Rangers enter Spring Training seeking fresh start
Pitchers and catchers to report Sunday eager to begin bounce-back seasons
ARLINGTON -- Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has come up with a marketing slogan for Spring Training 2014: "Fresh start."
"We're looking for a fresh start and see this group come together," Daniels said. "I'm hoping to see everybody bring a fresh attitude. The bottom line is we're in a mode of looking up again. That's got to be our attitude. I want to see this clubhouse come together and this team come together."
Spring Training is the very definition of a fresh start, and a dozen other clichés built around hope springs eternal. But in the Rangers' case, it seems permissible to round up the usual jingles as pitchers and catchers get ready to report on Sunday to the Surprise, Ariz., facility.
Not only do the Rangers need a fresh start as a team after technically missing the playoffs for the first time in four years, but their clubhouse will be filled with players looking to jumpstart their careers.
When the Rangers traded for Prince Fielder, everybody talked about this being a fresh start for him after what was perceived to be a "down" year in 2013 with the Tigers. Fielder hit .279 with 25 home runs and 106 RBIs for a team that went to the American League Championship Series.
He is going to be on the same field next week with a lot of players who would be eager to have a "down" year like that in 2013.
Who? The best place to start is the pitching staff. The Rangers have never had a Cy Young Award winner, but they have several candidates ready to make a big run for Comeback Player of the Year.
Start with Neftali Feliz, who will be trying to regain his role as closer after missing 13 months while recovering from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. The two-time All-Star made eight appearances in September last season and now the Rangers wait to see if he's back to full strength.
If so, he will likely be the Rangers' closer. If not, the Rangers will look at either Joakim Soria or Tanner Scheppers. Soria is another two-time All-Star closer who is trying to get back to full strength after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He pitched in 26 games for the Rangers last season as a setup reliever with mixed success.
Then there is the rotation behind Yu Darvish and Martin Perez. The Rangers' top priority this Spring is sorting out who will be their five starters at the end of camp. Matt Harrison, a prime fresh-start poster child, will be one provided he is completely over the back problems that limited him to just two starts last season. Harrison said he is coming to camp 100 percent healthy.
Alexi Ogando is another leading candidate for the rotation, but he was on the disabled list three times last season with shoulder problems, so there are no guarantees. The Rangers have signed Tommy Hanson to compete for the fifth spot vacated by Derek Holland, and Colby Lewis is coming to camp healthy after not having pitched in the Major Leagues since July 18, 2012.
If Nick Tepesch can show a legitimate changeup as a third pitch, he will be somebody to watch, and the Rangers are determined to give Robbie Ross a chance to move from the bullpen to the rotation. If anybody needs a fresh start, it is Michael Kirkman, a two-time skin cancer survivor. He is out of options, but he is still left-handed and talented, and the Rangers aren't ready to give up on him yet.
You want fresh start? Right-hander Jose Contreras has probably had more "fresh starts" than the rest of the Rangers' pitching staff combined. Now the 42-year-old former Cuban defector who pitched in seven games for the Pirates last season is in camp with the Rangers trying to win one more job.
So is left-hander Rafael Perez, who was discarded by the Indians, Twins and Red Sox over the past two seasons, and right-hander Shawn Tolleson, a once promising prospect for the Dodgers who is trying to come back from the same back surgery that Harrison had last year. The list goes on.
"We're looking for some diamonds in the rough," pitching coach Mike Maddux said.
"We have a lot of options and some unanswered questions," Daniels said. "If we get through Spring Training healthy, we'll feel good about our group. If something pops up, you've got to be prepared for it, but I like the options we have. We need to make good evaluations and put this staff together the way it needs to be."
They'll need somebody to catch them. You want fresh start? How about the Rangers' catching situation? Geovany Soto is getting a chance to be the No. 1 catcher after two years as a backup, but he will be challenged by J.P. Arencibia, who was non-tendered by the Blue Jays after hitting just .194 for them last year.
Then there are Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, who signed a seven-year, $130 million deal with the Rangers this winter, outfielder Michael Choice, who was acquired from the Athletics, Jurickson Profar, who is trying to win a job at second base and Mitch Moreland, who needs to show he can stay healthy for a full season and provide serious production against all pitchers from the designated hitter spot.
Oh yes, fresh start seems to be a pretty accurate description about what's happening in Spring Training for the Rangers, and it all starts Sunday when pitchers and catchers report.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.