Rangers' core keeps eyes on the prize

Rangers' core keeps eyes on the prize

ARLINGTON -- The Rangers are returning to the baseball field after another short offseason. Less than four months after their heartbreaking loss to the Cardinals in the World Series, the Rangers are ready to get back to the task of defending their American League pennant.

Officially the task begins on Feb. 22 when Rangers pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. But that remains a superfluous date. Because the Rangers have one of the best Spring Training facilities in all of baseball, players are already working out in Arizona and much of the squad will already be there by Feb. 22. Derek Holland showed up in Arizona in the middle of January to begin his preparation.

"I just can't wait to get started again," Holland said.

The Rangers, after another eventful offseason, should have another strong team quite capable of returning to the World Series for a third straight year. There is still a question of how they will handle the difficult loss to the Cardinals in the World Series -- especially the unforgettable Game 6 -- and the Rangers also know that the competition is going to be tougher in their own division.

But the Rangers' plan does not change and never has under Ron Washington.

"We're going to prepare to play baseball," Washington said. "That's what we always do. These guys know what they're doing and what it takes to win. They've learned over the years that you just focus every day on what you have to do to win a baseball game. That's what we do and what we're going to do."

The Rangers have lost a couple of key players -- most notably starter C.J. Wilson and reliever Darren Oliver -- but they have signed Joe Nathan to be their closer and Japanese superstar Yu Darvish to join their rotation. The lineup remains unchanged despite a brief flirtation with Prince Fielder at one point.

Wilson is now with the Angels, who also added free-agent first baseman Albert Pujols and expect to be a much more formidable opponent in what will likely be a two-team race in the American League West. The Rangers are ready to get the race started.

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 22.

Full squad reports

Feb. 25.

First Spring Training game

Home vs. Royals, March 4 1:05 p.m. CT

Opening Day

Home vs. White Sox, April 6, 1:05 p.m. CT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. What will the Rangers' rotation look like with the addition of Darvish?
The initial plan is for Darvish to be the No. 3 starter behind Colby Lewis and Holland, and ahead of Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz. Alexi Ogando, who won 13 games last season as a starter, is going back to the bullpen. The Rangers will still stretch him out in Spring Training so that he could go into the rotation in case of injury. But at this point, Darvish will make his Major League debut on April 8 against the White Sox in a nationally-televised Sunday night game.

2. How will Feliz do as a starter?
He has started in the Minor Leagues so this is not new to him. But, after two years as a closer, there are some checkpoints. He needs durability and stamina. He needs to refine his curveball and his changeup. He needs to pick up his pace and be economical with his pitches. He averaged 15.9 pitches per inning in 2010. That will work. His rate of 17.1 in 2011 is a little too high. Look, one more pitch per inning over 200 innings is basically two extra games pitched. The Rangers' main five starters last year averaged between 16.0 to 16.2 pitches per inning.

3. Who will play center field?
Spring Training means more talk about the need to keep Josh Hamilton fresh by playing him in left field. Over the past two years, he has started 168 games in left and just 59 in center. But in the playoffs, he has started 30 times in center and three in left. Craig Gentry will get first chance to win the center-field job. Julio Borbon, who was the Opening Day center fielder the past two years, will also get a chance to re-establish himself as a Major League player. Leonys Martin will be there in case both stumble.

2011 record
96-66, first in the AL West

Projected batting order
1. 2B Ian Kinsler:
  .255 BA, .355 OBP, .477 SLG, 32 HR, 77 RBI in 2011
2. SS Elvis Andrus:
  .279 BA, .347 OBP, .361 SLG, 5 HR, 60 RBI in 2011
3. LF Josh Hamilton:
  .298 BA, .346 OBP, .536 SLG, 25 HR, 94 RBI in 2011
4. 3B Adrian Beltre:
  .296 BA, .331 OBP, .561 SLG, 32 HR, 105 RBI in 2011
5. DH Michael Young:
  .338 BA, .380 OBP, .474 SLG, 11 HR, 106 RBI in 2011
6. RF Nelson Cruz:
  .263 BA, .312 OBP, .509 SLG, 29 HR, 87 RBI in 2011
7. C Mike Napoli:
  .320 BA, .414 OBP, .631 SLG, 30 HR, 75 RBI in 2011
8. 1B Mitch Moreland:
  .259 BA, .320 OBP, .414 SLG, 16 HR, 51 RBI in 2011
9. CF Craig Gentry:
  .271 BA, .347 OBP, .346 SLG, 1 HR, 13 RBI in 2011

Projected rotation
1. Colby Lewis, 14-10, 4.40 ERA in 2011
2. Derek Holland, 16-5, 3.95 ERA in 2011
3. Yu Darvish, first year
4. Matt Harrison, 14-9, 3.39 ERA in 2011
5. Neftali Feliz, 2-3, 2.74 ERA in 2011

Projected bullpen
Closer: Joe Nathan, 14/17 saves, 4.84 ERA in 2011
RH setup man: Alexi Ogando , 3.51 ERA in 2011
RH setup man: Mike Adams, 1.47 ERA in 2011
RH setup man: Mark Lowe, 3.80 ERA in 2011

The new guys
P Yu Darvish: The 25-year-old right-hander was 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA for the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2011 while striking out 276 batters in 232 innings. He had an ERA under 2.00 in each of the last five seasons. He has some adjustments to make: increased workload, Major League hitters and the Texas heat. The Rangers are also bracing for a big media blitz.

