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PLAYER TO WATCH
The most important lesson for Josh Hamilton in 2009? "Obstacles that are standing are in place for a reason and aren't going to move when I hit them," he says. Hamilton's fearlessness in the outfield is as much of a personal trademark as his tape-measure home runs and tattoos. But it was the reason he crashed into the right-centerfield wall at The Ballpark in Arlington last May 17, a collision that led to a cavalcade of injuries—groin, abdomen, back, ribs—that ruined his season. Hamilton, 28, had only 10 home runs and 54 RBIs in 89 games after slugging 32 homers and driving in 130 runs in 156 games the year before.
Hamilton wasn't the only Ranger who slumped, and Texas's offense, the highest-scoring in the majors in 2008, fell to 10th. "It was frustrating, knowing that if we'd had a year offensively like we had in '08, we probably would have been in the playoffs," Hamilton says of Texas, which finished eight games out of the AL wild-card spot.
To protect their most valuable hitter this season, the Rangers will play Hamilton mostly in rightfield and at DH. Giving him less ground to cover combined with a subtle shift in his defensive approach should help keep Hamilton in the lineup—and boost Texas's chances of winning its first AL West title since 1999. "If [the situation] calls for hitting the wall, hit the wall," he says. "If not, play the ball off the wall. I'd much rather be in the lineup every day than make one great play and be out for the rest of the month."
Drop in the Rangers' team ERA in 2009 from '08, the majors' biggest improvement. The secret? Texas bettered its defensive efficiency, a measure of balls in play turned into outs. In '08 the Rangers were the AL's least efficient team (.670). In '09 they were second best (.697).
The comparison is irresistible. Looking at Neftali Feliz is like looking at a young Pedro Martinez: same wiry frame and effortless motion, same electric fastball, same preternatural command, same dominant run through the minors. The Rangers are justifiably protective of Feliz—he pitched just 127 1/3 innings in 2008 and 108 1/3 in '09, including a 31-inning stint in the majors during which he struck out 39 and walked eight. With Feliz turning 22 in May, they will again look to manage his workload. So why not harken back to Martinez, who at age 21 in 1993 was a high-leverage reliever for the Dodgers, throwing 99 2/3 innings across 63 relief appearances. That kind of workload protects Feliz while giving the Rangers a highly effective bridge between their six-inning starters and closer Frank Francisco.