Commentary

Off-field issues have stolen spotlight

Rangers have found some answers this spring, but several questions remain

Updated: March 22, 2010, 2:02 PM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- In two weeks, the Texas Rangers will trot out of the dugout amid cheers from a sellout crowd on Opening Day.

We know most of the Rangers who will line up along the first-base line before facing the Toronto Blue Jays on April 5. But there are a few unknowns and some key decisions that must be made before the team breaks camp late next week.

Who are the final two starters for the rotation? Will the club stay with an internal candidate at utility infield? How will the bullpen be constructed if C.J. Wilson is a starter?

The Rangers have a good idea about some of the answers and are still searching on others. Let's take a look at some of the questions they faced coming into spring training and others that have popped up along the way. We'll see if we can find some answers.

Will Ron Washington's drug admission be a distraction?

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
Kirby Lee/US PresswireRon Washington has become the center of attention at Rangers camp for the wrong reasons.
A relatively quiet, businesslike spring training was rocked last week with the news that manager Washington used cocaine and failed a drug test last year. The players were told in a team meeting Wednesday morning and dealt with numerous questions about it for days afterward. Their mission is to forget about it and focus on the season.

"Going forward, I don't see it being a big issue at all," third baseman Michael Young said last week. "He made a mistake. He admitted it. He talked to the team about it. Guys were able to say their piece. … It won't be a distraction for the guys."

The challenge for Washington is to not let it distract him, either. It was an emotional few days for the manager, who apologized profusely and vowed not to let something like this happen again. He has to have the ability to put it behind him and worry about managing the team.

"It's going to be a test for Ron, and a test for us as an organization and a team," general manager Jon Daniels said. "We need to rally around it and support him. How adept will we be at blocking that stuff out? I think some of that falls on the front office to be able to properly read a situation, and every time we lose a game, we're not going to evaluate the season or Ron on a night-to-night basis.

"That's not baseball, and it's not how this thing works. Nothing's changed as far as we're concerned. We had high expectations coming into camp and we have high expectations as we sit here today."

Will the Rangers have two lefties in the rotation?

Yes, barring injuries or something unforeseen. Tommy Hunter's left oblique strain opened up a second spot in the rotation. If camp broke today, lefties C.J. Wilson and Matt Harrison would likely fill the openings, joining Rich Harden, Scott Feldman and Colby Lewis.

Wilson has pitched well enough to earn a starting spot, something he's worked toward all offseason. He was told he had to be one of the top starters in camp to leave his valuable bullpen role, and he's done that to this point.

"The five best guys are going to be in the rotation," Wilson said. "I know how I've been pitching and how Matt's been pitching. I don't worry about it. My job is to go out there and be as good as I can be and get ready for the season. That's what I'm doing."

Through Sunday, Wilson had allowed four runs on six hits in nine Cactus League innings with eight strikeouts and one walk. Opponents were batting just .194 against him. He has impressed pitching coach Mike Maddux, Washington and the Rangers brass.

"I think C.J. has handled the transition to the starting role very well, as well as we could have hoped," Daniels said. "He really worked this offseason to come in here in shape and ready to do it, and you can tell."

Harrison has found some additional velocity on his fastball after surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome ended his 2009 season prematurely. He lost weight in the offseason and arrived in good shape. He has shown consistent command, allowing only two runs in nine innings with 10 strikeouts and one walk.

"I know there are five guys competing for two spots, and I want to be one of those two guys in those spots," Harrison said. "I come every day to work, and when I get in games I try to make the best impression I can. I think I've done that so far, but spring training is not over."

Who wins the utility infield job?

Maybe the better question is whether the utility infielder is already in camp. The Rangers continue to explore outside options, but many times those possibilities don't open up until the final week of spring training when clubs make final decisions.

If it is internal, it's down to Joaquin Arias and Esteban German. The Rangers sent Ray Olmedo to minor league camp to give more innings to Arias and German.

And if they had to make an internal call today, it would likely be Arias, because he can play shortstop. The club has made the ability to play short a priority for that utility position.

German has been working with Washington and infield coach Dave Anderson taking additional grounders and trying to get used to short.

Who will handle Wilson's bullpen role if he's in the rotation?

Maddux said having two left-handed relievers is "a luxury, but not a necessity." If Wilson goes to the rotation as expected, Darren Oliver would likely be the only lefty. Oliver actually performed better against right-handed hitters than lefties, so the Rangers are confident he can get both out.

Frank Francisco is the closer and said he's feeling good about his progress toward Opening Day.

