By Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - All the optimism that was swirling around Texas Rangers camp this spring received a jolt midway through when it was learned that manager Ron Washington had tested positive for cocaine during the 2009 season.
Washington's troubles aside though, big things are expected in Arlington this year following Texas' first winning season since 2004.
When you think of the Texas Rangers you think big offense and no pitching. Well times are a changing in the Lone Star State. Last year the Rangers allowed 200 fewer runs than they did in 2008 and scored 117 less runs.
The improved defense and upgraded pitching staff translated into eight more wins than the previous season and team president Nolan Ryan has his team on the cusp of their fourth postseason appearance in franchise history.
Despite an uncertain ownership situation, the Rangers remained fairly active this past winter, as they added top of the rotation right-hander Rich Harden, as well as slugger Vladimir Guerrero.
Those two additions, plus improved health from outfielder Josh Hamilton, second baseman Ian Kinsler and third baseman Michael Young have fans thinking about the postseason for the first time since the Rangers' last AL West crown in 1999.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the Rangers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2009 FINISH (87-75) - Second Place (AL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Vladimir Guerrero (DH); Chris Ray (RHP); Darren Oliver (LHP); Clay Rapada (LHP); Endy Chavez (OF); Matt Treanor (C); Gregorio Petit (INF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Kevin Millwood (RHP); Ivan Rodriguez (C); Omar Vizquel (INF); Andruw Jones (OF); Eddie Guardado (LHP); Marlon Byrd (OF); Joe Inglett (INF); Joaquin Benoit (RHP); Hank Blalock (1B/DH); Jason Jennings (RHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Julio Borbon (CF); Michael Young (3B); Josh Hamilton (LF); Vladimir Guerrero (DH); Ian Kinsler (2B); Chris Davis (1B); Nelson Cruz (RF); Jarrod Saltalamacchia (C); Elvis Andrus (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Rich Harden (RHP); Scott Feldman (RHP); Colby Lewis (RHP); C.J. Wilson (LHP); Matt Harrison (LHP) PROJECTED CLOSER: Frank Francisco (RHP)
MANAGER: Ron Washington
The Rangers took a chance this winter on designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, signing the 35-year-old former AL MVP to a one-year deal. Guerrero is nowhere near the player he once was, but still hit 15 home runs with 50 RBI in 100 games last season.
Plus it will be nice for the Rangers to have Guerrero on their side. He is a .396 career hitter against the Rangers, hitting .394 at their ballpark over the course of his 14-year career.
Second baseman Ian Kinsler saw his average drop dramatically last season, but still became just the third player ever at his position to enter the 30-30 club, as he hit 31 home runs to go along with 31 stolen bases. He also drove in 86 runs, but saw his average dip to .253 after hitting .319 in 2008.
Rookie Elvis Andrus played flawless defense at shortstop last season, not to mention he hit .267 and swiped 33 bases. He will only get better.
Andrus' terrific play in the field made Michael Young's transition to third base a smooth one, as he earned yet another All-Star appearance with a terrific season. Young hit .322 with 22 home runs and 68 RBI and was a leading MVP candidate in the American League before a hamstring injury in September.
Across the diamond will once again be Chris Davis, whose defense kept him in the lineup in the first half of last year despite an average near the Mendoza line. After his return in August from a Triple-A stint, Davis hit .308 with six home runs and only 36 strikeouts. The Rangers need him to hit the ground running this time around.
Behind the plate the Rangers are hoping that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is fully recovered from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome which required surgery, cutting his 2009 campaign short. He still had some fatigue in winter ball, and has been banged up a little this spring, but should be ready to start the season.
A lot of the Rangers success this season could hinge on the health of left fielder Josh Hamilton. Last year, the 28-year-old slugger battled through a myriad of injuries, and only appeared in 89 games, belting 10 home runs with 54 RBI.
While Hamilton sat a year ago, right fielder Nelson Cruz picked up the offensive slack in his absence, as he hit 33 home runs with 76 RBI.
Texas is taking a chance in center field, where Julio Borbon will start the season as the team's leadoff hitter. Borbon was terrific for the Rangers down the stretch last season, but most of his at-bats came against right-handed pitching. Should he struggle at the plate, Washington won't hesitate to make the move to the reliable David Murphy.
Guerrero wasn't the only risky free agent the Rangers signed this offseason, as the team took a chance on righty Rich harden, signing him to a one-year $7.5 million deal with an option for a second season.
Despite being one of the most electric pitchers in the league at times, Harden comes with a ton of injury concerns. The 28-year-old hurler has not made 30 starts in a season since making 31 in 2004 and had his season cut short a year ago with arm troubles.
He made only 16 combined starts in 2006 and 2007 while suffering from back and arm issues and has been placed on the disabled list at least once a year since 2005. He has also never topped 190 innings in a season.
When he is healthy, though, Harden is among the league's elite.
Slotting in behind Harden will be right-hander Scott Feldman, who was a pleasant surprise for the Rangers in 2009, going 17-8 with a 4.08 ERA. Texas, though, has to find a way for Feldman to accumulate some of those wins at home rather than on the road, where he was 12-4 with a 3.56 ERA.
Right-hander Tommy Hunter probably will be in the rotation at some point, but a strained oblique will likely land him on the disabled list to start the year.
Left-hander C.J. Wilson will make the jump to the rotation after pitching primarily out of the bullpen the first five years of his career. One of the most dependable relievers in the game, Wilson pitched to a 0.67 ERA at home last season.
Wilson started six games for the Rangers in his career and is a putrid 0-5 with a 12.05 ERA in those outings. He has been impressive in the role this spring, however.
Righty Colby Lewis and lefty lefty Matt Harrison figure to have spots as well.
Texas' bullpen could be a real bright spot on this team this season. Flame- throwing right-hander Frank Francisco will once again serve as the team's closer. He had 25 saves and pitched to a 3.83 ERA in 2009, but pitched through injuries late in the season, skewing some of his numbers.
Even with Wilson in the rotation, this is a pretty impressive group, headlined by 21-year-old righty Neftali Feliz and submarine right-hander Darren O'Day. Veteran left-hander Darren Oliver is back in Arlington and will be called upon to get lefties out.
Righty Chris Ray, acquired in the Millwood deal, could be an important piece if he reverts to the form he showed prior to Tommy John surgery two seasons ago.
The only problem with the bullpen is that the deficiencies in the rotation could tax this talented group, having them run out of steam late in the season.
Murphy is as valuable as anyone on the Rangers' roster. He can play all three outfield spots and can spell Guerrero from time-to-time at DH. Murphy may also be an option at first base should Davis' hitting problems resurface.
Gregorio Petit was acquired late in spring training and has a chance at sticking around as a backup infielder. Also Esteban German and Joaquin Arias have a shot of heading to Arlington to start the year.
Catcher Taylor Teagarden may become a significant part of this team if Saltalamacchia is not fully recovered.
All in all, though, not an impressive group.
By the looks of things the AL West is wide open. The team that has dominated the division the better part of the last decade, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, are vulnerable, having lost some key players. Seattle is going to be tough, but they have question marks as well. It is not crazy to think the Rangers could be headed back to the postseason. In fact if certain things fall in their favor, such as Hamilton giving you 140 games or Harden making 30 starts, it might be a foregone conclusion. Hopefully the Washington fiasco from a couple of weeks ago does not linger, but the Rangers are a legitimate threat in the West.
03/31 12:08:20 ET