10 Burning Rangers Questions Before Spring Training Starts.

With pitchers and catchers geared up to report on Wednesday to Surprise, Arizona, the Rangers' offseason appears all but wrapped up. Sure, there's a chance that Texas re-signs Mike Gonzalez or deals Koji Uehara, but barring the last-minute signing of Roy Oswalt, the significant moves are already on the books.

The biggest transaction, of course, was committing more than $111 million to Yu Darvish. As I

But that's just one of 10 burning questions facing our beloved Rangers. Spoiler alert: While Josh Hamilton's off-the-field shenanigans and injury history are legitimate concerns, not much of what happens in spring training should heighten or dampen those worries, so he doesn't make an appearance. Sorry.

Sure, there will be plenty of time to talk about Hambone once the season begins in April, but until a sex tape turns up or he pulls a hammy brushing his teeth, there's plenty else that you should be focused on as the 2012 roster takes shape and Texas begins its long journey toward a third-straight pennant and, with any luck, its first World Series championship.

10. Which prospects will emerge as candidates to help the team this season?
Former starter and longtime top prospect Tanner Scheppers (25) boosted his stock with a strong performance in the Venezuelan Winter League this year, surrendering just one earned run in 13 innings with 16 strikeouts (although his 13 walks are troublesome). With a solid spring, the oft-injured, right-handed reliever could establish himself as the prime candidate to replace Yoshinori Tateyama or Mark Lowe should they struggle during the season, and I wouldn't bet on both holding on to their spots in the bullpen. So while it's unlikely Scheppers makes the team right away, don't be surprised to see him make his MLB debut sometime before the All-Star break.

While most pundits rank 20-year-old Martin Perez as the team's top pitching prospect, Neil Ramirez (22), Robbie Ross (22) and Miguel de los Santos (23) are more likely to make an impact this year. Like Scheppers, Ramirez is right-handed and has battled injuries early in his career. But, when healthy, Ramirez has proved to be the starter closest to being ready for a chance in the bigs. However, since the Rangers already have two ex-starters already in the bullpen, Alexi Ogando and Scott Feldman appear much more likely to crack into the rotation if there's an injury. Still, that doesn't mean he can't help the Rangers this year. If Texas finds itself shopping for the likes of Zack Greinke at the trade deadline, Ramirez could be part of the package.

Ross and de los Santos, meanwhile, have been groomed as starters in the minors, but either southpaw could be utilized out of the bullpen given the lack of lefties currently on the roster. De los Santos appears to be the best candidate, given his career 14.9 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio in the minors and an arsenal that includes a spectacular changeup, a low-90s fastball and a mid-70s bender.

9. Who will round out the bench?
We know the first two spots will be occupied by Yorvit Torrealba and David Murphy, both of whom will find themselves in the starting lineup throughout the year. But the third and possibly fourth spots are unknowns at this point.

Unless Texas is willing to live with Michael Young as the team's only infield backup (which is problematic should Young need to replace someone defensively mid-game while serving as the designated hitter), it's likely a spot goes to a utility infielder.

Unfortunately, the Rangers don't have any particularly intriguing options. Andres Blanco and Esteban German are goners (to Washington and Japan, respectively), leaving journeymen Luis Hernandez and Alberto Gonzalez and Greg Miclat (who was acquired as part of the Taylor Teagarden trade with Baltimore) to compete for a roster spot.


If Texas decides it's not worth keeping a utility infielder or determines that it wants to have 13 hitters and 12 pitchers instead of the opposite, that opens the door to veterans Brad Hawpe and Conor Jackson, who were signed to minor-league deals.

Hawpe, a left-hander who was born in Fort Worth and attended high school in Saginaw, had more than 20 homers and 80 RBI for four-straight seasons with the Rockies from 2006-09. And unlike the majority of players who have played their home games at Coors Field, the 32-year-old's home and road splits are nearly identical. But his production dropped off significantly in 2010, and he's currently recovering from Tommy John surgery performed last summer, so Hawpe represents a lottery ticket of sorts.

