SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Texas Rangers have plenty of questions to answer as they begin the journey of defending their American League championship crown. We start off the spring looking at six key questions the club must answer in Surprise:
1. How will the Michael Young situation be resolved?
It's the biggest question heading into camp and one that clearly must be answered before the club heads into the regular season. The answer to this question could take several forms:
The Rangers could continue to explore the trade market for Young -- they want a team to pay a large portion of his remaining contract and give them quality talent in return -- and deal him before spring training ends. Young has said he wants a trade and the club has agreed to try to accommodate his request, so that could go on through spring training.
The club could decide to try to end this for 2011 by telling Young they couldn't trade him before spring training and want the air cleared so it's not something hanging over everyone all spring. That would take meetings with general manager Jon Daniels and maybe even Nolan Ryan or others to get everything on the table and see if all parties can coexist.
Young could decide not to show up on the report date, which is Saturday, to put even more pressure on the club to get rid of him at any cost. But I can't see that happening. He has a contract that starts on the report date and I would expect that he'll be in Surprise by then.
But all parties need some sort of resolution, and the sooner the better.
2. Should Neftali Feliz move into the starting rotation?
The Rangers are stretching out Feliz (and Alexi Ogando) this spring to give them a look as starters. But whether a move is made to put either in the rotation depends on a variety of factors:
How does Feliz's secondary stuff look? He lights up radar guns with regularity with his fastball, and we saw as the 2010 season progressed that he got better with his off-speed and breaking pitches (see the breaking ball he threw to Alex Rodriguez to end Game 6 of the ALCS).
What are the alternatives in the bullpen if you move Feliz out? Trading Frank Francisco took away one of the power right-handed arms for the late innings. That would likely decrease the chances of moving another bullpen piece into the rotation. But if Mark Lowe, Ogando or someone else shows he can handle closing games, maybe that opens the door for Feliz to move.
C.J. Wilson showed that a reliever with a nice repertoire of pitches can move into the starting rotation and succeed. But is Feliz ready for that kind of leap?
3. Will Brandon Webb be ready to start the season?
Webb has stressed that he's expecting a normal spring training with the goal of getting in the starting rotation when the season begins. But he's pitched only four innings at the major league level in the past two seasons and had shoulder surgery (performed by Rangers physician Dr. Keith Meister) in August 2009.
When Webb is at his best, his sinker and changeup are critical components. But what will be more important in February and March is how he feels and what his command looks like. The Rangers don't plan on putting any pressure on him, hoping he can help them whenever he's fully ready.
"We'd love for him to be ready by Opening Day, but we're going to keep our eye on the big picture and on what's best for him," Daniels said early in January shortly after Webb signed in December.
But if Webb is able to start the season, it adds depth to the rotation right away. He would likely slot in the No. 4 spot (behind Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter), leaving the rest of the competitors to fight for the fifth and final job in the rotation.
4. How does Josh Hamilton look at he tries to build on 2010?
Much of the offseason talk regarding Hamilton has involved his arbitration negotiations and what kind of long-term contract should be considered for the slugger. But the other question is how he will respond the season after winning the AL MVP award.
Hamilton comes into spring with his third hitting coach in as many years. Thad Bosley has experience in dealing with MVPs -- he coached Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi while in Oakland -- and will attempt to keep Hamilton focused on hitting to all fields and staying selective at the plate.
Previous hitting coach Clint Hurdle helped eliminate the toe tap, something Hamilton said was a big help for his mechanics, and he had the MVP feeling comfortable. Bosley's job is to keep that going.
But just as important is Hamilton's health. He missed the final month of 2010 with a rib injury and dealt with the early stages of pneumonia during the offseason. Hamilton missed some spring training time last year after landing oddly during an outfield drill. The Rangers need Hamilton 100 percent for the season, and his main mission is figuring out how to play aggressively while still protecting his body.
Julio Borbon's progress this spring could provide part of the answer. The Rangers, just like last spring, want Borbon to seize the center-field job so they can keep Hamilton in left field on a more full-time basis, reducing the ground he'll have to cover (and maybe the number of times he'll run into walls).
5. Who earns the fifth spot in the starting rotation?
If Webb shows he's healthy, it leaves a gaggle of folks to fight it out for the fifth spot. Who emerges? Some of the candidates (not named Feliz):
Derek Holland: The lefty didn't end the postseason the way he wanted with his struggles in Game 2 of the World Series, but he's been focused all offseason on re-establishing the fastball command that fast-tracked him through the minors. He said he was trying to trick guys, and in the process may have tricked himself. He has the stuff to earn the job.
Michael Kirkman: He will also be stretched out again this spring, having gotten a taste of the majors in the Rangers' bullpen after coming up in the minors as a starter. Kirkman has a solid sinker and he's been working on his secondary pitches. One pitch he didn't throw much in the majors last year was his curve, which he feels he'll need to throw more this spring if he wants to show he can start in the big leagues.
Matt Harrison: The No. 5 starter when 2010 began, Harrison went on the DL and finished the season in the bullpen after his return. He's healthy and wants to start. He has more experience than a few of the other candidates despite his age, so he's one to watch.
Dave Bush: Texas signed him to a minor league contract with the idea that he could compete for either a starting spot or maybe a long relief role. Bush worked with pitching coach Mike Maddux in Milwaukee and is looking forward to reuniting with him. He's a guy who can give you innings and had back-to-back 12-win seasons with Maddux in Milwaukee, something that would certainly be good for a fifth starter.
6. How does manager Ron Washington utilize his bench?
David Murphy, always considered the "fourth outfielder" with the Rangers, is consistent enough to bat in a variety of situations. Washington has managed to get Murphy 450 at-bats despite having so many good outfielders, so he'll find some time for his bench this year.
Washington has to factor in Michael Young, if he's still here. Young can play the infield positions and is the primary DH. That allows Washington to move things around to get other players days off and get his bench more playing time.
Spring training is a chance to tinker with all those kinds of combinations and also to help get all of his bats prepared. Washington will also see if any injuries pop up (don't forget that Ian Kinsler had a high ankle sprain midway through spring, altering the roster heading into Opening Day) and plug holes where needed.
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.