Texas Rangers pitchers and catchers report to Surprise, Ariz., next Tuesday and the return of baseball can’t come soon enough for Texas fans.
It’s been an interesting offseason since the Rangers were bounced in the American League wild-card game by Baltimore last year. Josh Hamilton is gone. Michael Young too. So is Mike Napoli. A.J. Pierzynksi is now a Ranger. And Joakim Soria. And then there’s the Nelson Cruz saga.
Here’s a look at five key storylines for Texas as they prepare for spring training.
1. The Nelson Cruz PED allegations: Offseason issues are nothing new for the Rangers, who have dealt with a Josh Hamilton relapse, Ron Washington’s cocaine admission and Michael Young trade demands in recent springs. But the Cruz story is different because it will have an impact on the way the Rangers field their team this year. Cruz has denied the allegations through his lawyers. The Rangers have to hope that he’s telling the truth and that he’ll not be punished. If he is, the Rangers have to find a way to plug a gap in right field this year for what could be 50 games at some point this season. Spring will give them an opportunity to find his replacement, whether it’s going to be Mike Olt, Mitch Moreland or someone else. The club also has to deal with the off-the-field impact. Hopefully Cruz and the Rangers will address the situation quickly the way they have their other spring issues in the past. They don’t need this to linger.
2. The hunt for the No. 5 starter: As long as the Texas starters stay healthy this spring, the only real rotation battle is for the No. 5 starter. The good news for Texas is they have plenty of candidates. The bad news is that there’s no clear-cut favorite to be the placeholder until Colby Lewis is healthy. Lefty Martin Perez, right-hander Justin Grimm and lefty Robbie Ross could be the top three candidates. Perez winning the spot would make things the easiest, but he lost all three of his September starts last year. Grimm may need more time in the minors and even though Ross will be stretched out this spring, he may be too valuable in the bullpen to make the move back to starter. Veterans Kyle McClellan and Randy Wells could also figure in the mix. First-time invitees Cody Buckel and Nick Tepesch will also get a look. While they would figure to be longshots, the same could have been said about Ross making the roster out of spring last year. That turned out pretty well for Texas. 3.Finding a centerfielder: The Rangers really have two choices here and both will likely make the roster in Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin. If one of the two can step forward and win the job outright, it would make things easier. The Rangers could also platoon the right-handed hitting Gentry and the left-handed hitting Martin. Gentry hit .304 last year in 240 at-bats but may not be an everyday player. New hitting coach Dave Magadan said Martin has a limitless ceiling as far as hitting. That’s what the Rangers want to hear after investing $15.5 million in him. But he’s had just 54 at-bats with Texas over two years. He had a huge season in Round Rock, batting .359 with an OPS of 1.033. He still needs work defensively, where Gentry has the edge because he has better instincts. Julio Borbon and Engel Beltre will also be in camp but all eyes with be on Gentry and Martin.
4.Pitchers on the mend: The Rangers will have lots of talent on rehab programs when camp opens. Colby Lewis, Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria will be behind the healthy starters in camp but all should be able to contribute sometime this season. Soria, who is coming off his second Tommy John surgery, figures to be the first to help as he could be bullpen help as early as May. Lewis hopes to ease the concerns about a No. 5 starters this summer as he’s rehabbing from flexor tendon surgery. All has gone well in his rehab so far but the Rangers won’t know where he is until he’s on a mound this spring. Feliz, who is also coming off Tommy John, will be the last of the pitching trio who should be able to help. He played catch for the first time last month. A Texas bullpen late in the summer that includes both Soria and Feliz would be a huge boost to the Rangers.
5.Rebuilding the bullpen: Speaking of the bullpen, the Rangers are in a major rebuilding phase after losing Mike Adams and Koji Uehara to free agency. The Rangers are set at closer and will be fine with a set-up man once Soria is healthy. The club could use Ross in that role if he doesn’t make the rotation. Tanner Scheppers and Michael Kirkman also figures in the mix at the back end along with Josh Lindblom, who the Rangers picked up in the Michael Young trade. Free agent signee Jason Frasor could also help. And so could Kyle McClellan, who spent most of his time as a reliever with St. Louis. The materials are there for Texas to reconstruct the bullpen. The Rangers have to use the spring to find the correct way to construct it.