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Washington first season with Rangers
Gagn� 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 Gagn� 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, Gagn� 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."
a modest proposal ...
The signing of Kenny Lofton doesn't address the defensive weakness in centerfield created by the free-agent defection of Gary Matthews Jr. to the Angels. At 39 Lofton (left) no longer has the speed to recover from his misreads, and he's always had a below-average arm. Also, he has become a platoon hitter because of his .652 OPS against lefties since 2004 (.793 against righthanders). Freddy Guzman, a 26-year-burner, would be a better choice for patrolling the pasture behind the Rangers' fly ball pitching staff while G.M. Jon Daniels looks for a centerfielder with a little more pop than Guzman has. Lofton could still be a healthy contributor, but as part of a Clinton Administration platoon with Sammy Sosa at DH. Lofton's OPS against righthanders and Sosa's power against southpaws combined makes for a high-production, high-Q-rating, low-cost designated hitter.