Opening day for the defending American League champions is a week from Friday. At this point in spring training, a contending team's punch list needs to be pretty short. Not so for your Texas Rangers, but you might not know it since camp has been all but consumed by the Neftali Feliz starter vs. closer saga (which will be the subject of a separate post tonight or in the morning). For now, here's my list of non-Neftali issues as the Rangers head into the final week of spring training.
1. Two slots in the starting rotation are (theoretically) still open.
Who gets them depends on how the Feliz situation is resolved. If Neftali goes back to the pen, my guess is that the 4 and 5 guys end up being Derek Holland and Matt Harrison (in no particular order), both of whom have pitched well this spring. If Feliz starts, I bet they plug him into the 5 slot and make Holland the 4.
2. Tommy Hunter's struggles with two strikes.
Hunter, the No.3 starter, had a very solid 2010. In the playoffs, however, he was plagued by an inability to finish off hitters even with the count in his favor. The Rangers are concerned that the 2-strike syndrome is carrying over into 2011. Hunter's gluttonous 8.31 ERA in Cactus play is what jumps off the stat line, but like a lot of metrics, ERA can be particularly misleading in the spring (but not necessarily four or five runs worth -- he isn't pitching like a guy who ought to have an ERA in the 3s or 4s). Hunter's biggest problem is getting hammered in two-strike counts. I'm trying to verify this, but I woudn't be surprised if opponents were hitting Hunter at a .350+ clip with two strikes. That's unheard of. This is a pretty big problem that needs to be worked out before it takes root in his head (if it hasn't already).
3. Is Julio Borbon playing his way to Round Rock?
Julio Borbon arrived at Camp Ranger last month to find things pretty much as he did in the spring of 2010. The center fielder's job was gift-wrapped and waiting for him. He didn't have to win it or play his way into it. Not quite the slack cut for proven veterans in the spring, but it's been pretty damn close -- especially when you recall that Borbon lost the job last season and fell so far out of favor that he was omitted from the post-season roster. All Julio had to do was show a little offensive improvement and play good defense. Why the sweet deal? While the Rangers do like Borbon's tools, the most important thing he can do for the team right now is enabling Josh Hamilton's permanent relocation to left field, which should reduce Hamilton's injury risk profile.
Given those circumstances, one can assume that it would be pretty hard for Borbon to play his way out of the job. Alas, that might be exactly what he's doing.
Defense is supposed to be Borbon's strong suit; his speed and range combining to limit the effects of a below-average arm. But it seems that young Julio is engaged in a titanic struggle with the beast that swallows the fortunes of many a Dad's Pitch team -- the fly ball. He's dropped four of them en route to a Cactus League-high five errors in 35 chances, a total that would be higher if the scorekeeper dinged him every time he mistook the bat boy for the cutoff man. Scouts are also suggesting that Borbon looks tenative on balls hit to the wall and that he's prone to taking flawed angles on balls hit to the alleys. The other outfielders on the major-league roster have combined for only one error.
As a result, manager Ron Washington appears to be retreating on what was thought to be an iron-clad commitment to Borbon. Recently, he's been giving David Murphy a little time in CF, including a start today, "just to see how it goes ... see what all we've got out there." Jesus, this guy needs a translator. Don't you know already? Anyway, there's no question that the Rangers are a better offensive team with Murphy's bat in the lineup in lieu of Borbon, but Murphy by his own admission has played better as a corner outfielder. And so the Rangers may have to consider precisely what management set out to avoid: re-deploying Hamilton in center field. It's pretty hard to argue against the notion that the Rangers best overall alignment, both offensively and defensively, is Murphy/Hamilton/Cruz. Josh Hamilton is one hell of a center fielder. The problem is that Hamilton plays defense hell bent for Pete Reiser, with a penchant for hurling himself to and fro and into the wall. Hamilton has already proven to be a rather fragile asset, and center is just plain tougher on the body than left (especially the way he plays).
Opinions on this one are divided; Joey Matshulat has a good rundown at BBTIA. As for me, it would be awfully hard to turn in a lineup card that didn't have my best eight players on it. Send Borbon to Round Rock to start the season and re-evaluate after a month to six weeks. Get Murphy's bat into the lineup every day and see if you can get off to a quick start.
One more thing: There's been quite a bit of talk about how Borbon's problems may be attributable to the "high sky" in Arizona and the angle of the sun out there in day games (in spite of the fact that he dropped one of them at night). For the record, this is Bill Little-grade bullshit. This is the Major Motherfucking Leagues, kid. Making routine plays on fly balls is kind of a non-negotiable prerequisite for the job.
4. Roster Logjams I: the catchers/Blanco.
I might be in the minority on this one, but I think the team might be breaking camp with one catcher too many. The plan calls for Yorvit Torrealba (a name that every PA announcer in the league gets a hard-on for) to get 90+ starts, leaving the balance to Matt Treanor and Mike Napoli, who will also get time at 1B and DH in order to keep his bat in the lineup as much as possible. If they're comfortable with Napoli's catching, the Rangers ought to consider starting the season with Torrealba and Napoli only, which would open up a roster spot for another bat -- i.e., Chris Davis.
