By Stephen Hawkins
For the first time since the Texas Rangers moved their spring training west a decade ago, Michael Young won't be walking into their clubhouse in Arizona this week.
Neither will slugger Josh Hamilton, the five-time All-Star and former AL MVP. And they're not defending an American League title either. They didn't win a game last October following World Series appearances the previous two seasons.
There are some significant differences as Rangers pitchers and catchers report to Surprise, Ariz., on Tuesday, three days before the reporting date for the rest of the squad.
"It's definitely going to be a different atmosphere," said 18-game winner Matt Harrison, the left-hander who got a new contract last month.
That doesn't mean the Rangers have lowered their expectations or feel they had a bad offseason even though they failed to keep Hamilton — they wouldn't have matched the $125 million, five-year deal he got from the AL West rival Los Angeles Angels — and missed out on signing top free-agent pitcher Zack Greinke. Young, the longest-tenured Texas player after 12 seasons, was traded to Philadelphia where he is expected to be a full-time starting third baseman again.
"I'm genuinely like our chances," general manager Jon Daniels said. "Obviously there were a couple of guys we were interested in early on that ended elsewhere. That's part of the deal. ... We like our club, and we like the possibilities ahead of us."
Especially with the starting rotation they have in place, likely for several seasons to come after the $55 million, five-year deal for 27-year-old All-Star lefty Harrison with a club option for 2018 that could become guaranteed.
Japanese ace Yu Darvish heads into the second year of a $56 million, six-year deal, though there are provisions that could allow the 26-year-old right-hander to become a free agent after a year earlier, after the 2016 season.
Derek Holland, a 26-year-old lefty, is under contract through 2016, with club options for two additional years. And Alexi Ogando, a 13-game winner and All-Star starter in 2011 before pitching out of the bullpen last season, is back in the rotation and under team control at least four more seasons, including his arbitration-eligible years.
"We've had some great individual performances, but to look up and have Matt and Yu and Derek and Alexi, and know that the core of the rotation is going to be here — these are accomplished young pitchers," Daniels said. "It is evidence that all the efforts we've made on the scouting and development side to put this young rotation together, that it's paying off."
Remember, this is a team that used to be known primarily for its slugging.
While there will be competition among several young pitchers in spring training for the No. 5 starting spot, the Rangers anticipate the return of veteran right-hander Colby Lewis by June or July from elbow surgery.
Darvish had a much more low-key arrival in Arizona on Monday than a year ago, when his every move was documented by international media as he made adjustments to a new country and a new league. He went 5-1 with a 2.35 ERA, 67 strikeouts and 15 walks over his last eight starts of the regular season.
"Compared to last year, I feel so much more at ease, after finishing my first year getting to know all the players, the coaches, the front-office personnel. ... I really feel I'm part of the team now. How I feel right now, it's a totally different feeling," Darvish said before getting to Arizona. "Last year, there was more of a rush, trying to prepare at a much quicker pace. This time, I'm going at my own pace."
Manager Ron Washington, getting ready for his seventh season with the Rangers, hopes Darvish can build on the consistency he showed the second half of his All-Star debut.
"I think what he accomplished was finding who Yu Darvish was, the same Yu Darvish we thought we had when we got him," Washington said.
Switch-hitting designated hitter Lance Berkman, signed after Hamilton's departure, is likely to take over in the No. 3 spot in the lineup. The six-time All-Star was limited to 32 games last season for St. Louis because of a strained left calf and two operations on his right knee, but the Texas native expects to be ready for the regular season.
For now, the Rangers expect Nelson Cruz to be their everyday right fielder, though he is part of a Major League Baseball investigation being among several players named in a Miami New Times story about banned growth hormones and other banned performance-enhancing substances.
Cruz, third baseman Adrian Beltre and shortstop Elvis Andrus are among Rangers players expected to miss some of camp to participate in the World Baseball Classic. Top prospect Jurickson Profar, who could have a chance to make the 25-man roster, also might play in that international tournament.