Monday, the 2019 Texas Rangers are going to take the field for their first full-squad workout in Arizona, kicking off the rituals that mark the return of spring, and baseball. At the end of the week, they'll play their first spring training games and begin the process of figuring out which of the spare parts they've picked up over the winter can help them do what they want to do in 2019.
The Rangers have goals this year, but they're different from those of the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians or Astros. The success or failure of their 2019 season won't be measured in wins and losses. Instead, it's going to be remembered for how well the team positioned itself to return to competitiveness as it moves into its new home at Globe Life Field in 2020.
Even in the best-case scenario, the one in which the grab-bag of castoffs general manager Jon Daniels signed in the offseason over-perform and the young Rangers who need to improve do so, there isn't enough talent on the big league roster to compete for a playoff spot. Worse teams have been found hanging around the playoff picture at the All-Star break, but competing into the fall is too big an ask for this team. The worst thing that could happen to the Rangers this year is being on the fringes of the playoff picture at the trade deadline, keeping them from making moves to pick up prospects. This is not the time to hope for Daniels & Co. This is the time to rebuild.
As baseball returns in earnest, Rangers fans should pay more attention to spring happenings that will affect the 2021 or 2022 seasons, rather than getting lost in the minutiae of who's going to take the last bench or bullpen spot on this year's club.
Here are some things to watch over the next month-plus:
1. Is Willie Calhoun turning a corner? — One of the Rangers' biggest questions last spring remains unanswered today: Can Willie Calhoun, the biggest piece in the package of players the Rangers received from the Dodgers for Yu Darvish at the 2017 trade deadline, earn a spot in the majors and get a full season of big league plate appearances as the team's fourth outfielder and sometime DH?
By all reports, Calhoun is ready to go this year. He's shed almost 30 pounds from his previously Kirby Puckett-like frame and will get to work with new Rangers manager Chris Woodward in Surprise, building on a relationship developed when both were Dodgers employees.
Calhoun is such a good hitter that the Rangers are going to continue to give him chances, even if he fails to stick with the big league club for the second year in a row. That being said, the sooner he shows he can succeed against the best pitchers in the world, the better the chance he has to be the designated hitter on the Rangers' next playoff team.
2. Will Joey Gallo get even better? — Because he strikes out a ton and doesn't hit for average, there's a perception among some Rangers fans that the former top prospect is a disappointment or even a bust. That's not true, of course — Gallo's prodigious power, decent defense at multiple positions and excellent base running have made him basically a three-win player in each of the past two seasons — but an improved approach at the plate could see the 25-year-old move from being a good player to being an All-Star.
Luis Ortiz, the Rangers' new hitting coach, should help Gallo move in that direction. He's worked with Gallo since 2011, when he was a roving hitting instructor for the team's minor league clubs. If their relationship helps Gallo be more disciplined at the plate, the outfielder could be in for a special couple of seasons.
3. Will Nomar Mazara make himself trade bait? — As one contemplates the apparent stagnation of Nomar Mazara's development, it's worth remembering that he won't turn 24 until April 26. Mazara's peers are still trying to earn their shots at the big leagues; Mazara is about to begin his fourth pro season. That doesn't stop Mazara from being frustrating — he flashes so much talent and grace but can't maintain a high level of play over long stretches — but baseball has a long history of young players who struggle, and then find it all at once.
If Mazara can break through in 2019, he'll be an ideal trade candidate in July. The Rangers' farm system is stocked with outfield talent. Trading an improved Mazara from a position of strength could help with the continued rebuild of the rest of the system.
4. Will Chris Woodward bring the Rangers into the 21st century? — Despite their success from 2009 to 2016, Ron Washington and Jeff Banister, the Rangers' previous two managers, showed little interest in adapting to the strategic and statistical advancements that have marked the last decade or so in baseball. Daniels believes that Woodward, less than a decade removed from his last MLB appearance, will adapt to the changing game.
"Chris brings high energy, outstanding leadership and communication skills, a strong knowledge of the game and its evolving strategies and great integrity — attributes that we feel are vital for our next manager. We believe these traits will resonate with our players, our staff and our fans," he said shortly after hiring Woodward.
Expect more defensive shifts, more creative bullpen use and happier players with Woodward in charge.
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