SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Last year, and the year before that, Julio Borbon was the Texas Rangers' starting center fielder entering and leaving spring training, though he didn't exactly nail the exit in 2011.
Things didn't improve after he cracked the Opening Day lineup, and the season disintegrated after a demotion to Triple A. He wrecked his ankle in July and didn't return until joining Escogido in the Dominican winter league.
Even that started poorly enough, as he hobbled around on his gimpy left ankle.
The new year, though, has been kind to Borbon, who was the regular center fielder for the Caribbean Series champs and came to the Surprise Recreation Campus free of pain and free of worry, even though he didn't have a roster spot locked up.
His spring hasn't been entirely without flaws, and he remains locked in a battle with Craig Gentry for a spot on the Opening Day roster.
But the way he's playing -- with confidence and maturity more so than the fact that he's hitting left-handed pitchers and taking better routes to fly balls -- is what has made him a viable option once again.
"Everything the first couple years, it seems like I was just doing exactly as I was told," Borbon said. "I didn't have my own identity of what I wanted to do, what I needed to do. There has to be middle ground from getting things from coaches and finding yourself at the same time."
Borbon is hitting .286 after going 0 for 4 Saturday in the Rangers' 3-2 loss to the Angels. The left-handed hitter is 3 for 11 against lefty pitchers, and he has been driving the ball more against all comers.
His defense, which raised a bigger red flag last year than his lack of plate production, has been deemed better. His overhauled throwing mechanics have become second nature.
This spring has been a pleasant surprise for outfield coach Gary Pettis and manager Ron Washington.
They understand there is a process for any young player, but were disappointed that Borbon struggled last year after showing gains in 2010.
"It was definitely a shock to me," Pettis said. "I think maybe things snowballed on him and maybe started to be too concerned about the things that had gone wrong as opposed to worrying about the things he could do to make it better."
When Borbon has erred this spring, as he did Tuesday on a fly ball in Mesa or when he was out last weekend trying to take an extra base, he hasn't dwelled on the negative.
All the information that he has been given since his first big-league camp in 2008 is finally starting to click. The resulting confidence is plainly visible.
"There are so many little things that go into playing the game outside of playing it," Borbon said. "I'm starting to understand it now. Those things make you secure and feel good going into a game."
Yet, Borbon hasn't secured a roster spot and knows he might not. He could end up in a platoon with the right-handed-hitting Gentry, or Gentry and Josh Hamilton could end up splitting time in center while Borbon opens the year in Round Rock.
With a week to go until the Rangers leave Arizona and only 12 days until Opening Day, Borbon isn't sweating the future too much.
"I have no control over that," he said. "The thing that makes me most happy about camp is I did exactly what I said I was going to come out and do. I didn't have any expectations. I just wanted to come out here and give everything I had."
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760