The first game of spring training arrives Saturday, and it can’t come soon enough for the players in the Texas Rangers’ clubhouse.
Mike Napoli, for one, can’t stand taking live batting practice for the simple fact that he can’t get motivated to try to cream a ball against one of his teammates. He said that he’ll have ample juice Saturday against the Kansas City Royals as the Rangers’ starter at first base.
Manager Jeff Banister said that the lineup won’t be loaded with regulars, and, indeed, the lineups posted for the weekend won’t be what he draws up for the April 3 season opener. If, by some chance, they are what he draws up, brace for a long season.
At some point next month, probably beginning after the trip for exhibition games to San Antonio, the regulars will play more in a final push to the 2017 starting line. Until then, enjoy the players who will be getting time, especially the young ones.
Thoughts? Here are The Surprise Five.
1. By the time the lid-lifter ends late Saturday afternoon, the Rangers will have seen two of the top candidates to be their No. 5 starter.
They are different pitchers, with Wagner throwing a heavy sinker and Griffin using the kitchen sink to get hitters out. But they are similar in that Wagner is coming off a season in which he hardly pitched just as Griffin last year was coming off two missed seasons.
Griffin needed extra time early in camp to fix his mechanics and give his shoulder a little extra time. Wagner had a strained lat muscle that cost him much of the 2016 season, and Friday was his first time on a mound since.
He isn’t limited physically, but he’s trying to get a feel for pitching again while trying to win a rotation spot. Griffin can relate.
Chi Chi Gonzalez, Nick Martinez, Dillon Gee, Mike Hauschild and Allen Webster are also in the hunt. Gee has the experience factor in his favor. Webster is a former top prospect. Gonzalez and Martinez are good buds whose career paths are similar.
Hauschild has never been in the majors, but he has a leg up in that he’s on the 40-man roster as a Rule 5 pick. The Rangers really like him, but keeping him is going to be difficult unless he wows this spring.
As of the eve of the first Cactus League game, Griffin is the front-runner.
2. Delino DeShields reported to camp last year looking like a linebacker, and instantly there were concerns that his bulk would cost him a step from his blister speed.
It did. He wasn’t beating out infield singles or bunts like he did as a rookie in 2015, and he wasn’t swiping bags as easily. Perhaps that cost him a chance to stick all season on the Rangers’ roster. At the very least, it played a role in his demotion.
A year later DeShields looks like a sprinter again. Down nearly 30 pounds, he says that his speed has returned as he attempts to win an Opening Day spot in left field or on the bench.
The speed isn’t just a factor offensively but in the field as well. Banister said that DeShields’ defense improved significantly in 2016 and he was their Rangers’ best outfielder at chasing down balls.
With Carlos Gomez pegged for center field this season, DeShields could easily cover the spacious left field at Globe Life Park. A DeShields-Gomez combination would quickly become a favorite of Rangers pitchers.
But DeShields also needs to get on base, and he showed his 2015 knack for it during the intrasquad scrimmage. He took two walks and saw six pitches in his other plate appearance. He scored a first-inning run on a Travis Snider double and later was called out trying to steal second even though most agree the umpire missed the call.
If first impressions matter, DeShields made a positive one Friday.
3. Near the top of the list of under-the-radar players I want to see most in spring training, if not at the top, is Eddie Gamboa, the knuckleballer acquired last week from Tampa Bay.
He threw live batting practice Friday to a group that included Adrian Beltre, who seemed to get a kick out of the knucklers thrown his way. Gamboa is more along the lines of R.A. Dickey than Tim Wakefield in that he mixes in a fastball and slider.
And it’s not just a batting-practice fastball. Gamboa says he pumps it up there at 88 to 90 mph, which is faster than Dickey.
With any knuckleballer, watching the catcher is just as entertaining. Steve Lerud had the duties Friday, using his regular glove and not one of the specialty gloves personal catchers of knuckleballers have used.
Another on my want-to-see list is Ronald Guzman, who is now the biggest player in camp after being a relative bean pole only a few seasons ago. He’s always been tall, as those who call him “the Condor” will attest, but now he’s growing horizontally to go with all that vertical.
Put Jose Trevino, the strong-armed catcher, in the group and Hauschild, just because Rule 5 guys have a little more intrigue attached to them.
4. The Rangers lost one of their own Thursday, when international scout Jose Luis Felomina succumbed to his two-year battle with colon cancer. He was only 50 years old.
Felomina was the area scout in Curacao who signed Jurickson Profar and became a dear friend to the Profar family, so much so that Profar’s mother was with Felomina when he passed at his home on the island nation.
Profar stopped for a visit with “Felo,” as he was known throughout the game, before coming to spring training. Mike Daly, the assistant general manager and former international scouting director, visited Felomina on Feb. 5.
But there had been an outpouring of support for Felomina long before his final days. A group of Rangers scouts — headed by Clarence Johns, James Keller and Brett Campbell and with an assist from former assistant general manager Thad Levine and Joda Parent, executive assistant to Jon Daniels — helped get Felomina to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and rounded up airline miles, hotel points and cash to treat Felomina and his family to a weeklong trip at Disney World.
“We saw him in January of 2016 in the Dominican, and that’s when Clarence Johns got the idea,” Daly said. “It’s a credit to the people that we have. I saw him on Super Bowl Saturday. He could still talk but he couldn’t feel his legs. I asked him if there’s anything we could do, and he said, ‘I’m just waiting for the lord to take me.’ “
Profar first met Felomina in 2004 at age 11, and the two forged a tight relationship. Felomina threw Profar batting practice and hit him grounders day after day in tropical Curacao, and often enjoyed the fine cooking of Profar’s grandmother.
It was a tough off-season for Profar, who also lost one of his best friends and another friend who was the cousin of Baltimore Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop. Profar said that he couldn’t wait for spring training to start but made sure he said goodbye to Felo.
“He was battling to the end,” Profar said. “He was a strong guy.”
5. Michael De Leon was signed out of the Dominican Republic for $550,000 as a skinny 16-year-old who came from a tough situation in the capital of Santo Domingo.
He lived with his grandmother, and so impoverished was his family that they didn’t have electricity. When he signed his Rangers contract, the only door to his house had to be left open to allow enough daylight into house so that he could see where to sign his name.
At the time, he might have weighed a 155 pounds. That was in 2013. Nearly four years later, De Leon said that he weighs 195 pounds. He should be on his way to Double A Frisco this season.
He connected for two singles in the intrasquad game, stole a base, and was in the right place at the right time — standing on second — when shortstop Jurickson Profar kicked a DeShields grounder to him. De Leon, noted for his glove work, turned the double play.
De Leon might never reach the major leagues, but he has already surpassed the expectations some in the organization had for him four years ago. No matter what happens, good for him.