The Rangers might not be OK with Napoli catching that many games, though. Treanor is a better defensive catcher and (supposedly) the pitchers love him. Besides, Treanor's gold medalist wife looks like she can take anybody on the team best two out of three falls. If Young isn't traded, cutting utility man Andres Blanco is another option. Blanco is basically just a backup shortstop, and Young can play every infield position (although watching him play short might require even more Maalox and Macallan than was necessary to watch him play third).
There's also this: there are also several scenarios where Napoli is in the lineup when he's not catching, which could work to limit Wash's flexibility. If they don't handle those situations carefully, they might find themselves without a backup catcher.
5. Roster Logjams II: Moreland/Young/Napoli.
The Rangers say they're committed to Mitch Moreland at 1B, and his spring play justifies the faith at .383/1.085. Plus, there's this: The Sheriff lovesthis guy. How could he not? When we last saw Moreland, he was nails in the LCS and World Series, hitting .389/.839 against the Yanks and .462/1.303 against the Giants. Still, Washington has made no secret of his intention to sit Moreland against better lefties, which means that the Michaels Young and Napoli will backfill at 1B. Washington hasn't been too forthcoming on how he plans to get Young and Napoli enough ABs to keep them both happy. Obviously, Young is the bigger challenge here since the erstwhile face of the franchise has made it very clear that he'd rather take his skillet elsewhere than DH in Texas. At this point, the Rangers must prepare as though Young will be here through the season, and a significant chunk of his ABs will come from the DH slot. Michael Young is a pro's pro, but I can't imagine that this won't be messy. Too much blood in the water.
On the trade front, we did learn this week that GM Jon Daniels is still talking to a few teams about Young, and further that the club might be willing to eat fully half of Young's albatross contract. I don't think we can infer anything from these tidbits since (a) GMs are always kicking the tires -- it's what they do; and (b) the willingness to absorb a fair chunk of Young's contract doesn't reflect an urgency to trade him as much as it represents an acknowledgement of market conditions. I suspect that the asking price for him is still pretty steep in terms of players/prospects.
6. Roster Roadblock: Chris Davis
Fact: Chris Davis wouldn't be in this position if he hadn't blown it last year. Fact: Chris Davis is still a player with the kind of upside and natural power that makes scouts want to play with their wieners. Fact: Chris Davis is absolutely blistering the baseball this spring: .409/.426/.841 (1.266 OPS). 11 of his 18 hits are for extra bases (4 dongs).
Also fact: Chris Davis probably starts the season in Round Rock, because unless the Rangers make one of the aforementioned roster tweaks, there is no spot for him in Arlington. Davis is a good third baseman and a great first baseman, but Young figures to spell Adrian Beltre at third (much to the chagrin of whoever is pitching that night), and Napoli and Young will spell Moreland at first.
Davis had a little oral diarrhea in front of the scribes last week, all but demanding a trade or his release so he can get a shot with another team. Here again, both the Rangers and Davis are haunted by the club's past. One of Jon Daniels's first deals as Ranger GM was the January 2006 fiasco that sent Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young to the Padres in exchange for a shitload of grief that I don't want to recount because I'm having a good day. Daniels won't make a similar mistake this time. For one thing, the Rangers may very well end up needing Davis in Arlington if someone goes down or Young gets dealt. It's also possible that Davis rakes it so hard in the PCL that the Rangers are all but forced to call him up, or he plays well enough to drive up his value as a trade chit. Bottom line, Davis can bitch until the world looks level, but he isn't going anywhere unless and until it benefits the Rangers.
7. The Brandon Webb prognosis, or whatever.
The Rangers say they expect Brandon Webb to join the rotation, in spite of the fact that he hasn't pitched a full season since 2008 when he led the NL with 22 wins. He pitched only four innings before being shut down in 2009 and didn't pitch at all last year due to shoulder surgery. Webb still hasn't pitched in a game this spring, but until today, he was making steady progress. Webb was scheduled to throw his fourth session of live BP today, but trainers pulled the plug when Webb said that he couldn't get loose. That was three hours ago, so he's probably already been evaluated by the sawbones. Webb said that he didn't feel any pain, which is good. I suspect that we'll be told that occasional shoulder impingements are commonplace when a pitcher is stretching himself out workload-wise at this stage of a comeback. (How's that for sunshine-pumping bullshit? It's not Bill Little good, but it's still pretty good, huh?)
Prior to today's setback, it looked like Webb wouldn't be ready to join the rotation until early May. We'll see. Obviously, it's difficult to get meaningful projections on Webb since you have to make so many assumptions about his shoulder. Perhaps based on his pedigree as one of the best pitchers in the game from 2003-2008, both Baseball Prospectus and the Bill James Handbook are forecasting around 26-28 starts, upwards of 180 innings with a WHIP just over a buck. One would think that those numbers translate into 13-15 wins, but the abacus jockeys are calling for 11 or 12. Who the hell am I to argue? My only experience with regression analysis is marriage.
Regardless of how this turns out, the one-year deal was worth the risk for the Rangers. If he can get anywhere close to his former stuff on the sinker, Webb might be the perfect pitcher for the Ballpark in Arlington. Since 2002, Webb leads all active pitchers with a 3.56 GB/FB ratio, induces the highest percentage of grounders (64.2%) and the lowest percentage of flies (18.1%). Imagine a more durable and productive Kevin Brown who's not an asshole.