The daily media briefing with manager Jeff Banister on Thursday was a bit more spirited than usual. It’s never a snore-fest, but the exchange between manager and beat writers was good baseball talk.
The time has come to bury the fluff and start delving more into the news. Camp breaks in less than a week, after all, though that is still too much time for definitive answers on the remaining undecided roster spots and how things are going to fall into line with the rotation, in the bullpen and in the lineup.
But it’s coming. It can’t come soon enough.
Thoughts? Here are The Surprise Five.
1. The starting rotation will be filled out by April 4, and what happened Thursday at Surprise Stadium will to have a significant impact on who becomes the No. 5 starter. Though he entered the day trailing in the competition, Chi Chi Gonzalez closed the gap on A.J. Griffin with five scoreless innings against Cincinnati.
Griffin was scheduled to pitch late Thursday against Oakland.
Gonzalez opened the spring schedule well enough, with two scoreless outings before allowing six runs in a minor league game and seven runs Saturday against Arizona. But he did all the things Thursday the Rangers wanted to see, especially the first time through the order as he threw first-pitch strikes to seven of the first nine batters and got five outs on the ground.
He pitched around a leadoff walk in the fourth, getting a double-play grounder.
2 Strikeouts this spring by Chi Chi Gonzalez in four Cactus League outings, both coming Thursday against Cincinnati
Griffin, though, entered Thursday without many hiccups. He has commanded the strike zone, changed speeds with two pitches, and seemed to ease the concerns about his durability after throwing only 14 1/3 innings the past two seasons because of elbow and shoulder injuries.
Banister, though, said that one strong performance isn’t going to win a spot.
“We’ll continue to evaluate that,” Banister said. “The complete body of work is really going to come into play more than one outing.”
The Rangers wanted Gonzalez to win the spot before camp. He was their first-round pick in 2013. He won’t cost the Rangers much money, and he is already on the 40-man roster.
He can still win the spot, but he’ll need to repeat his Thursday outing in his Cactus League finale.
2. The Rangers’ starting lineup, which featured five regulars and two potential bench players, broke loose for eight runs before exiting for the showers after six innings of a 12-5 victory.
Justin Ruggiano hit two homers, and, boy, did he need them. Adrian Beltre and Mitch Moreland also went deep, with each hitting his second homer of camp.
Moreland just missed a homer in his second at-bat and, though batting only .226, he says that things are starting to turn around for him personally and the offense as a whole.
While much has been made about the rotation after Cole Hamels and the bullpen, the offense has had a big spring and was one of the league’s best units late last season.
Moreland doesn’t see that changing in 2016.
“We’re going to be pretty stout,” Moreland said. “There aren’t too many weak spots. It’s going to be a lot of fun this year, especially when we get going like that.”
3. The Rangers got a little sloppy while losing six straight games in Arizona, with wins in San Antonio preventing an eight-game slide, but they had won two straight after a Wednesday meeting with Banister.
The manager said that he would have called the meeting even if the Rangers hadn’t committed six errors Sunday and had a sloppy 12-run loss Tuesday. The Rangers, he said, have hit the point in camp when it’s time to recharge the batteries and reapply some focus as the regular season approaches.
No butts were chewed. The meeting was just a gentle reminder that the last chapter of spring training is approaching and a new chapter — the 2016 season — is on the horizon.
“One of the things we reminded them of is this is a steady, gradual, uphill trek, not just to a pinnacle of Opening Day,” Banister said. “Opening Day is just a mark. That’s the starting line. You just don’t turn the light switch on on Opening Day. You should start sharpening that edge now.”
We reminded them of that, that we needed to tighten up all of our daily work, all of our approaches. Not refocus, but have great detail in the approaches at the plate, the execution of pitch, showing up for every single pitch.
Manager Jeff Banister
4. Josh Hamilton is excited, and that’s a good thing for a guy who this spring has seen his balky knee cost him significant playing time for the upcoming season. With Ian Desmond in the mix, Hamilton is no longer a regular player.
But he is still trying to be a player, and no one can fault him for that. The good news for him is that his left knee, he said, “is the best it’s felt in about five years.”
It took another cortisone shot to do it, but he went from not being able to do anything March 14 to a third straight day of on-field baseball activities Thursday.
Of course, a shot in mid-January had him feeling like a world-beater for about two weeks, and then the latest woes developed. He knows he can’t continue to get shot after shot, and he is going to stick to the plan the Rangers gave him and hope it works.
A healthy Hamilton could be a heck of a bench piece of the Rangers. He could be a heck of a lineup piece if he is needed for an extended stretch. Maybe he earns playing time.
Who knows? That question has hovered around Hamilton the past two years, maybe even three after a lousy first season in Anaheim.
But know this: He doesn’t want his story, his career, to end with him on the bench.
112 Games missed last season by Josh Hamilton, who had off-season shoulder surgery and went on the disabled list two other times with the Rangers
5. To close, a thought on the closer situation. It’s going to be Shawn Tolleson, even though Banister hemmed and hawed a little bit when asked directly who would be pitching the ninth inning on Opening Day if the Rangers have a 4-2 lead.
Banister said that he didn’t want to get into hypotheticals so far from the April 4 opener. The game situation could dictate who would get the save chance. Banister also didn’t want to say something with so many appearances left for relievers this spring, and then have it backfire before the opener.
“Shawn Tolleson will close games for us,” Banister said.
Tolleson was slowed earlier in camp by back spasms and is playing catch-up. He’s been a bit on the wild side as he works toward his regular-season form. Banister said that he isn’t worried.
“I think he’s really close,” Banister said.
And Tolleson is going to close.