Five Rangers to watch in spring training

02/22/2013 12:30 AM

03/24/2013 1:08 AM

The help-wanted sign will be hanging in multiple spots today as the Texas Rangers open their Cactus League schedule with the annual charity game against Kansas City.

As many as nine spots can be had over a club-record 38-game slate that includes 35 games in Arizona, one in Arlington and two in San Antonio. It could very well take until the final week of spring camp for the Opening Day roster to shake out.

The Rangers have five bullpen spots open, one rotation hole to fill, a vacancy in center field, and a need for a utility infielder and an extra outfielder.

“We’re going to get ready to play,” manager Ron Washington said. “There are jobs to be won.”

Auditions begin today, but even some of those with secured spots on the Opening Day roster could use big springs to solidify their standing on the club.

Here are five players to keep an eye on this spring:

Mitch Moreland, 1B

As speculation ran rampant about how to get Jurickson Profar into the lineup every day, Moreland was the one who kept getting squeezed out. The Rangers, though, have elected to keep their infield alignment the same as last year, and give Moreland what could be one final chance to prove his value. The key for him is to hit left-handed pitching, something the left-handed hitter hasn’t done or been given the chance to do. Moreland had only 46 of his 327 at-bats (14 percent) last year against lefties, and hit only .239 against them. He convinced a former college lefty to pitch to him over the off-season, and the results of that work should start to unfold this spring. He’s going to get the chance.

“Being able to walk in and know you’re going to be in there every day gives you a boost of confidence,” Moreland said. “When you can be comfortable and relaxed without thinking about [being in a platoon] helps anybody. I can just go out and play.”

Nelson Cruz, RF

Everything appears to be going well on the field for Cruz so far this camp. He launched a solo homer Tuesday in the first intrasquad game, crushing a 3-1 fastball from Jake Brigham. Of course, no one is particularly worried about Cruz on the field. Off the field, though, is an entirely different story, a story that could take him off the field for 50 games for his involvement in an anti-aging clinic that reportedly distributed performance-enhancing drugs. If he’s busted, look for Mike Olt to get most of the playing time in right field. No one is certain when MLB will finish its investigation. Until it does, Cruz said that his head is in the right place.

“I think God touched me and made me realize that it doesn’t matter what happens, he’s always there for me,” Cruz said.

Leonys Martin, CF

The Rangers have only one significant position battle this spring. It’s in center field, where Martin is competing with Julio Borbon to be the left-handed complement to Craig Gentry in a platoon. Martin conquered Triple A last year, batting .359 with 12 homers in only 55 games, but was injured for the second time in as many minor-league seasons. His base running and bunting need more work, but he has shown ample improvement. He’s the player the Rangers want to seize the job full time. A lights-out spring could lead them down that road. He will start the spring opener today.

“Martin will get an opportunity to show what he can do,” Washington said. “We have to let it play out. I’m not favoring anyone. He knows what he’s doing.”

Robbie Ross, LHP

The left-hander will be on the Opening Day roster, assuming he stays healthy this spring, but where he ends up on the pitching staff will cause some dominoes to fall. Ross is being looked at as a starter in Cactus League games. If he takes the fifth spot in the rotation, the Rangers will need to find another lefty to go with Michael Kirkman in the bullpen. Neal Cotts, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2009, could be that pitcher. So could Martin Perez, who is vying with Ross for the rotation opening. Ross, a starter in the minor leagues, knows he could end up back in the bullpen. If he does, he and Kirkman will likely be the lefties in the bullpen on Opening Day.

“I’m trying to just soak stuff in, enjoy it and not put pressure on myself,” Ross said. “I’ve always wanted to be a starter, and that’s my biggest goal in the big leagues. I would love to be a starter.”

Alexi Ogando, RHP

Ogando is another pitcher who is on the 2013 roster, and he knows that he will be back in the starting rotation. That’s the role he was in two seasons ago when he blossomed into an All-Star, but the second half of the season wasn’t the hit that the first half was. The right-hander wore down down the stretch and ended up in the bullpen for the playoffs. He stuck there last year. The yo-yo act is a thing of the past, but concerns about late-season fatigue and an ability to replicate his 2011 success linger this spring. Ogando is working on a changeup that he is throwing a few mph slower, down to 85 or 86, than in the past. He’s also better equipped to be a starter after having done it once already.

“I’d never pitched a lot of innings,” said Ogando, who threw 169 innings in 2011. “That was a big difference. But it’s better now. The preparation is different.”

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