March 30, 2013

Rangers open with confidence despite off-season misfires

The AL West power believes good health will produce a successful season, which begins tonight in Houston.

Plan A for the Texas Rangers during the off-season came undone in the matter of five days in December, when a prized free-agent starting pitcher and their own prized free-agent outfielder thought pastures would be greener somewhere other than in Arlington.

The money wasn’t any greener. There was just more of it for Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton in Southern California. And, they thought, there is a better chance to win a world championship.

Adrian Beltre lives in Southern California, where there was no shortage of news about how Greinke chose the Dodgers and Hamilton chose the Angels instead of Beltre’s Rangers.

That didn’t sit well with the game’s best all-around third baseman, so he placed a phone call to Jon Daniels to see what kind of team the general manager was planning to put together for 2013.

“I wanted to make sure that we have a competitive team,” Beltre said. “I did not want to be in a situation with a team that is in a rebuilding process. I didn’t know exactly what was going on.”

But with spring training complete and with Opening Day upon him, Beltre is no longer concerned, and neither are any of the other Rangers players who saw the same things he did.

That’s not just delirium from seven weeks in Arizona.

If anything, the Rangers received a longer look at what they have, and they believe they have a team that can contend for a fourth straight playoff appearance and a third American League West title in the past four years.

The journey begins tonight in Houston for a group that has found its footing entering the season opener.

“That’s kind of what I expected to happen,” left fielder David Murphy said. “It’s a group of guys that has been around a while, and we’ve got a lineup full of All-Stars. We know how to win. We just have to go execute.”

Players who were surveyed about the Rangers’ chances in 2013 pointed first to what the Rangers had in place all along, not what they lost or couldn’t acquire in the off-season.

Beltre is one of three All-Star infielders, and three members of the pitching staff also made the All-Star team in 2012. Three other players have been All-Stars, and that was before the Rangers added free-agent All-Stars A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman.

Those veterans weren’t scared off by the departures of Hamilton, Michael Young, Mike Napoli and Mike Adams, among others, because the group that was left was still talented.

“People always look to what you don’t have,” said Pierzynski, who signed a one-year, $7 million deal in December. “I knew from watching them and the way they went about it and what they expected, I felt they still had a good core of guys here.

“Now that I’ve been here for spring training, I can see it even clearer. They expect to win, and they go about their business like they’re going to win.”

Pierzynski has also had a firsthand look at the pitching staff, which gives him and his teammates the most optimism about the Rangers’ chances. He sees four starting pitchers who can compete with any other four in the league. He has faith in No. 5 starter Nick Tepesch and a bullpen that enters the season with only one role defined.

But it starts at the top with Opening Day starter Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish, who Pierzynski said has stuff as good as anyone he has caught. That includes Johan Santana in his prime.

“It all begins and ends with pitching,” Pierzynski said. “Harrison, Darvish, [Derek] Holland and [Alexi] Ogando, that’s a pretty good four.”

Berkman, 37, sees the same things in his veteran eyes, from the rotation to a lineup that he said has no holes. But he entered spring training and enters the season as the biggest question in the Rangers’ lineup. It’s not so much if he can still hit, which he has shown shouldn’t be a concern, but if he can stay healthy.

He underwent two surgeries on his right knee last year, including a procedure in September. Despite being on a delayed scheduled this spring, Berkman said he’s pleased with how the knee is responding.

“That part of it has worked out great,” he said.

The players are also mindful of how the team could be reshaped as soon as May. Colby Lewis, Martin Perez and Joakim Soria are on schedule to return no later than early June, and Neftali Feliz could be back by August.

The Rangers haven’t been shy the past few years at the trade deadline, and they have Jurickson Profar, the game’s top prospect, and Mike Olt, another top prospect, continuing to develop at Triple A.

“The team’s always an evolving group,” Berkman said. “The team you break camp with is almost never the team you end up the season with. As it sits today, I think we’re in great shape.”

Even Beltre, who voiced his concerns in December, is as confident as the rest of the team. The Rangers might not have Hamilton, Napoli, Young or Greinke, but they like what they will have at Minute Maid Park on Sunday night and throughout the 2013 season.

“I see a good team that is good enough to compete in the West,” Beltre said. “We got a couple of pieces that we think it’s going to help our ballclub get better. Just like any other club, it’s going to come to down to staying healthy. If we stay healthy, we have a chance.”

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