilton. He replaces Johnny Narron, who worked with Hamilton the previous four seasons before taking a coaching position with Milwaukee. Meanwhile, contract extension talks have been put on hold.

As long as the incident doesn’t have a serious effect on Hamilton’s mental state, he should remain the centerpiece of the Rangers’ lineup.

Most people would have scoffed at any team’s ability to keep up with the Angels’ improvements this offseason, but the Rangers were undaunted. They came up short in the pursuit of Prince Fielder, but they did enough to indicate they’re not about to back down.

Who’s new: Yu Darvish, SP (international posting); Joe Nathan, RP (free agent); Alberto Gonzalez, 2B (free agent); Joe Biemel, RP (free agent); Brad Hawpe, 1B (free agent); Conor Jackson, 1B (free agent); Brandon Snyder, 1B (trade, Baltimore).

Who’s gone: C.J. Wilson, SP (free agent, Los Angeles Angels); Darren Oliver, RP (free agent, Toronto); Endy Chavez, OF (free agent, Baltimore); Andres Blanco, SS (free agent, Washington); Michael Gonzalez, RP (free agent, unsigned); Taylor Teagarden, C (trade, Baltimore); Matt Treanor, C (trade, Dodgers).
 
Battle grounds: The Rangers would like to shift Hamilton to left field, creating an opening for Julio Borbon or Craig Gentry in center. The only issue? The Rangers like having David Murphy, a corner outfielder, in the lineup and might scrap plans to move Hamilton if Gentry or Borbon don’t impress in camp. …  Brandon Snyder will battle veterans Brad Hawpe and Conor Jackson for a bench spot and backup role at first base, a potentially important role if Mitch Moreland misses more time than expected after wrist surgery.

Health watch: Nathan struggled to regain his form in his first season back from Tommy John reconstructive surgery, losing the closer’s job in Minnesota. He’ll be watched closely. … Moreland had surgery on his right wrist during the offseason and could be behind at the start of camp. The Rangers expect him to be ready Opening Day, but they have the depth to withstand a brief absence. … Reliever Mike Adams is expected to report to camp late after having surgery to fix an abdominal hernia, but he’s expected to be ready come Opening Day.

Sneak preview: At just 20 years old, left-handed starter Martin Perez has plenty of time to develop, but he’s already done enough to earn an invite to big league camp. He struggled a bit after the move to Triple-A last season, posting a 6.43 ERA in 10 starts, but should be able to adjust and speed up his journey to the show. … Top outfield prospect Leonys Martin needed just one season to reach the majors after signing with the Rangers last May. He produced at the plate at every level except his brief stint in the majors after an August callup. He might need a little more work in the minors but should be arriving in the majors permanently soon and could be the long-term answer in center field.
 
Spring training info: Surprise Stadium, 15960 N. Bullard Ave., Surprise. First workouts Feb. 23 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 26 (full squad). First game: March 4. Tickets: texasrangers.com or (800) 745-3000.