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Rangers Opening Day outlook

Rangers Opening Day outlook

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The Rangers' biggest accomplishment in Spring Training was getting their players back from the World Baseball Classic healthy. They were most concerned about closer Francisco Cordero pitching for the Dominican Republic because of his tender shoulder, but a series of events led to that not happening.

So Cordero looks strong going into the season, heading a bullpen that also includes right-handers Joaquin Benoit and Akinori Otsuka and left-hander Brian Shouse.

The Rangers weren't so lucky with Adam Eaton, who suffered an injury to his right middle finger that is expected to cause him to miss as much as three months of the season. He was slated to be a part of a solid front of the rotation that includes Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla and Kameron Loe. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey won the fifth starter's job, but slides up into the fourth spot, while Juan Dominguez moves into the rotation at No. 5.

Rookie Ian Kinsler claimed second base, joining an All-Star infield of first baseman Mark Teixeira, shortstop Michael Young and third baseman Hank Blalock. The Rangers like their offense and, more importantly, they feel better about their pitching.

BATTING ORDER
1. Brad Wilkerson, LF:
The Rangers wanted a leadoff hitter with a high on-base percentage. Wilkerson has the fifth-best on-base percentage for a leadoff hitter over the past four seasons in the Majors. But his aching shoulder is a concern.

2. Michael Young, SS:
He led the American League in hitting in 2005 and has batted over .300 with at least 200 hits and 100 runs scored over the past three seasons. His goal is to be a better defensive shortstop.

3. Mark Teixeira, 1B:
This guy is a definite Most Valuable Player candidate, batting .301 with 43 home runs and 144 RBIs in 2005. A switch-hitter, most of his damage was done from the left side. He won a Gold Glove for his defense.

4. Phil Nevin, DH:
Nevin is a crucial piece to the Rangers offense. If he can be the run producer he was in San Diego, it will give the Rangers a needed right-handed bat in the middle of the order and help replace Alfonso Soriano's offense.

5. Hank Blalock, 3B:
He is not coming off a great year but has more game-winning hits and go-ahead RBIs than any Ranger over the past three years. He also led the AL in fielding at his position in 2005.

6. Kevin Mench, RF:
He hit .185 with runners in scoring position last year. He also hit 25 home runs with 73 RBIs, and the Rangers think he can take that to 30 home runs and 100 RBIs.

7. Laynce Nix , CF:
He went on the disabled list on July 15 last year because of a shoulder injury. Eventually had surgery on both shoulders. Came on strong at the end of Spring Training to win a job. In his career, he has hit .256 against RHP but just .196 vs. LHP.

8. Rod Barajas, C:
He is solid defensively and respected by his pitchers for ability to call a game. He threw out 21 of 65 baserunners attempting to steal and was throwing well in Spring Training. He has 36 home runs in 768 at-bats over the past two years.

9. Ian Kinsler, 2B:
Kinsler is a rookie who put up some strong offensive numbers over the past two years in the Minors. He switched from shortstop to second base a year ago so his ability to play defense will be crucial.

ROTATION
1. Kevin Millwood, RHP:
He was the big free-agent signing of the offseason after leading the AL in ERA for the Indians in 2005. A guy who has won at least 17 games three times in his career, Millwood is expected to be the ace of the staff.

2. Vicente Padilla, RHP:
He won 14 games in both 2002 and 2003 but a total of 16 since then. The Rangers need at least 14. Padilla loves to throw the fastball, but the Rangers want him to use more breaking and off-speed stuff.

3. Kameron Loe, RHP:
This is a guy who has a boa constrictor for a pet, which reflects his toughness on the mound. A big-time ground-ball pitcher who throws strikes, he was 4-2 with a 2.70 ERA in eight starts as a rookie last year.

4. R.A. Dickey, RHP:
This will be his first full season as a knuckleball pitcher. Usually it takes longer to master the pitch, but the Rangers feel he is ready to compete against big-league hitters. He needs to throw strikes with multiple movement.

5. John Koronka, LHP:
Koronka, acquired Friday from the Cubs in a three-team deal, is getting this chance because Eaton is down for three months with a hand injury. The 25-year-old made his Major League debut last June 1, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers, and was 1-0 with a 3.75 ERA in 10 innings this spring.

BULLPEN
Closer Cordero was an All-Star in 2004 and has 86 saves over the past two seasons. There was some concern about his shoulder in Spring Training, but he finished strong and looks ready for the season. The Rangers hold an option on him for next season at $6 million, which can only help in the motivation department.

Otsuka was acquired to be the right-handed setup reliever, and the Rangers were impressed with the way he pitched during the World Baseball Classic. They like his toughness on the mound and his reputation for being a great teammate in the clubhouse.

Benoit is another crucial piece. He has bounced back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen the past four years but seemed to find a niche as a reliever last year with a 1.30 ERA in 23 games.

Shouse remains the top left-handed reliever, likely to be used in lefty-vs.-lefty situations. Left-handed hitters batted .188 off him last year.

C.J. Wilson had a 2.73 ERA in 18 relief appearances last year and bristles with confidence. The Rangers see him as a potential power left-handed reliever, often bringing up the role that Neal Cotts played for the White Sox last year.

OPENING DELAYED
Eaton has a strained tendon on the middle finger of his right hand and is expected to miss three months.

Outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. is expected to start the season on the disabled list with a strained rib-cage muscle but should be ready at some point during the April.

Left-handed starter Brian Anderson is still recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery and the Rangers are hoping he can be an option by June 1.

Right-handed relievers Ryan Bukvich and Frank Francisco are also recovering from Tommy John surgery and should miss the first month or two. Bukvich is ahead of Francisco and could be a bullpen option sometime in the first half.

BURNING QUESTION
Pitching remains the single biggest issue on the Rangers, a team that finished 12th in the AL with a 4.96 ERA in 2005. Since the start of the 2000 season, the Rangers' 5.26 team ERA is the highest in the AL.

The Rangers made significant changes in the offseason but there is still much that needs to be proven on the field. Millwood is the Rangers' No. 1 starter after leading the league in ERA in 2005, but he has won just nine games in each of the last two years.

Padilla hasn't won more than nine games in each of the past two seasons, Eaton has never won more than 11 games in a season, Loe is in his first full season as a starter and Dickey is a question mark.

Even in the bullpen, closer Cordero's ERA went from 2.13 in 2004 to 3.39 last year, Otsuka went from 1.75 in 2004 to 3.59 last year and Benoit has never had a full season as a reliever.

Maybe the biggest issue of all is if Roger Clemens will eventually join the mix. The Rangers wait to see if he'll come out of retirement in May and want to pitch for a team in contention.

Owner Tom Hicks was asked what would happen if Clemens decided he wanted to pitch in May and the Rangers' pitching was so good that they didn't need him.

Said Hicks, "I think we'll take the call."

ON THE RECORD
"There are a lot of guys here who feel we should win the division title and we'll be disappointed if we don't." -- Nevin

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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