Rangers eager to put 2007 behind them
Club officials stress importance of leaving camp healthy
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Vicente Padilla chatted with Rangers pitching coach Mark Connor upon reporting to Spring Training on Thursday.They talked about last season when Padilla went 6-10 with a 5.76 ERA. "I know from talking to Vinny that he was embarrassed by the way he pitched last year," Connor said. "He feels he is a lot better pitcher than that." Padilla is hardly the only one who feels that way on a pitching staff that had the fourth highest ERA in the American League last year and also led the league with 668 walks. "I think we were all embarrassed because of what we didn't accomplish with the expectations we had coming out of Spring Training," manager Ron Washington said. "Some of those things we couldn't do anything about because of our injuries. But we were all embarrassed. That's why we went into the winter working hard so we could come back and perform the way we are capable of performing." The Rangers will get a first-hand look at the results of their offseason work when pitchers and catchers go through their first workout on Friday. The workout will be preceded by a team meeting and the message will be a familiar one. "It's the message that we have been saying," Washington said. "Pound the strike zone, make quality pitches down in the zone and cut down on the walks. After what we went through last year, we should all be better for the experience." The Rangers expect to have 28 pitchers in camp and there should be some serious competition for jobs. Most intriguing is the closer's role but that may not be as competitive as it seems. C.J. Wilson had 12 saves last season and even though the Rangers signed free agents Eddie Guardado and Kazuo Fukumori in the offseason, club officials made it clear that it's still his job to lose. "We've got an idea of who we want it to be," Washington said. "We'll just see how it goes but we know who we would like to step it up there." Said Connor, "We've got a power left-hander who had success last year when he took over as closer. He's under our control [contractually] for a while and left-handed closers are nice to have. There aren't many."
Club officials also made it clear that there will be competition for the rotation even though it appears set with Padilla, Kevin Millwood, Brandon McCarthy, Jason Jennings and Kason Gabbard."We've got some young guys that we're going to look at," Connor said. "They might surprise." It appears as if Gabbard will have to win the fifth starter spot. Connor said his competition will come from right-handers Luis Mendoza and Eric Hurley and left-hander A.J. Murray. Mendoza is likely "on-deck" if one of the starters stumbles, but Connor said both Hurley and Murray will get a chance to show what they can do. The Rangers also want to take a good look at left-hander Matt Harrison, who was acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the Mark Teixeira trade. Murray was a reliever last year in his first season back after shoulder surgery. The original plan was to let him pitch at Triple-A Oklahoma while building up stamina and innings, but that is not automatic. Connor remains extremely high on Murray, who allowed four earned runs in 11 innings in two starts at the end of last season. "I think A.J. is a sleeper," Connor said. "The biggest things are he's healthy again and what he showed as a starting pitcher at the end of last season. He's much more comfortable as a starter. As a reliever he had that deer in the headlights look." Kameron Loe and Robinson Tejeda will not be candidates for the rotation. Both were in the rotation last year but have been told they will be used strictly in relief. Loe is 13-19 with a 5.08 ERA in 47 career starts and 5-4 with a 4.15 ERA in 46 relief appearances. "We sat him down and told him he needs to make this team as a reliever," Connor said. "We wanted to get that in his mind and not have him think he's a starter." Tejeda was 5-9 with a 6.61 ERA in 19 starts last year but the Rangers think he could be more useful to them in the bullpen. "The feeling in the organization is that he might be able to come out of the bullpen and maintain his velocity for an inning or two," Connor said. "Then we might have another power guy out of the bullpen." Josh Rupe, who has been battling elbow problems for the past two years, will also be used strictly as a reliever. "He threw the other day and it was the best I've seen him at this time of year," Connor said. They all find themselves in an extremely competitive situation. Right now Wilson, Guardado, Fukumori and Joaquin Benoit appear to be locked into four of seven spots in the bullpen. That just leaves three spots with a dozen or so candidates to choose from. "They've all got to take care of their own business and not worry about anything else," Connor said. "That's easy for me to say, they're the ones who have to go home and sleep at night. But they're all talented, they just have to let their ability take over." Really only three pitchers in camp have zero chance of making the Opening Day roster. Thomas Diamond is coming back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and Bill White -- because he was released and re-signed to a Minor League deal -- can't be called up to the big leagues until May 15. Rookie reliever Warner Madrigal is a converted outfielder who has never pitched above Class A. Certainly it would be a surprise if non-roster pitchers Paul Kometani, who was in Double-A last year, Franklyn German or Elizardo Ramirez made the team. But when you suffered through what the Rangers did last year, all possibilities must be considered. The Rangers have much work to do. "Everybody looks like they're healthy," Connor said. "We need to try and keep them healthy. I know it's a cliché but we have to get out of here healthy. As we get into games, obviously we have to make better pitches and get ahead in counts. We have to stay away from the abundance of walks but a lot of that was a byproduct of our health. We have to be healthy."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.