SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers believe they proved last year they can win with pitching and defense.
They scored 117 less runs than the year before and still won eight more games. That's the plan again this year. Pitching and defense remain No. 1 in manager Ron Washington's mind.
The Rangers still have something else to prove this spring. There is still a question if they are the great offensive powerhouse they were perceived to be prior to last year.
"Yeah, because they have experience and they have potential," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. "You have Mike Young in there, you have Josh Hamilton, you have guys like Chris Davis, who has a lot of potential. I think Elvis Andrus will be an awfully good player. They are maturing, but to have a guy like Mike Young in the lineup to help educate them and lead by example is pretty special.
"Now, they have Vladimir [Guerrero]. On paper there are a lot of guys that can do some damage ... I almost left out Ian Kinsler. That is a good lineup. They have some talent."
That part is obvious. With Young, Hamilton, Guerrero, Kinsler and Nelson Cruz, the Rangers have five hitters who have combined for 17 All-Star selections. Guerrero was the American League Most Valuable Player in 2004. Young won a batting title and has hit better than .300 in six of the past seven seasons. Hamilton led the league in RBIs in '08.
Talent alone is not enough. There are three areas to watch as the Rangers try to regain their offensive prowess.
Rangers' offense: 2009 vs. 2008
How the Rangers did offensively in '09 vs. '08, along with the club record in each category.
Put the bat on the ball
When Guerrero, a powerful right-handed hitter, was with the Angels, the Rangers used a shift against him, putting three infielders on the left side, leaving a big hole on the right side of the diamond. Guerrero insisted that did not bother him.
"Sometimes they gave me a hit because they switched to the other side and I hit it the other way," Guerrero said.
Simple but effective. The Angels proved again last year the value of putting the bat on the ball. They scored 99 more runs than the Rangers even though they had 51 less home runs. The difference was they struck out 199 less times.
The Rangers led the league in strikeouts. They had the highest percentage of swings-and-misses and the fourth lowest percentage of pitches put in play. The Rangers can make their offense better by putting the bat on the ball more.
"When I talked to these guys, they were very honest about themselves," new hitting coach Clint Hurdle said. "They talked about too many fly balls and too many strikeouts. They were grounded before I talked to them.
"It comes down to three things: game execution and awareness of what each at-bat means; holding ourselves to championship execution in all fundamentals and trusting your ability."
The Rangers know they have some big hitters who take big rips. That leads to strikeouts. But Hurdle talks about having a plan before you go up there and understanding why you got to two strikes in the first place. Washington talks about choking up and shortening a swing with two strikes.
"That's something we're going to work on this spring," Washington said. "By the time the season starts, we should have a good idea."
Guerrero has a reputation for being a big swinger. But he has never struck out 100 times in a season. Over 162 games, he averages 76 strikeouts and 60 walks. He is a career .232 hitter with two strikes. The Rangers hit .176 with two strikes last year.
Here's the situation
How the Rangers did in various situational hitting categories.
BA with two strikes
BA with RISP
"I've seen Vlad get behind 0-2 and then take three really tough pitches right off the strike zone," Young said. "Now all of a sudden you have to throw him a pitch."
Patience, patience, patience
The Rangers had the third fewest walks in the league last year, leading to the third lowest on-base percentage. They swung at the first pitch more than any other team and had the fewest percentage of pitches taken. In short, their patience was at a minimum and it showed up in their run total.
"It's making your at-bats longer," Washington said. "You go up there and strike out in three or four pitches, that's a useless at-bat. Even if you strike out in seven or eight pitches, now that's an advantage. If you go up there and fight and foul pitches off, you get more pitches out of a pitcher. That's an advantage."
Hamilton led the league in swinging at the most first pitches last year. He let it rip on 49.6 of first pitches thrown to him. The Rangers had six in the top 20.
"It comes down to this," Hamilton said. "If I swing at the pitches I'm supposed to hit and lay off the ones I'm not supposed to swing at, I'll be fine."
The Rangers walked 123 less times in '09 than they did the year before. That led to a 32-point drop in their on-base percentage. That proved significant.
The Rangers have an arsenal of speed, something they did not have during the many great offensive years of 1996-2008. They stole 149 bases last year, second most in the AL and third most in club history.
That could go up this year. They'll have Julio Borbon for a full season. He stole 19 bases in 46 games last year. Andrus stole 33 as a rookie. First-base coach Gary Pettis said both could steal 50 this year.
The Rangers do not run at will. With Pettis guiding them, the Rangers were successful on 80.5 percent of attempted steals, the best in the AL. They had the third best in both '08 and '07. Over the past four years, Kinsler has been successful on 87.5 percent of attempted steals, the highest rate in the AL.
Under Washington and Pettis, the Rangers work hard to get the maximum effectiveness out of the speed they have.
"We take advantage of what the opposition gives us," Washington said. "We do our homework on a pitcher, not only on what he's throwing us but his delivery to the plate. We've got the athletes to do it so let's take advantage of it."
Kinsler stole 31 bases last year. He will bat fifth this year but will still have license to steal. Washington envisions Kinsler's basestealing ability in the fifth spot forcing pitchers to throw more fastballs to Cruz and Davis hitting behind him.
"I'm not going to stop Kinsler," Washington said. "I'm going to let him play his game."
Cruz thinks he can steal 30 bases after swiping 20 last year. Hamilton, if he can stay healthy, might be good for 15-20.
The 1996 Colorado Rockies are the only team in history that has ever had at least 200 home runs and 200 stolen bases in the same season.
Throw in a few walks and that would be a great offensive team.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.