Commentary

Guerrero knows his health is top priority

Updated: January 12, 2010, 12:09 AM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Perhaps no team this offseason has pinched more out of its pennies than the Texas Rangers.

For a cash-strapped franchise going through a change in ownership, Texas has been mighty active this offseason. General manager Jon Daniels has made trades to free up some money and spent the biggest chunk of change on a front-line starting pitcher and a big right-handed bat.

[+] EnlargeVlad Guerrero, Ron Washington
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezManager Ron Washington is happy to be able to pencil Vladimir Guerrero's name into the lineup as the Rangers' primary designated hitter.

That bat -- wielded by Rangers killer Vladimir Guerrero -- was introduced to the media Monday shortly after the slugger passed his physical.

As with many bargains, this one comes with some risk. You don't get a career .321 hitter for about $5.5 million if he's completely healthy and has nothing to prove. The Rangers are not expecting the Guerrero who was the American League MVP in 2004.

But they do think he'll give them a solid presence in the middle of their lineup to bolster an offense that did not meet expectations in 2009.

"We've been on the bad end of this man's bat for the last six years and have taken some serious beatings from him," Daniels said. "We're pretty excited to watch him dole some of those out in our uniform."

Guerrero turns 35 in February, and he's coming off the toughest season of his career.

He hit .295 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs in 100 games for the Los Angeles Angels. At first glance, there's not a whole lot wrong with that, is there? But it was the lowest batting average of Guerrero's career. His on-base percentage, at .334, was below his career numbers.

Injuries were the big reason. Guerrero had two stints on the disabled list in 2009, including one for a sprained left knee. The long stretches without game action likely contributed to the dip in Guerrero's numbers. At least that's what the Rangers are banking on.

Manager Ron Washington said that he'll play Guerrero primarily as a DH but that he'll get some time in the outfield. Washington said his top priority is keeping Guerrero healthy. The addition had Washington admitting he was ready to go to spring training this week.

"I'm excited," Washington said. "To me, he just made me as a manager look better. He just made the Texas Rangers as a team look better. I think he made every one of our players in that lineup better."

Let's not forget: Guerrero is still a feared hitter. It was something the Rangers lacked in the middle of their order last season. Marlon Byrd, who signed a three-year deal with the Cubs, played very well last season. But he doesn't have the reputation of Guerrero with opposing pitchers.

The Rangers had something similar to that with Milton Bradley in 2008. He was a consistent hitter who made life difficult on opposing pitchers. That, in turn, made life easier on those hitting in front of him. It certainly helped Josh Hamilton. Bradley, hitting cleanup, gave Hamilton some protection. And Hamilton responded by pounding the ball.

So what does it mean to have someone of Guerrero's caliber hitting behind Hamilton?

"It takes a little bit of pressure off," said Hamilton, who attended Monday's news conference with teammates Ian Kinsler and Michael Young. "It really does, knowing that he's there behind me with his presence. Now I have to do one thing: recognize pitches better. I can't swing at everything and have to let things come to me."

As for the notion that Hamilton will see some better pitches because pitchers know Guerrero is waiting on deck, Hamilton knows he has to prove he can lay off the breaking stuff before that formula works.

"Once I do that, it will really help," said Hamilton, who hit .268 with 10 homers and 54 RBIs in just 89 games last year as he dealt with injuries.

Guerrero said he's not going to try to change his approach. He wants to put the ball in play, go to all fields and show that he can stay healthy. He repeated the "staying healthy" phrase, through an interpreter, to nearly every question asked of him Monday. He knows that's the biggest question he must answer.

Assuming he answers it the right way, the Rangers have the makings of a formidable lineup. Washington said he plans to bat Guerrero at the cleanup spot with Hamilton in front of him and Kinsler behind him. Young would continue to hit in his customary No. 2 spot, with Julio Borbon leading off.

"It's a huge addition to our lineup," Young said. "It's the final piece to having an incredibly well-balanced lineup. We have everything a winning lineup needs to have. We have speed, we have power, we have guys who can be patient, we have young guys, we have veterans, we have switch-hitters in our lineup. We have everything we need to go out and generate some headaches around the league."

Guerrero's signing comes less than a month after the club traded Kevin Millwood to Baltimore for financial flexibility, signed several bullpen arms and got a contract done with starter Rich Harden. They also have agreed to terms with utility infielder Khalil Greene. The moves have positioned the Rangers to contend in the quickly improving AL West, which includes the free-spending Seattle Mariners, the always-tough Angels and the talent-rich Oakland A's.

It makes you wonder what Daniels & Co. might be able to do with some more money in their pockets, doesn't it?

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Richard Durrett joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He writes about colleges, the Dallas Stars and the Texas Rangers. Richard spent nine years at The Dallas Morning News covering the Rangers, Stars, colleges, motorsports and high schools.

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