P Joe Nathan: He had a six-year run as one of the premier relief pitchers in the American League before missing all of 2010 because of elbow reconstruction surgery. He had a 7.63 ERA in his first 17 games last year before going on the disabled list on May 29 with a strained right flexor muscle. He had a 3.38 ERA and was 11-for-12 in save opportunities in his final 31 games after being activated off the DL. He is 37 and health will be the key for him in replacing Feliz as the closer.

1B-OF Conor Jackson: He was a late addition as a Minor League invite. He is a right-handed hitter who can play first base or left field. He gives the Rangers a possible right-handed option at the corner behind David Murphy and Mitch Moreland but is a long-shot to make the team.

LHP Joe Beimel and Mitch Stetter: The Rangers are looking for a left-handed reliever to replace Darren Oliver in the bullpen. These two veterans will both get a long look in Spring Training with a chance to make the team as a left-handed reliever. The Rangers are also looking at Michael Kirkman.

Prospects to watch
CF Leonys Martin: Signed by the Rangers in May, the Cuban outfielder was a September callup and was 3-for-8 with a double in eight games. A left-handed hitter who throws right-handed, he played in 73 games combined at Double A Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock, hitting .295 in 302 at-bats with 53 runs scored, 16 doubles, five triples, four home runs and 42 RBIs. He also had 19 stolen bases. He is third in line for the job in center field but could move up quickly.

LHP Martin Perez: He turns 21 just before Opening Day. He was 4-2 with a 3.16 ERA in 16 starts and one relief appearance at Double-A Frisco, and 4-4 with a 6.43 ERA in 10 starts at Triple-A Round Rock. He is ranked 29th on MLB.Com's Top 100 prospect list. He could win a job as a left-handed reliever in the bullpen but will most likely start the season in Triple-A.

1B-3B Mike Olt: The 49th overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, he has played in 142 Minor League games and hit .279 with a .386 on-base percentage and .482 slugging percentage. He has 24 home runs and 89 RBIs. He has never played above Double-A, but he did lead the Arizona Fall League in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage. He has only played third base in the Minors, but the Rangers are going to look at him at first base this spring. He is ranked 43rd on MLB.Com's top 100 prospect list.

RHP Neil Ramirez: The 44th overall pick in the 2007 Draft, he made 25 starts at three different levels and was 5-3 with a 3.12 ERA. He made 18 starts at Triple-A and was 4-3 with a 3.63 ERA, striking out 86 in 74 innings while giving up 63 hits and 35 walks. He will likely start the season at Triple-A Round Rock.

LHP Robert Ross: The Rangers' second-round pick in 2008, he was 10-5 with a 2.34 ERA in 26 starts and one relief appearance at Class A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Frisco. He made six starts at Frisco with a 2.34 ERA. Overall he struck out 134 and walked just 33 with a 1.041 WHIP.

On the rebound
1B Mitch Moreland: He had offseason surgery on his right wrist, which bothered him for much of the second half of last season. He made his Major League debut on July 29, 2010 and in his first 119 games, including the playoffs, he hit .294 with 18 home runs, 52 RBIs, a .374 on-base percentage and a .492 slugging percentage. But in his last 86 games last year including the playoffs, he hit .212 with a .271 on-base percentage and a .346 slugging percentage. The wrist was clearly a significant factor but he is expected to be at full strength early in Spring Training.

1B-OF Brad Hawpe: A former All-Star outfielder with the Rockies, the Padres signed him to be their first baseman last year and he hit .231 with four home runs, 19 RBIs, a .301 on-base percentage and a .344 slugging percentage. He underwent elbow reconstruction surgery and did not play after June 18. The Rangers signed him to a Minor League contract as depth in case Moreland has a setback.

RHP Scott Feldman: A 17-game winner for the Rangers in 2009, he has been trying to recover from a knee injury the past two year. He had a 3.94 ERA in nine relief appearances and two starts in the second half last season, then posted a 3.29 ERA in nine relief appearances in the playoffs while opponents hit .174 off him. His playoff work has re-established Feldman as a significant part of the Rangers bullpen.

LHP Michael Kirkman: He had a 1.65 ERA in 14 relief appearances for the Rangers in 2010 and a 6.59 ERA in 15 appearances last season. At Triple-A, he went from a 3.09 ERA in 2010 to 5.05 last season. His WHIP also went up from 1.397 to 1.699. He is trying to win a job as a left-handed setup reliever.

Long gone
LHP C.J. Wilson: The Rangers' No. 1 starter in 2011 has signed with the Angels. The Rangers expect Darvish and/or Feliz to make up for his loss. But Wilson had two good years for the Rangers as a starter, understanding how to pitch in the heat and at The Ballpark in Arlington.

LHP Darren Oliver: The Rangers let their best left-handed reliever get away to the Blue Jays. They have not identified a replacement going into Spring Training. Left-handed relief will be an ongoing story in Spring Training for the Rangers.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.