"Way too short on pitching to contend."
Ultratalented centerfielder Josh Hamilton was driving balls so far this spring, he was inspiring baseball insiders to invoke the phrase "A-Rod ability." Hamilton, in fact, is the most exciting player to join the Rangers since, well, A-Rod himself in 2001. Traded from Cincinnati to Texas in December, Hamilton was the big comeback story of last season -- overcoming drug addiction and a two-year suspension from baseball to have a big season for the Reds. Now Hamilton has the potential to reenergize a flagging franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 1999. "If he stays healthy, he could hit 50 home runs in Texas's ballpark," says one National League scout, who compared Hamilton with a different slugger. "He has a Barry Bonds-like stroke, short yet powerful."
Of course even if Hamilton fulfills expectations, the Rangers are still way too short on pitching to contend. Their persistent effort to land prize free agent Johan Santana this off-season failed ("What pitcher, in his right mind, would want to pitch in that park?" one scout says); the current staff is mostly young and unproven; and the team had to give up top pitching prospect Edinson Volquez to get Hamilton. (New team president Nolan Ryan is the best arm the Rangers have.) The most promising pitchers in the organization -- Eric Hurley, Wilmer Font, Neftali Feliz, Michael Main, Matt Harrison and Fabio Castillo -- aren't ready yet to make the jump to the majors.
But with that collection of young hurlers, some of whom came in the haul from last season's trade deadline deal that sent All-Star first baseman Mark Teixeira to the Braves, Texas appears to be setting itself up nicely for the future. Two other players who came in that trade -- 19-year-old shortstop Elvis Andrus, a smooth-fielding, Edgar Renteria-type player, and 22-year-old catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- are two more reasons for hope. (Though it appears that Saltalamacchia will need some more seasoning before he can be a starting catcher.) "Since I've been here I've never seen so many good young players," shortstop Michael Young says. "They're everywhere, but they're probably not ready to contribute yet."
In the meantime, the Rangers will have to keep their fingers crossed. The projected rotation combined to win only 25 games last year, and with 6' 7" righthander Brandon McCarthy nursing a strained forearm heading into the season, here's what's left: 33-year-old Kevin Millwood, who is recuperating from a hamstring pull this spring; up-and-down veteran Vicente Padilla, 30; cost-effective free-agent pickup Jason Jennings, 29; soft-tossing lefty Kason Gabbard, 25; and 24-year-old righthander Luis Mendoza, who has three career starts. Last year the Rangers' rotation ranked 11th in the AL with a 4.75 ERA and was the only staff in the league without a complete game. With such added pressure put on the bullpen, Texas picked up the aptly named reliever "Every Day" Eddie Guardado, 37, in January.
Although upbeat manager Ron Washington speaks hopefully about his team's chances, even he concedes, "It's certainly not going to be easy."
Another centerfielder, 29-year-old Milton Bradley, also signed in the off-season, giving the Rangers a solid core of outfielders. (Bradley, however, will start the year as the DH after undergoing off-season knee surgery.) Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler, who hit 20 home runs and stole 23 bases in his second season in the majors, is a star on the rise. And the Rangers are hoping for big years from 31-year-old first baseman Ben Broussard and 26-year-old outfielder David Murphy. Young, a perennial producer of 200 hits, remains the team's anchor, but the great hope is that he isn't the lone star again. If Hamilton stays clean and healthy, he can become the superstar that he was originally envisioned to be. -- Jon Heyman
Issue date: March 31, 2008