Rangers continue quest for pitching

Rangers continue quest for pitching

ARLINGTON -- A new year is here and there are still a few things that remain unknown about the 2009 Rangers.

As the Rangers offices reopen for business after a holiday break, they're less than three weeks away from the Sluggers of the West Banquet (Jan. 23) and FanFest (Jan. 24) and less than six weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting (Feb. 14) to Spring Training. But questions still hang in the winter air.

We still don't know if the Rangers will be able to trade Kevin Millwood or Vicente Padilla to a team that's looking for starting pitching and doesn't want to get hooked into a long-term contract with a free-agent pitcher. Padilla and Millwood both have one or two years remaining on their contracts -- depending on options and other contract clauses -- but there's also no guarantee that if the Rangers do move one of those two pitchers, they'll still be able to move on Ben Sheets.

Sheets is one of many brand-name pitchers caught in free-agent limbo while clubs ponder what kind of impact the nation's slumping economy has on the industry. But club president Nolan Ryan was warning long ago that money would be tight this winter, and the Rangers' approach to free agency certainly has reflected his prognosis.

The Rangers will likely get involved with somebody at some point -- Tim Redding's name inexplicably keeps coming up -- but at some point they have to decide if one of these veteran free-agent starters who has had some combination of experience, success and injury at the big league level is better than giving an extended chance to Brandon McCarthy, Eric Hurley, Scott Feldman, Dustin Nippert or even Thomas Diamond. Or Derek Holland or Neftali Feliz.

Remember the Rangers were able to add both Sidney Ponson and John Patterson in Spring Training last year. Patterson never made it back, but Ponson was one of the Rangers' most reliable pitchers in May before clashing with management. The list of pitchers looking for jobs could be much longer this spring and that could give the Rangers extra time to evaluate their own before adding from outside.

We still don't know if the Rangers will be able to trade Hank Blalock for pitching. That seems to be one option they've been exploring this winter, and the Giants, Angels and Orioles are among the teams that need a corner infielder with power or just another offensive threat somewhere in their lineup.

But with free-agent bats like Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell, Garret Anderson and others still out there, clubs are probably not interested in giving up good young pitching right now. It's still more likely right now that Blalock will go into Spring Training as the Rangers' designated hitter and that's not a displeasing option if he's healthy again.

Hot Stove

Milton Bradley is gone, but if the Rangers get productive full seasons from Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis, then Blalock is sitting in the heart of another powerful offense.

We still don't know if the Rangers will make another trade involving their catchers. The Red Sox still seem to like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but they haven't given in to the Rangers' demands yet. Instead they signed Josh Bard and still might get Jason Varitek back. The Marlins, with young pitching in their farm system, are likely to continue talks with the Rangers and it didn't hurt that Max Ramirez is enjoying a terrific winter in Venezuela.

We do know the Rangers will continue to look at the bullpen, although it's not clear yet if it's more important to add another option at closer -- Chad Cordero or Jason Isringhausen -- or grab another left-handed pitcher. The Rangers do know that Eddie Guardado helps both ways.

We also don't know what the Rangers will do at third base, although it doesn't seem to be a priority. Joe Crede, who has a bad back, is still out there, but the Rangers would be content with Travis Metcalf if they can upgrade in other areas. That's especially true if the offense is as good as they hope.

Pitching is still the main issue and there is still one thing we do know: General manager Jon Daniels and his lieutenants -- despite operating on a limited budget -- will be doing everything they can between now and Spring Training to make it better. It's just unknown exactly how they will accomplish that.

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