"I'm 100 percent healthy and working on a few things," Francisco said. "I want to pitch two innings to show I can do that and my command is not where I want it yet, but it will be."

Darren O'Day is in a setup role, and Dustin Nippert is one of the long relievers. It appears that Neftali Feliz is in the bullpen too.

That would leave two spots. Chris Ray would probably have the inside track to one of those spots, leaving the club with an additional slot in which they'd prefer to put someone who can pitch multiple innings.

Brandon McCarthy would certainly be an option there. He, like Nippert, could spot-start if necessary. But McCarthy hasn't been primarily a reliever since 2006, when he was with the White Sox. He also has an option, so he could be sent to the minors if the Rangers choose to do so.

Guillermo Moscoso, Doug Mathis and Willie Eyre could also be considered, though Eyre isn't on the 40-man roster. Lefty Derek Holland appears destined to start the season in Triple-A, where he can keep building up as a starter and be ready should injuries or lack of performance necessitate a change on the major league staff.

Who is the Opening Day catcher?

Jarrod Saltalamacchia & Taylor Teagarden
US PresswireJarrod Saltalamacchia's injuries have opened the door for Taylor Teagarden to make an impression.
Before Sunday's game, the answer was Jarrod Saltalamacchia. But that was before neck muscle spasms scratched him from his start; he's listed as day-to-day. He has only 15 at-bats this spring, and Washington said should Saltalamacchia miss more than a few days, he'd be falling behind.

Health was a big question for Saltalamacchia coming into spring after he had surgery in September for thoracic outlet syndrome. He had a setback during winter ball and then missed five days of spring training with loose scar tissue.

If Saltalamacchia misses some time, it could give Taylor Teagarden a renewed chance to make his case. He has 10 strikeouts this spring, second-most on the team. But he's also hitting .263 and feels as if he's starting to get his timing at the plate. Hitting coach Clint Hurdle used video to show Teagarden that he was not staying on his backside long enough.

"I'm still tuning up some things offensively, and I've got a few more weeks to do that," Teagarden said. "I've been working hard with Clint to focus on quality at-bats. I'm getting my work in, making sure I do all I can to help the pitchers get through their innings. I want to do whatever I can to help the team."

Did Chris Davis erase doubts about the first-base job?

Yes. While Davis came into spring training as the probable starter, talented prospects at first base in Justin Smoak and Mitch Moreland were ready to put pressure on Davis.

"I felt like it was probably in my best benefit to come in here and prove that I made some changes for the better in the offseason and that I had stuck with it," Davis said. "I don't think it would have helped me at all to get off to a slow start. I needed to come in here and show them that I was serious and that I was the player they wanted me to be and hope that I am."

Davis has picked up where he left off at the end of 2009, and in the process has solidified his starting spot.

"I've got to think he's one of a handful of the best defensive first basemen in the game," Daniels said. "He's really a difference-maker over there. But it's also an offensive position, especially in the American League. We need offense out of that spot. I give Chris credit. He made some adjustments last year. We've been pleased with the effort Chris has put in."

Can Julio Borbon handle center field?

So far, the Rangers feel as if he's answering that question affirmatively. He has worked on reading balls off the bat, where he needs to position himself and the other outfielders, and his throwing mechanics.

"He's had poor throwing mechanics for such a long time that it takes a while to work them out," outfield coach Gary Pettis said last week. "I told him before that some days it's going to be excellent and other days it might not be up to par. He has to feel the rhythm and not hurry up and throw the ball."

The Rangers trust that he'll get on base in the leadoff spot and can do some damage on the bases once he's on. The question was the defense.

"He's really gotten after it defensively," Daniels said. "He's really worked on his throwing and made some good throws. Leading off and playing center field is a significant role, but we believe he can handle it."

Borbon is confident he can, too.

"I know I'm going to be able to hit," he said, "but I want to be able to go out there and take control of the defensive side of it, because that's going to be a big thing for us a team. I'm feeling good about things in terms of seeing my work pay off."

Who gets the final roster spot?

Like the utility position, the club is exploring outside options. But if it stays internal, the top candidates are Matt Brown and Max Ramirez.

Brown can play third and first base and has played the corner outfield spots in the minors. Ramirez could be a third catcher and play first in a pinch.

"They are both certainly in the mix, and I've been impressed with both," Daniels said. "Matt has really swung the bat well, and his defensive versatility is something that can only help him. Max has really made strides behind the plate."

The decision could depend on who wins the utility infield spot.

"The last two spots on the bench are kind of intermingled. It's got to be the right combination of guys to make sure we've got coverage where we need it."

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