ARLINGTON -- After a seismic offseason of New York Yankees proportions, the Rangers hope for a more tranquil Spring Training as they prepare to defend their American League championship. The dream of tranquility may prove elusive. The Rangers head to Arizona bracing for unprecedented media coverage of pitcher Yu Darvish and the arrival of outfielder Josh Hamilton. They have contract situations that remain unsettled, injuries that need evaluating and questions that remain unanswered about the composition of their Opening Day roster. Their rotation may be set if the Rangers are committed to moving Alexi Ogando back to the bullpen, but there is still some unknown about Neftali Feliz moving into the rotation.
Add the fact that the Rangers are coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Cardinals in the World Series, it becomes clear this won't be just another ordinary Spring Training in Surprise, Ariz. But general manager Jon Daniels is quick to point out that the Rangers have handled multiple titanic issues in the past, from ownership change and franchise bankruptcy to manager Ron Washington's cocaine admission two years ago and Michael Young's rancorous position switch last year. Given what the Rangers have gone through in the past, Daniels remains confident his team can handle whatever confronts it this spring.
"You name it and this team has dealt with it and thrived on it," Daniels said. "That's a direct reflection on Wash and the leadership in the clubhouse, the players and the staff. These guys come to Spring Training ready to play and don't let anything distract them.
"We want to embrace and celebrate what was accomplished and reward the people that made it possible, but you need to turn the page at some point. What I have been encouraged by is in talking to people and the meetings we've had, our players and staff are hungry. They are as hungry and as motivated as ever. If we can keep that mentality, we can keep this going."
Pitchers and catchers report on Wednesday. Both Darvish and Hamilton are expected to be in camp at some point around that date. Darvish will be greeted by approximately 170 Japanese media waiting to chronicle his every move.
Hamilton won't have that kind of reception but there is still interest in how he is dealing with his recovery from substance abuse after a relapse last month and there is still the matter of his contract.
Hamilton remains unsigned beyond this year and can be a free agent after the season. Contract discussions with his agent, Mike Moye, have been tabled while he is dealing with his current situation and there are no plans to resume those anytime soon. Hamilton's arbitrary deadline of having something done by the beginning of Spring Training is no longer in play.
"There is no deadline," Daniels said. "Given what transpired last month, everybody has agreed this is not the time to look at that. The priority is his recovery and his family and, second, getting ready for the season and not let the contract get in the way. We may address that at some point, but we'll handle it privately. I don't know if it will be this spring or a later date."
There are other players that could have their contracts addressed at some point in Spring Training. The list includes, but may not be limited to, pitchers Derek Holland and Colby Lewis, catcher Mike Napoli, second baseman Ian Kinsler and outfielder Nelson Cruz.
"We've had discussions with a few guys about extensions," Daniels said. "Obviously, at this point, they haven't resulted in a contract. In our situation, over the next few years we are going to have quite a number of players in the range of free agency. We have some decisions to make but we don't want it to be a distraction."
Those conversations will be held behind closed doors although media speculation on individual players will likely be rampant from reporting date until the Rangers break camp.
On the field, the Rangers still have to put their 2012 team together. Darvish will draw the most attention on the pitching staff as he makes the transition from Japan to the United States. But Feliz is making the transition from All-Star closer to first-year starter and that could end up being the most important baseball story in camp.
"I'm going to be measuring him by his work ethic and how he takes on the workload of being a starter as opposed to the workload of being a reliever," Washington said. "Other than that, we believe this guy can handle the job. He just has to condition himself to the different workload. But this is something he wants to do and we gave him enough time to prepare. I think he'll seize it."
With Feliz in the rotation along with Darvish, Holland, Lewis and Matt Harrison, the Rangers' plan is still to Ogando back to the bullpen. That would give the club four right-handed setup relievers in Ogando, Mike Adams, Mark Lowe and Koji Uehara with Scott Feldman and Yoshinori Tateyama as potential middle relievers. Left-handed relief is still unsettled.
Joe Nathan will be in camp as the closer. The Rangers signed him on Nov. 22, which seems like an eternity ago after this tumultuous offseason. Nathan, 37, was a four-time All-Star with the Twins but is also less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery and it can not be automatically assumed that he will get through Spring Training without any problems.
Washington knows that for all that's going on around the Rangers, health remains the No. 1 goal for his team in Spring Training. The Rangers may have a set rotation but Ogando and Feldman will still be "stretched out" as starters right to the end.
The Rangers still have to see how Mitch Moreland recovers from offseason wrist surgery and how close Napoli is recovered from his strained right groin muscle. Don't forget that Adams also had hernia surgery in the offseason and may not be at full strength at the beginning of camp.
"As we head into camp, we're pretty solid," Washington said. "The key is to make sure everybody is healthy. We've got some spots we have to look hard at and make some decisions but we're pretty solid for the most part."
Center field is the biggest question mark in the lineup. Craig Gentry is the favorite going in but Julio Borbon and Leonys Martin will get their chance. Hamilton will likely stay in left but Washington said he could still play some in center.
"We've got some depth there and plenty of talent," Washington said. "We'll let it play out. We'll judge the growth of the guys fighting for a job and make a decision."
Position battles are a normal part of Spring Training. The Rangers haven't been known lately for having normal springs and this one most likely won't either.
But that hasn't stopped the Rangers from going to two straight World Series, and that remains their singular goal above all else.
|"You name it and this team has dealt with it and thrived on it. That's a direct reflection on Wash and the leadership in the clubhouse, the players and the staff. These guys come to Spring Training ready to play and don't let anything distract them."|
|-- GM Jon Daniels|
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.