ARLINGTON (AP) – For the Texas Rangers, the focus is on who stayed in town, rather than who left.
At least, that’s the approach they’re trying to take.
There have been some big changes in the Texas lineup since not winning a game last October, particularly the departure of five-time All-Star and former AL MVP Josh Hamilton, now with the AL West rival Los Angeles Angels. Also gone are Michael Young, the franchise’s career hits leader who had been the longest-tenured Ranger, and slugging catcher Mike Napoli.
And questions still linger about Hall of Fame pitcher and CEO Nolan Ryan’s future with the team.
The Rangers do seem set with their rotation, for this season and beyond, even after their failed offseason pursuit of top free agent Zack Greinke.
That is a far cry from the team whose ritual each spring not too long ago was trying to cobble together starters.
Japanese ace Yu Darvish, 18-game winner Matt Harrison and Derek Holland are all 26 or 27 years old and are signed for at least four more seasons.
Alexi Ogando, back in the rotation after last season in the bullpen, is under club control at least that long.
After a dominating seven seasons in Japan, Darvish won 16 games and was an All-Star as a major league rookie last year. The right-hander finished strong, going 5-1 with a 2.35 ERA, 67 strikeouts and 15 walks his last eight starts of the regular season. And he has looked strong this spring.
“He’s commanding the ball a lot better,” manager Ron Washington said.
There’s no anticipation of a sophomore slump for Darvish, who appears at ease after a year to acclimate to a new league and new country. He said he feels better physically and mentally after a more routine offseason, as opposed to last year when he was making the transition to America under intense scrutiny.
“My comfort level is really high,” Darvish said through an interpreter. “When I’m throwing, I feel a lot better than where I was last year.”
Darvish will start the second game this season for the Rangers, after they held him until the fourth last April.
Harrison will be the starter for the very first game of the major league season, when Texas plays March 31 at new AL West team Houston.
Three seasons ago, Harrison was left off the Rangers’ postseason roster and didn’t pitch in their first World Series. He was 18-11 with a 3.29 ERA and four complete games in 32 starts last year.
Asked what last season taught him, the left-hander responded, “That I should be able to do it again.”
The Rangers sure expect that he can. They gave him a new $55 million, five-year contract that could extend into 2018 as well.
Holland, the lefty who pitched for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, is 28-12 the last two seasons and had four shutouts in 2011. Ogando was an All-Star and 13-game winner starting in his first full major league season two years ago.
Veteran right-hander Colby Lewis will miss the start of the season while coming back from elbow surgery. But he could be back in the rotation sooner than expected, maybe early May.
Joe Nathan had 37 saves in his first season as the Rangers’ closer. Left-hander Robbie Ross, the surprise out of camp last spring and potentially a starter, was 6-0 with a 2.22 ERA in 58 relief appearances as a rookie and will stay in the bullpen for now.
Even with Hamilton, Young and Napoli gone, the Rangers still have plenty of hitters, including newcomers Lance Berkman and catcher A.J. Pierzynski.
They just might have to produce runs a little differently. Hamilton and Napoli accounted for 67 of their 200 home runs last season, which ended with a second-place finish in the AL West and a loss to Baltimore in the AL’s first one-and-done wild-card game.
Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus will still top the batting order, with switch-hitting Berkman expected to take over the No. 3 spot while coming off an injury-plagued season and only 32 games for St. Louis. Adrian Beltre, the Gold Glove-winning third baseman going into the third season of his five-year deal with Texas, hit .321 with 36 homers and 102 RBIs last season.
As for filling the void Hamilton left in the outfield, left fielder David Murphy (.304 last season) finally gets his chance as an everyday starter. Hamilton played left and center, where Cuban defector Leonys Martin could now be the primary player nearly two years after getting a $15.5 million, five-year contract.
It might be harder replacing the impact Young had in the clubhouse during the 12 seasons with the Rangers.
“We know what kind of guy Michael was in this clubhouse, and we’re all going to miss that,” Beltre said. “What we have to do is just do the best we can to keep the good group together, playing ball the right way and win ballgames.”
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