Jackson, another low-risk gamble on a veteran with injury baggage, showed potential from 2006-08, but he missed 129 games in 2009 with Valley fever — a fungal disease that causes flu-like symptoms and rashes — and spent a sizable chunk of 2010 on the DL with a sports hernia and hamstring issues. He was mediocre at best last year with the A's and Red Sox, but he's still young enough at 29 to reestablish himself as a valuable major-leaguer.

Both Hawpe and Jackson can play first base and the outfield corners and are more likely to make the roster (especially Hawpe) if Moreland hasn't fully recovered from offseason wrist surgery.

Speaking of Moreland…

8. Can Mitch Moreland seize the starting gig at first base?
By trading away Justin Smoak and Chris Davis and refusing to pay Prince Fielder almost $24 million annually for the next nine years (all of which were smart decisions), the Rangers are left with the combo of Moreland, Mike Napoli and Michael Young.

As much as I lobbied for signing Fielder (on the condition that the contract not exceed seven years), losing out on him wasn't so bad, at least as far as this season is concerned.

Consider this: Texas needs a position for Napoli when Torrealba's behind the dish. After proving he's actually a great defensive catcher, I'd love to see Nappy start between 90 and 100 games there this year, but I seriously doubt that will happen. After all, he started a career-low 57 games there last year and hasn't caught more than 84 games in a season.

For the sake of argument, let's say Napoli and Torrealba spilt the starting job 50-50. That's 81 games a piece. And if Napoli can stay healthy, there's no reason he shouldn't play in 150 games, so that means 69 at first or DH. Ideally, he'd start 40 at first and 19 at DH. (He started 27 games at first and 18 at DH last year.)

And let's not forget that Young has made it known with his mouth and his bat (.358 BA as an infielder and .312 as a DH last year) that he wants to play in the field as much as possible. He had 36 starts at first in 2011, along with 39 at third filling in for Adrian Beltre that won't be available this year if Beltre stays healthy, so I figure he's in line for at least 40 starts at first as well.

That leaves 82 games for Moreland.

To put it mildly, I was incredibly disappointed in his second-half and postseason performances last year, only to find out after the World Series that he had been playing with a fractured wrist. Spring training will not only prove whether he's fully recovered, but it's an opportunity for the 26-year-old to take the next step in his development.

Before his injury last year, Moreland had the third-highest average distance per home run (422 feet) at the All-Star break, so we know the power is there, and he also has an above-average eye at the plate. If he can improve his contact rate and drive the ball better, the threesome of Moreland, Napoli and Young could collectively outperform Fielder — or at least come close.

If not, we might be seeing the likes of Hawpe more than we'd like to.

7. Which left-hander(s) will land in a spot in the bullpen?
It didn't seem like that big of a deal when Darren Oliver signed a one-year, $4.5 million contract with the Blue Jays, and few folks seem concerned that the Rangers aren't anxious to ink Gonzalez before he finds another suitor.

So that leaves Texas with… Michael Kirkman (5.05 ERA and 1.70 WHIP last year at Triple-A Round Rock), Joe Beimel (5.33 ERA with the Pirates) and Mitch Stetter (5.14 ERA with the Brewers).

This is not good. At all.

I'm not sure what has kept Gonzalez from signing before now, but if he's healthy, Texas needs to pounce. Otherwise, I'm hoping one or both of the youngsters mentioned above (Ross and de los Santos) is given a shot.

6. Will Neftali Feliz successfully transition into the rotation?
I've advocated for the 23-year-old to stay in the bullpen because he's proved to be an upper-tier closer, posting a 2.55 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 9.1 K/9 while saving 72 games and earning Rookie of the Year and All-Star honors. So either the Rangers believe Feliz will be a better starter than he has been as a reliever or their confidence in him as a closer was completely obliterated in Game 6.

