The day each March when large cardboard boxes are placed at each player’s locker in the big league clubhouse is a tell-tale sign that Texas Rangers spring training is winding down.
That day arrived Monday, and the boxes were loaded onto an equipment truck Wednesday on the Rangers’ only scheduled off day from the Cactus League schedule.
Only seven games are left before the Rangers board the team charter next Wednesday for the annual exodus from the desert. They will play a team from Mexico at Globe Life Park on March 27, followed by the two-game Big League Weekend on March 28-29 in San Antonio.
The final roster decisions, some based on competition and some based on need because of health issues, might not be decided until after the last out is made on the makeshift field at the Alamodome.
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So, no one will be lollygagging during the final week at the Surprise Recreation Campus. Those battling for roster spots will still be battling, and those with jobs locked up will continue to do whatever it takes for them to feel comfortable at the plate by the March 31 season opener against Philadelphia.
“This is a preparation period you take advantage of,” right fielder Alex Rios said. “You have to get ready and maintain that consistency.”
Two rotation spots and possibly two spots in the bullpen remain available. The Rangers are also still deciding if Neftali Feliz or Joakim Soria will be their closer.
But Colby Lewis, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross are the pitchers holding the rest of the staff hostage.
The Rangers want Lewis to make the rotation, but understand that he needs to prove he can get outs. Lewis will pitch Thursday in a minor league game while Ross heads to Goodyear for the A game in what could be his final audition for the rotation.
Scheppers’ final audition could be Friday in the A game.
Joe Saunders and Tommy Hanson are also left in the competition.
“We had a good meeting the other night, and I think we have a pretty good idea of which way we’re going,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “We just want to let it play out a few more days. I think by the weekend we’ll be able to line it up a little bit better.”
Should Ross or Scheppers pitch their way into a rotation spot, the Rangers would have to replace him in addition to finding a long man. Four left-handers remain in camp and could fill in for Ross. Right-hander Shawn Tolleson could replace a rotation-bound Scheppers.
Hanson could take the long-relief role if he misses out on a starting job.
Michael Choice has claimed a bench spot, though no official word has been given. With the Phillies starting left-hander Cliff Lee on Opening Day, the right-handed-hitting Choice could start the opener at designed hitter.
But the rest of the bench is unsettled. J.P. Arencibia is the heavy favorite to be the backup catcher, but Robinson Chirinos has made the Rangers think twice. Adam Rosales, Brent Lillibridge and Josh Wilson are in the mix to be the utility infielder. Corner infielder Kevin Kouzmanoff and outfielders Engel Beltre and Jim Adduci could also win a bench job.
“There’s still competition,” manager Ron Washington said.
Position players who have made exits after five and six innings will be tested the final week when they are asked to play a full nine innings, and relievers will be asked to pitch back-to-back days. Many of the regulars who played the late game Tuesday night played 10 innings.
Washington prefers that the regulars get three full games before the season starts.
There will be exceptions because of the long list of injuries the Rangers have dealt with this spring. Third baseman Adrian Beltre, to name one, probably will get only one or two nine-inning stints.
“Right after the off day, I’d like to have them as we’re going down the stretch,” Washington said. “My intention is to start getting nine innings out of them. I want to get three nine innings out of them.”
Hitters will still try to see more pitches than they might during the regular season, but will start to be a tad more aggressive.
“You just like to feel good the last week,” Beltre said. “I just don’t want to get any nagging injuries.”
Beltre has been slowed by a nagging left quadriceps injury but is expected to return Thursday. He said that he will bat in minor league games if he feels like he needs more at-bats the final week.
But his issue is no longer the Rangers’ primary concern. Designated hitter Mitch Moreland has a strained left oblique muscle that could limit his availability for the opener, and shortstop Elvis Andrus is nursing elbow tightness that Dr. Keith Meister will evaluate Friday.
The Rangers have yet to field their projected Opening Day lineup this spring.
“We’ve got to get healthy more than anything else,” Daniels said.