Rangers still seeking spring answers
Halfway through camp, some issues coming into focus while others remain cloudy
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- When the Texas Rangers arrived at spring training, they had some questions to answer. After they began to prepare for the season in the desert air, other questions popped up. We'll get to some of those in the final three weeks of camp. But at the halfway point of spring training, let's look at how the club is answering the six questions we posed before camp opened:
1. How will the Michael Young situation be resolved?
There wasn't really a question as to whether Young would show up at spring training. He's a professional and knows he has a job to do. What wasn't known was whether the Rangers would find a suitable trade before Young arrived. They still haven't halfway through camp.
The situation remains unresolved. Young hasn't rescinded his trade offer and the Rangers say they're still talking to teams about him. But the club has made it clear it will trade Young only if it makes the team better. In mid-May, Young does get 10-5 rights to veto any trade, so there may be some added motivation to deal him closer to that point. But if Young still wants out at some point later or after this season, he'd likely waive his no-trade rights anyway.
Young, for his part, is a hitting machine this spring. He's in great shape and is focused on being a better player in 2011. He's a consummate professional, and I still believe he'll be a critical part of this year's squad. We've seen from the Adrian Beltre injury that anything can happen and it sure is nice to know there's someone of Young's quality ready to go in.
2. Should Neftali Feliz move into the starting rotation?
The debate may still be raging among some, but the club seems settled on Feliz closing again in 2011 barring something happening late in camp. He stated his preference to team officials (and told the media about it) that he wants to be the closer, but added he would start if needed.
The club still sees him as a starter long-term, but he's 22 years old. The Rangers feel it won't hurt him to get more experience this year in the majors as the closer. But pitching out of the bullpen means he won't be as compelled to fine tune his secondary stuff as he would be if he were starting. Feliz will continue to be stretched out for a little while longer before the club starts making decisions about the rotation.
Still, manager Ron Washington likes the idea of a known quantity at closer. It looks like he'll get that in Feliz, who saved 40 games last year and won the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
3. Will Brandon Webb be ready to start the season?
The answer is no. We know that now. Webb threw the first day of camp, like the rest of the staff, but right after that was taken off the mound and given a long-toss program to work through.
Webb built up his arm strength with four bullpen sessions and then threw to live hitters for the first time last week. He'll continue to throw to live hitters a few more times before the club considers whether he's ready to graduate to Cactus League games.
"Everyone will be able to tell if I'm ready," Webb said last week.
His sinker, Webb's bread-and-butter pitch as he won a Cy Young Award in 2006 and was an All-Star in 2007 and 2008, had some movement but wasn't where he wants it yet. But more important than that, Webb has felt fine physically and has recovered well after each session. That's a good sign. The velocity isn't quite where he wants it, but it's early for that. At this point, it appears that sometime in May is a fair timetable, barring any setbacks, for Webb to be ready to join the rotation.
4. How does Josh Hamilton look as he tries to build on 2010?
Hamilton's spring training numbers aren't impressive. But he knows production is not his top priority this spring. Hamilton's job is to stay healthy. He had some nagging injury issues last spring.
This spring he arrived a little behind physically because of a bout with pneumonia in January and the fact that bad weather in Texas kept him from, as he put it, finding a rhythm in his workout routine outdoors. But he feels good.
"I'm very close," Hamilton said late last week. "I'm having good at-bats and seeing pitches better. There are still some at-bats when I get excited and jump and go get the ball. If you do that, it actually speeds the ball up and makes your swing longer, so I don't want to be doing that."
Hamilton knows it's unlikely he'll hit .359 again this season, but he believes that .315 with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs is very attainable. It will be interesting to see if his timing improves in the final few weeks of spring.
5. Who earns the final spots in the starting rotation?
The candidates for those spots have performed well at spring training, making the answer to that question still up in the air halfway through camp.
When spring training started, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis were locks. Washington made it clear the other three spots were up for grabs. Despite going 13-4 in 2010, Tommy Hunter has to earn a spot. He has more experience and a more proven track record than the other candidates, though he has struggled this spring.
Derek Holland has emerged recently, pitching a dazzling three innings last week in a Cactus League game. But Matt Harrison has aggressively attacked the strike zone and kept hitters off balance after altering his delivery and slowing things down. Michael Kirkman's slider is hitting both sides of the plate, making his breaking stuff even more effective. Dave Bush, who throws nearly every pitch imaginable, has also pitched well but is probably headed to long relief if he makes the club.
Pitching coach Mike Maddux is pleased with the high level of competition.
"The intra-competition is tremendous," Maddux said. "It shows the depth that we have in the organization that we have these guys competing for a few spots. I've been with other staffs in the past where you're looking for eight spots to fill and have three worthy candidates. This is nice in that we don't have that issue."
6. How does Ron Washington utilize his bench?
Washington has used spring training to get some players work at various positions. He's had Michael Young play first, second and third bases in Cactus League games. Mike Napoli has played first base and catcher. David Murphy has been at both corner outfield spots.
Washington wants to be sure those bench players are ready and then the manager must figure out how best to use them when the season starts. He admitted that he'll probably have some lineups in mind days in advance to be sure his bench is properly utilized and that those players get some opportunities to start.
"It's a problem every organization wishes they had," Washington said.
He said it will be a challenge to get everyone time, but he's confident he will find a way to keep all of those players happy and engaged. Washington has done a nice job of that the past few years and he's excited to have so much depth at his disposal.
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.