Much of the conversation at Rangers camp this spring centered on the comeback of Sammy Sosa and understandably so, given his high profile and propensity for self-promotion. Ever modest, he wore a slammin' sammy's back T-shirt on his second day in Surprise, Ariz. But more important to Texas's season is the comeback of another former All-Star, new closer Eric Gagné. Over the last two years Gagné has pitched only 15 1/3 innings because of elbow and back injuries. Still, the memory of his 2003 Cy Young season, not to mention his 96.4% lifetime save rate -- no other active pitcher is higher than 91.7% -- was enough for the Rangers to gamble on a one-year, $6 million deal. "There were very few guys on the market who we thought could be impact players, and he was at the top of the short list," says general manager Jon Daniels. "At six million we're counting on him."
Gagné may not look the part of the intimidating closer, with his squat, 6-foot, 245-pound frame, scruffy hair and rumpled pants (he requests them a size larger than necessary), but if he regains his form, Texas will have one of the best bullpens in baseball. Hard-throwing Frank Francisco and Wes Littleton will split work in the seventh inning, and Akinori Otsuka, who racked up 32 saves in 36 chances last season, will pitch the eighth (that is, if Daniels doesn't trade him this spring for more depth in the rotation or another bat).
Otsuka isn't thrilled about his demotion. He says the Rangers didn't talk to him before signing Gagné and that he was caught by surprise because, "I thought I pitched very well last year." Otsuka isn't the type to let his displeasure affect his performance, but it's a situation worth watching.
Daniels's other off-season moves included a savvy pickup of OBP-machine Frank Catalanotto and a questionable signing of centerfielder Kenny Lofton, 39, who's a defensive downgrade over the departed Gary Matthews Jr. Both moves, however, were overshadowed by the decision to replace manager Buck Showalter with Ron Washington, the longtime A's infield instructor and third base coach. After four years in Texas, Showalter's dour personality had worn on the players. The arrival of Washington, not surprisingly, was greeted with everything short of a kegger, in part because many Rangers already knew him. While with Oakland, Washington had a habit of dispensing fielding tips to opposing players. Upon getting the job in November, he embarked on a barnstorming tour to reintroduce himself.
"I remember he called in the [winter] and was like, 'What are you doing tomorrow?'" says Michael Young, who lives in Palm Springs, Calif., in the off-season. "He was there the next morning for breakfast. I love the guy. He's going to get everything I have from Day One."
The Ranger who should benefit the most from the regime change is third baseman Hank Blalock, whose power numbers have declined from 32 homers and a .500 slugging percentage in 2004 to 16 and .401 in '06, something he admits was due in part to "being a little stubborn, trying to do it Hank's way." The wavering faith that Showalter had in him didn't help, either. When Blalock struggled against lefties last year, Showalter benched him, then later returned him to the lineup but hit him lower in the order. Now Blalock says he's ready to do it Ron's way. "He's always been my favorite coach on another team," says Blalock. "I'm looking forward to this year."
So too are the rest of the Rangers, whose owner Tom Hicks is not idly boasting when he says, "We could have the best infield in baseball and the best bullpen." Then again, by July, Gagné could be back on the DL, a reality Washington acknowledges. "I've never been with a team that has a bullpen with the potential that this team has," he says, "but potential doesn't win ball games." -- Chris Ballard
Issue date: March 26, 2007