Clearly, there was a new beat, a different vibe on the practice fields of the Texas Rangers this spring.
And it wasn’t just the music — Latin hip-hop? — coming from the new Bluetooth-linked speakers.
American League Manager of the Year Jeff Banister’s attempt to build upon last season’s division-winning finish appeared to have succeeded.
This is a confident ballclub. A happy ballclub. A team without drama, lingering issues, scores to settle or final strikes to redeem.
The resident drama king, Josh Hamilton, was quickly neutralized with crutches and a rehab schedule. His left field job vacancy was filled within days by free agent Ian Desmond, who soon became the most popular interview in camp.
Rangers fans are going to love Desmond, whose athleticism will give Banister’s lineup a right-handed dimension that it lacked last season.
Desmond, who played seven years in Washington, seemed to blend into the Rangers clubhouse from the first day, and that was important because his early-camp addition produced a ripple effect on other roster decisions that were eventually made.
Ryan Rua, for example. His 2015 season nearly ended with a foot injury after only five games. Rua, who just turned 26, finished with 83 at-bats and was lumped into the pile of spring training left field candidates.
Desmond will get that role, but Rua has staked his claim for playing time by batting around the .400 mark all spring. He will make an ideal platoon partner at first base for left-handed hitting Mitch Moreland.
And that’s the other new vibe. With the exception of a backup catcher, Banister seems blessed with positive options at every position this season, something that seems to get missed by all the preseason magazines and projection websites.
Second baseman Rougned Odor, who recently turned 22, showed that he can bat leadoff, second and even fifth or sixth, if need be. Desmond’s power presence will likely push Elvis Andrus down a lineup spot or two, where he’s better suited.
The Rangers scored only 751 runs last season and outscored opponents by a modest 18 runs. The projection prognosticators are enamored of the run differential statistic, hence their apparent infatuation with the Houston Astros.
This Texas team, however, seems deep enough and balanced enough to provide an offensive upgrade over last season.
The Rangers may need it, if Derek Holland and Martin Perez don’t pitch to the club’s high expectations. But how are Holland and Perez any more of a dice roll than Houston’s Doug Fister and Scott Feldman?
If need be, general manager Jon Daniels and his lieutenants have assembled for Banister a deep bullpen.
The bullpen’s one lingering question mark this spring was closer Shawn Tolleson, who had back problems early in camp and has yet to catch up.
There are enough good arms among the relievers, however, that Banister has toyed with the idea of beginning the season with an eight-man bullpen.
No area of the team has had a more dramatic upgrade. Tony Barnette was a standout in Japan and Tom Wilhelmsen’s major league ledger is solid.
A year ago, consider that Banister had to choose from a reliever list that included Logan Verrett, Stolmy Pimentel, Jon Edwards and Tanner Scheppers.
Health among the starting rotation again will be important. Yu Darvish has to pitch like the staff ace when he returns in May. Daniels hasn’t forgotten that the best of the Ron Washington teams, the 2011 AL champs, saw five pitchers make 157 of the 162 starts.
Doubters seem to abound, for some reason. USA Today predicted the Rangers will go 85-77. The Baseball Prospectus number crunchers pegged the Rangers at 80-82.
That’s silly. Last year’s Rangers, even after an 8-16 start, went 88-74.
After watching them for more than three weeks in the desert, the one thing that’s undeniably apparent is that the 2016 Rangers are going to be better.
Put me down for 91-71 better, at the least.