The first few weeks of spring training, and, let’s face it, the first, oh, three weeks of games aren’t the most riveting of times for baseball fans.
Many players would agree.
Pitchers are getting in their work, good results not always required except on the golf course. Regular position players might last until the fourth inning, and after two days of that, they badly need a day off.
That’s not to say spring training doesn’t have value. Prospects get a chance to make a favorable first impression. New players learn their new teammates. New coaches learn their new pupils.
The Rangers have plenty of both this spring, which begins Wednesday as pitchers and catchers work out in Surprise, Ariz. The first full-squad workout is Feb. 18, and games begin Feb. 23 and run through March 24.
But the key questions a team has entering spring training remain the same pretty much until the final week of camp, though slowly but surely the answers become clearer and clearer.
So, the following list of questions facing the Texas Rangers is going to have some shelf life.
Will the rotation emerge healthy and effective?
That’s probably a question every team asks, but it’s especially key for a team whose healthiest pitcher is the one with the most health concerns in 2018.
Mike Minor passed all the tests in his return to an MLB rotation, and the Rangers no longer consider his shoulder issues an issue. Nor are they overly concerned about Lance Lynn, who has pitched two seasons since Tommy John surgery.
The other 60 percent of the projected rotation? They are either coming directly off a missed season because of Tommy John surgery or a missed season because the elbow didn’t respond well to Tommy John.
Edinson Volquez and Drew Smyly missed last season recovering from the elbow ligament replacement surgery, but advanced far enough in their rehab to have a normal off-season program.
Shelby Miller, who pitched only 16 innings last season before his elbow barked again, also had his normal off-season and will be unencumbered this spring.
There is always some unknown as pitchers return from Tommy John, usually their command and workload. The Rangers have three pitchers who are facing those unknowns.
Will a healthy Elvis Andrus be a 20-homer hitter again?
Coming off the best season of his career, which included 20 homers and 68 extra-base hits, Andrus was trending nicely his first 14 games of 2018.
But he his right arm was broken near the elbow in his final at-bat of Game 14 on April 11, when struck by a 96-mph Keynan Middleton fastball.
Andrus hit the disabled list with a shiny slash line of .327/.426/.500. After he returned June 18, he slashed at just .245/.289/.347 the rest of the way.
Not only is Andrus being counted on to be the team’s leader, his bat is also a big part of the offensive puzzle. The arm should have its strength back, and his mind should be able to let the arm loose.
What effect will the new coaching staff have on chemistry?
The chemistry question is always a tough one, and good chemistry might not mean the same thing with the Rangers as another club. Plus, the quality of the chemistry, might not be able to be accurately judged based on six weeks in the desert.
Then again, it seems the staff is already creating good vibes.
Players have raved about their offseason time with manager Chris Woodward, hitting coach Luis Ortiz and others new to the staff. Everyone is on the same page, and it’s a new page Woodward has turned in terms of information players will have and things he wants them to do individually.
The energy from the manager’s office is new, whether it’s better remains TBD. The players who worked out locally appear to have a stronger bond and seem to have be left to their own devices. They aren’t running amok, but they seem to be having more fun.
What are Willie Calhoun chances at making the Opening Day roster?
He has a locker in the big-league clubhouse, so that’s a good place to start. Calhoun spent most of the offseason in the Metroplex and stuck to a nutrition plan that has helped him shed weight.
He’s improving as a ballplayer, not just with his off-season work but with the visible improvements he made defensively last season.
But Calhoun plays left field, and that’s where Joey Gallo plays. Veteran Hunter Pence will be competing for a job, too.
Calhoun could DH, but Shin-Soo Choo is the primary designated hitter.
The Rangers will need bench players, maybe four of them depending on if they want seven or eight relievers in the bullpen. A bigger factor in Calhoun’s roster chances will probably be the Rangers’ willingness to stash a player who needs to play on the bench.
How will the new hitting coach impact Joey Gallo?
Ortiz has known Joey Gallo since 2011, when the Rangers drafted him and Ortiz was a roving hitting instructor in the minors.
Ortiz knows that Gallo hits the ball as hard as any player in the majors and that pitchers don’t want Gallo to hit one of their pitches hard.
Ortiz doesn’t want to do anything to take away from Gallo’s ability to hit balls hard. There is no swing reconstruction in progress, in other words.
However, Ortiz is stressing to Gallo a better understanding of what pitchers are trying to do to him and the importance of not giving in. The Rangers also want Gallo to be better with two strikes.
Gallo might hit for a higher average in 2019, but might not collect many more hits. He just might make fewer outs, either by drawing more walks or reducing his strikeouts or both.