Eleventh in a series of spring training previews
My, how times have changed, and it has nothing to do with the Texas Rangers turning into deficit hawks this off-season even though they have the deep ownership pockets and annual TV income to spend lavishly.
Consider this: Elvis Andrus is being looked at as a run producer, a threat to find a gap and clear the fence from the middle of the lineup. This unexpected development comes on the heels of the two best seasons of his career, including his best in 2017.
He hit 20 home runs and bagged 44 doubles, both career-highs, and drove in a career-best 88 runs. He did much of that damage as the Rangers' No. 3 hitter, sandwiched between Shin-Soo Choo and cleanup hitter Adrian Beltre.
Yes, Andrus, who entering the season had 35 career home runs in his first eight seasons.
His contract is no longer an albatross. After a season like that, the $15 million a season he's paid is a value. No one is looking for an answer from the minors leagues to replace him at shortstop.
The Andrus of 2017 might be more than the Rangers ever envisioned. Now, with a new season and another spring training ahead, he is planning to be even better.
"I just feel more mature as a hitter, knowing what I can do what I can still strive for," Andrus said. "It's something that a few years ago wasn't there. When you actually do it for the first time, it's like, 'OK, I know I can do this.'
"Then you have a different mentality every year and just try to get better and have better numbers, even when people won't think it will happen. In my head and in my mind I know I can be better and have a better year, and that's what I'm working toward."
Coming off a career year, it doesn't seem like there is much room for Andrus to improve. Entering the off-season, though, he wanted to work on his running to beat out more infield hits. His swing path wasn't as consistent as he wanted it either.
The goal is to find an "A swing" every at-bat and to continue to be aggressive when he sees a pitch he can drive.
The decision to let it go more frequently started in the second half of 2016 and carried over into last season. He hit four home runs in September 2016, including the first two-homer game of his career, and hit at least four in a month three times in 2018.
He was also at full strength after playing most of 2016 with a groin injury that was later diagnosed as a sports hernia and required off-season surgery. While he said his hitting was drastically affected by the injury, he hit balls harder more often in 2017.
The catch for Andrus and the Rangers is that if he does improve, he might opt out of his eight-year, $118 million contract after this season. Andrus said that he isn't thinking about that.
"I just want to be better than last year," he said.
The Rangers haven't given away Jurickson Profar in part because he might be needed to start at shortstop next season. He stands as the front-runner to back up Andrus, as shortstop is Drew Robinson's worst position and Darwin Barney, coming to camp on a minor-league contract, plays mostly second base and third base.
Of course, Andrus is one of the most durable players in baseball, so there might not be much room for anyone else to play shortstop. That will hold especially true if he improves upon his career year.
My, how times have changed.