Either way, Feliz has to be good, beginning with his first start of the spring. If he's not, pressure will mount to replace him with Ogando or Feldman. And while the Rangers need to be patient with Feliz in order for him to navigate the transition, I'm not sure how long they can afford to put him out there every fifth day in the regular season knowing they have two capable replacements at the ready. And I'm not sure what a demotion back to the pen could do to Feliz's psyche.

5. Is Joe Nathan still an elite closer?
He's 37 years old, his last good season was in 2009, and he missed all of 2010 and part of 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Yet Texas handed him a two-year, $14.75 million contract, which turned out to be less than 31-year-old closer Ryan Madson's one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Reds.

If Nathan can't return to his All-Star form, the only player on the roster with significant closing experience is Feliz. Since he's unlikely to head back to the bullpen in such an occasion, Mike Adams, who's undoubtedly one of the best setup men in baseball, is next in line. But you never know how he'll adjust to a new role.

4. Will Texas regret sending Alexi Ogando back to the bullpen?
Imagine for a second that Feliz in his first year as a starter — or better yet, Darvish in his first year pitching in the United States — earns a spot on the All-Star squad and compiles an 11-5 record, 2.88 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in the first four months of the season.

Either way, Jon Daniels looks like a genius — yes, again.

Now imagine Feliz or Darvish allows 21 earned runs in 22 1/3 innings in the next month, followed by posting a 1.80 ERA in the final month. The rough month would be quickly and easily attributed to an increased innings load by Feliz or adjustment period by Darvish, and their respective spot in the rotation would be solidified. Heck, they might even be labeled as an ace in the making.

But, for whatever reason, that's not how Ogando's 2011 season was received. He had one bad month and everyone knee-jerked, claiming the league had figured him out. That may be true, but it also might be true that Ogando just had a shitty month. Or he was feeling the effects of more than doubling his work load of 72 1/3 combined innings in the minor and major leagues in 2010 to 169 with Texas last year.

He's five years older than Feliz, three years older than Darvish and is smack dab in the prime of his career at age 28. Yet Texas spent $111 million on Darvish and took a $14.75 million gamble on Nathan to enable Feliz's move to the rotation. Maybe Ogando is better suited in a relief role, but it's gonna take big years from all five starters to avoid the question of whether he belongs in the rotation.

3. Can Derek Holland build on last year's second-half and postseason success to become a bona fide No. 2 starter?
After years of inconsistency, The Dutch Oven took the biggest leap forward of anyone on the club last year. If he continues to be the pitcher we saw in his last 15 regular-season starts (10-1, 2.77 ERA, 3 shutouts) and Game 4 of the World Series (the best pitching performance in franchise history), he's easily a legit second starter on his way to becoming a true No. 1.

2. Can the Rangers convince Oddibe McDowell to unretire and play center field?
Look, McDowell's only a few months older than Jamie Moyer, who has been invited to Colorado's camp, so why not?

Kidding aside, it's gonna be fascinating to watch the three-way battle between Craig Gentry, Leonys Martin and Julio Borbon.

Martin certainly has the most upside, but he had a hard time adjusting to Triple-A last year, which doesn't inspire much confidence that he'll be able to suddenly make the leap to MLB, even though he rebounded with a solid performance in the Arizona Fall League. Gentry is a tremendous asset on the base paths and a great defender, but he offers very little with the stick. And after hitting just .193 in the Dominican Winter League, Julio Borbon seems destined to be a fourth or fifth outfielder.

I'm guessing Gentry wins the job by default, but at what point does Texas realize the team is better with Hamilton in center and Murphy in left?

Like many of the other questions, this one is going to bleed well into the season. Fortunately, the organization is so well-constructed that any one thing could go terribly wrong and it wouldn't necessarily prevent the Rangers from reaching their goal.

But if somehow a handful of these don't turn out — Darvish is mediocre, Feliz struggles in his new role and Nathan proves his closing days are over — then there's a real possibility that memories of Game 6 bubble back up to the surface.

For now, though, the 2012 season is a blank slate, and the path to 162-0 begins Wednesday.

Play ball.


















































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