Five Things to Watch For as Rangers Summer Camp Kicks Off Friday
Texas Rangers baseball makes its return on Friday with the first official workouts of Summer Camp. Staggered workouts and intrasquad games will be on the daily manifest for the 55—soon to be 57—players in Arlington over the next three weeks before COVID-19 mercifully allows the baseball season to begin July 24.
Naturally, there are several storylines to watch for heading into Spring Training, and Summer Camp is not immune to that either. The coronavirus pandemic has altered its fair share of circumstances. Nevertheless, manager Chris Woodward is preparing his team for what is sure to be a wild ride of a season.
Here are five storylines to put in the forefront of your mind as Summer Camp kicks off on Friday:
COVID-19 & Injuries
Unfortunately, the number one story to keep tabs on doesn't dress in Rangers red, white, and blue—although it may infect a significant number of those who do.
If you're tired of reading about it, I'm tired of writing about it. The truth is COVID-19 is running rampant in Texas and throughout the rest of the country as well. Intake testing has gone on throughout the week as players have made their way to Arlington for Summer Camp. Once all of those tests come back, we'll get a general idea of how realistic a July 24 start is for the baseball season.
Here's the catch: teams cannot announce players that test positive for COVID-19. Yes, there is a COVID-specific Injured List that does not have a minimum or maximum set of days, but clubs are still restricted to make any formal announcements. The only way we would be made aware is if a player is willing to announce it on his own behalf. So, the COVID-19 storyline gets even more murky with this rule.
It's understandable, however, given the pending HIPAA infractions that would follow if clubs freely announced when a player tests positive. Privacy is obviously something the Players Association pushed for when negotiating health and safety protocols with Major League Baseball. A Rangers team source confirmed this restriction for clubs this past Monday.
Injuries always lay waste to a percentage of the roster and the 2020 season will likely have its fair share. With only three weeks to prepare and the urgency a 60-game season will demand, the risk of injury will go up. It will also be interesting to see if and when something happens to a player on the field that sends them to the IL as compared to when a player is mysteriously put on the IL without incident.
The truth is this will be a very interesting season to say the least.
The Rangers' starting rotation is the strength of the team. Some look at it as the lone reason why the Rangers could legitimately pull off a run to the postseason in a two-month sprint instead of a 6-month marathon.
Heading into Summer Camp, the revamped rotation of Lance Lynn, Mike Minor, Corey Kluber, Kyle Gibson, and Jordan Lyles have already begun to put the team on its back.
"All five of them are ahead of schedule. They have all done a heck of a job preparing in this time," Rangers manager Chris Woodward said on a Zoom call last Thursday. "I just talked to Julio [Rangel] about it today. By the time (Summer Camp) is over, it’s almost like we had the normal Spring Training and the normal off-season. That’s how ready they are."
Rangers pitching coach Julio Rangel told local reporters via Zoom on Wednesday that the plan for the pitchers going into camp is to start them off with four innings and 65 pitches their first time out. The goal is to have them pitch four outings over these three weeks and have them built up to six innings and 90 pitches by Opening Day.
To back up the rotation, the Rangers also have youngsters like Kolby Allard, Joe Palumbo, and Tyler Phillips. Versatile arms like Jonathan Hernandez, Taylor Hearn, and Luke Farrell provide flexibility and creativity for the Rangers as well.
“Joe Palumbo and Kolby Allard will pitch at the same time as the starters and be built up," Rangel said. "We’ll also have some younger guys too, like Tyler Phillips. We won’t have five full starters [to supplement the starting rotation]. We’ll also have some off days where we can work with that, too."
Who's on First?
First base was the position to watch during Spring Training. That hasn't changed going into Summer Camp.
Ronald Guzmán and Greg Bird will still have the first crack at the position, but the Rangers didn't forget how good Isiah Kiner-Falefa was during spring training. It forced Woodward's hand and was about to have Todd Frazier working at first base before camp was suspended in March.
“I’m looking for consistency. Obviously, with Guzmán and Bird, we’re still looking at those two guys to fill that role, but we have other options," Woodward said. "When we hit (Summer Camp), like I said, there’s not a lot of rope for either guy. We’re going to need some production at that position. We’re going to need consistency. ... I want to see it right from the beginning—both of those guys coming to compete.”
Nick Solak and Rob Refsnyder will also get some work in, but they will be down the list of options for first base. It will likely come down to Guzmán, Bird, or Frazier if Kiner-Falefa rakes like he did in Arizona.
Center Field at Globe Life Field
When Danny Santana was named the starting center fielder, many fans wondered how long he could sustain the position from a defensive standpoint. It is obviously one of the elite defensive positions on a baseball field and demands the best of whoever plays there.
In an interview with MLB Network, Chris Woodward magnified the importance of defense in center field at Globe Life Field, the brand new home of the Rangers.
"I think it is going to play bigger," Woodward said. "I think it's better for us in a long way. I talked to Rougie [Odor] today. He was taking BP—there's a lot of hits out there. Center fielders are going to have to play a little deeper. The center field position, there's going to be a lot of importance in our ballpark with that."
Admittedly, Rangers GM Jon Daniels believes the best defensive center fielders currently on the 60-man roster are Leody Taveras and Eli White. However, neither one are in the immediate plans for the major league roster unless injuries and COVID-19 demand it. This means leaves Danny Santana, Scott Heineman, and Nick Solak—who is learning the position—to man center field for the 2020 season.
The silver lining is the Rangers will play at Globe Life Field for three weeks prior to the season. It would be advantageous at the least to get as much work as possible for those guys. Any edge the Rangers can gain in a season like this is crucial. While MLB is allowing games to be played in home ballparks, make home field advantage play as big a role as possible.
Rougned Odor, Future MVP?
We've all seen what Rougned Odor is capable of. The inconsistency is what drives fans crazy.
Chris Woodward has a great deal of confidence in Odor. That was all but confirmed when we spoke with Woodward last Thursday.
"If Rougie has the month he had in September, he could be MVP of the league," Woodward said.
It's a two-month season. Sustaining success over two months is a much different endeavor than the standard six. The good news is Odor is coming off a stretch where the "process-over-results" mantra began to click late in 2019. The bad news is Odor has traditionally not gotten off to a great start throughout his career.
Odor looked good in Spring Training. Not only were the numbers there, but even his outs showed signs of consistency. He truly minimized hacking at bad pitches. He worked the count in his favor. It was reminiscent of how he looked in September last year.
Woodward is going to drive the same mantra again. He understands the urgency a 60-game season demands. If his hand is forced, he'll make a change if the Rangers are in the thick of the race for the AL West division crown. However, he's going to stick with his guys if they are doing things the right way.
"I think it's even more important that players stick to what we started last year, in a shortened season. That's what they're going to look for from me," Woodward said. "We have to be even more vigilant from a statistical standpoint in valuing what we value to show those players. 'Hey man, don't get discouraged. I know there's only 60 games, but you're hitting the ball really hard, your at-bat quality is off the charts. We need you to keep doing that. Don't worry about looking up and seeing that you're hitting .210.' I think that's gotta be the message driven home to all these guys."