How does Hunter Pence feel about playing for hometown team?
The last player on the Texas Rangers’ spring roster to report to the Surprise Recreation Campus is infielder Chase d’Arnaud, whose chances at making the Opening Day roster seem pretty slim.
Speaking of slim, veteran outfielder Hunter Pence made his debut Saturday morning in the Rangers’ clubhouse, where a suddenly slim outfielder, Willie Calhoun, has been working for around two weeks.
Neither Pence nor Calhoun is guaranteed a roster spot when the Rangers open the season March 28 against the Chicago Cubs. At least Calhoun is on the 40-man roster and guaranteed to be in the organization.
But, from the outside looking in, it appears Calhoun and Pence are competing for the same roster spot, as a reserve on manager Chris Woodward’s bench.
Let one of the few spring position battles begin.
“I’m really looking forward to getting here, giving it my all and trying to make the team,” said Pence, who turns 36 on April 13.
“At this age, it is a privilege to have an opportunity and a spot in big league camp, to get an opportunity to go out and improve yourself and bring everything I can. Ultimately, I wouldn’t want it much any other way. I definitely have to get better than last year. I want to be able to make an impact and help the team win.”
The former Arlington High and UT-Arlington star is trying to extend his career to a 13th season. He is a three-time All-Star who won two World Series with the San Francisco Giants.
He looked to be trending toward retirement after a difficult 2018, but he went to work almost immediately after the season to reinvent himself with swing guru Doug Lotta. He didn’t join the Launch Angle Revolution as much as adapting his swing to the “Short To, Long Through” approach.
The belief is that if his bat is in the strike zone longer, he will have more chances to hit the ball. So dedicated was Pence that he spent much of his off-season in Los Angeles, rather than his home in Houston, and even played in the Dominican Winter League to try out his new swing.
“I was working on the swing before I went there, went there and worked on it in games,” Pence said. “Had some success and some failure, learned a lot, came back, and I felt I knew what I wanted to feel facing a pitcher versus facing a machine in a cage. They are different. It was invaluable to get those at-bats in the off-season, especially when you are in a situation where you are playing to make the team.”
How Pence does this spring is TBD, but the Rangers know what they’re getting from Pence in the clubhouse. General manager Jon Daniels called Pence an “elite teammate” and said he is the ideal model for the kind of player manager Chris Woodward wants the Rangers youngsters to become.
“That is humbling to hear,” Pence said. “It means a lot to be looked at in that regard. Ultimately, I’m here to give my best. To me that’s the dream, to be a part of a team that accomplishes something great, and I am going to do everything I can to do that.”
The prize of the Yu Darvish trade nearly two years ago has also reinvented himself, down 24 pounds from last season and aiming to become even more lean and mean.
“[Next] off-season I want to come back with a six-pack. That’s my goal,” said Calhoun, who weighed 199 pounds Wednesday. “Now that I’ve got all the weight off, I’m going to try to look like Delino [DeShields]. I know it’s probably impossible, but that’s my goal. That’s looking way ahead, but being ahead of the curve, I’m going to keep working throughout the season, as hard as I can.”
He also wants to make the first Opening Day roster of his career, and has put himself in a position to do so by taking control of his fitness. He followed a strict diet plan over the off-season, cutting of food intake at 7:30 p.m., and eventually the weight started melting away.
Along the way, Calhoun has become more athletic. Woodward said that Calhoun has the fastest bat speed on the team, and has the data to document it.
The work has paid off, even if it doesn’t result in a roster spot when camp breaks.
“I feel like I’m in a race with myself,” Calhoun said. “If I start looking at other things like that, and I won’t be able to focus on other stuff that I have to do. So, I just feel like I’m in a race with myself, and trying to focus on everything that I have to do and going out there and being everything I can. That’s what I’m trying to focus on this spring.”
Who makes the roster?
The way the rest of the Rangers’ roster shapes up could benefit both players.
“I can definitely see a scenario where they both make the team,” Woodward said.
Here’s one way:
The Rangers would take a seven-man bullpen, and not the eight they have used in the recent past that has shrunk their bench to three players.
Backup catcher Isiah Kiner-Falefa is one of the four bench player, and it seems likely that a corner infielder, Patrick Wisdom or Matt Davidson, would also make the team. That leaves two bench spots, one for Pence and one for Calhoun.
“Who knows?” Woodward said. “There are a lot of things that are going to happen from now to Opening Day. Willie should feel like he’s done everything possible up to this point. Now, he just needs to go out and let his body work.”
A few questions, though, would need to be answered:
Would the Rangers want Calhoun to play every day in the minors as he continues to develop?
Is Pence going show enough this spring to win a roster spot?
“I think he is 100 percent dedicated to getting back to where he feels like he should be,” Woodward said. “I’m excited. He brings an attitude that we’ve already talked at length about. That belief. He is a world champion, and he was a big part of creating that culture where he won that championship. That, to me, sets him apart from a lot of people. We’ll see where the swing is.”