Manager RonWashington first season with Rangers

MUCH OF the conversation at Rangers camp this spring centered on the comebackof Sammy Sosa and understandably so, given his high profile and propensity forself-promotion. Ever modest, he wore a slammin' sammy's back T-shirt on hissecond day in Surprise, Ariz. But more important to Texas's season is thecomeback of another former All-Star, new closer Eric Gagné. Over the last twoyears Gagné has pitched only 151/3 innings because of elbow and back injuries.Still, the memory of his 2003 Cy Young season, not to mention his 96.4%lifetime save rate--no other active pitcher is higher than 91.7%--was enoughfor the Rangers to gamble on a one-year, $6 million deal. "There were veryfew guys on the market who we thought could be impact players, and he was atthe top of the short list," says general manager Jon Daniels. "At sixmillion we're counting on him."

Gagné may notlook the part of the intimidating closer, with his squat, 6-foot, 245-poundframe, scruffy hair and rumpled pants (he requests them a size larger thannecessary), but if he regains his form, Texas will have one of the bestbullpens in baseball. Hard-throwing Frank Francisco and Wes Littleton willsplit work in the seventh inning, and Akinori Otsuka, who racked up 32 saves in36 chances last season, will pitch the eighth (that is, if Daniels doesn'ttrade him this spring for more depth in the rotation or another bat).

Otsuka isn'tthrilled about his demotion. He says the Rangers didn't talk to him beforesigning Gagné and that he was caught by surprise because, "I thought Ipitched very well last year." Otsuka isn't the type to let his displeasureaffect his performance, but it's a situation worth watching.

Daniels's otheroff-season moves included a savvy pickup of OBP-machine Frank Catalanotto and aquestionable signing of centerfielder Kenny Lofton, 39, who's a defensivedowngrade over the departed Gary Matthews Jr. Both moves, however, wereovershadowed by the decision to replace manager Buck Showalter with RonWashington, the longtime A's infield instructor and third base coach. Afterfour years in Texas, Showalter's dour personality had worn on the players. Thearrival of Washington, not surprisingly, was greeted with everything short of akegger, in part because many Rangers already knew him. While with Oakland,Washington had a habit of dispensing fielding tips to opposing players. Upongetting the job in November, he embarked on a barnstorming tour to reintroducehimself.

"I rememberhe 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 toget everything I have from Day One."

The Ranger whoshould benefit the most from the regime change is third baseman Hank Blalock,whose power numbers have declined from 32 homers and a .500 slugging percentagein 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 waveringfaith that Showalter had in him didn't help, either. When Blalock struggledagainst lefties last year, Showalter benched him, then later returned him tothe lineup but hit him lower in the order. Now Blalock says he's ready to do itRon's way. "He's always been my favorite coach on another team," saysBlalock. "I'm looking forward to this year."

So too are therest 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." Thenagain, by July, Gagné could be back on the DL, a reality Washingtonacknowledges. "I've never been with a team that has a bullpen with thepotential that this team has," he says, "but potential doesn't win ballgames."

CONSIDERTHIS

a modestproposal ...

The signing ofKenny Lofton doesn't address the defensive weakness in centerfield created bythe 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 alwayshad 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 behindthe Rangers' fly ball pitching staff while G.M. Jon Daniels looks for acenterfielder with a little more pop than Guzman has. Lofton could still be ahealthy contributor, but as part of a Clinton Administration platoon with SammySosa at DH. Lofton's OPS against righthanders and Sosa's power againstsouthpaws combined makes for a high-production, high-Q-rating, low-costdesignated hitter.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

THE LINEUP
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2006 STATISTICS

KENNY LOFTON* CF        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 183 .301 3 41 32
MICHAEL YOUNG SS        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 44 .314 14 103 7
MARK TEIXEIRA 1B        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 29 .282 33 110 2
SAMMY SOSA*

2005 stats

DH        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 150 .221 14 45 1
HANK BLALOCK 3B        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 124 .266 16 89 1
BRAD WILKERSON LF        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 216 .222 15 44 3
GERALD LAIRD C        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 191 .296 7 22 3
IAN KINSLER 2B        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 111 .286 14 55 11
NELSON CRUZ RF      
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 224 .223 6 22 1

 

BENCH          
FRANK CATALANOTTO* OF        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 263 .300 7 56 1
JERRY HAIRSTON JR. OF        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 366 .206 0 10 5

 

ROTATION              
PITCHER   PVR W L K WHIP ERA
RH Kevin Millwood 76 16 12 157 1.31 4.52
RH Vicente Padilla 117 15 10 156 1.38 4.50
RH Brandon McCarthy* 88 4 7 69 1.30 4.68
RH Robinson Tejeda 187 5 5 40 1.56 4.28
RH Kameron Loe 180 3 6 34 1.62 5.86

 

BULLPEN              
PITCHER   PVR W L SV WHIP ERA
RH Eric Gagné* 90 0 0 1 0.50 0.00
RH Akinori Otsuka 95 2 4 32 1.07 2.11
RH Scott Feldman 237 0 2 0 1.26 3.92


* New acquisition
B-T:Bat - Throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)

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THE NUMBERS

LIE

9

Home runs thatfirst baseman Mark Teixeira hit before the All-Star break last season, tyinghim for 113th in the majors. However, in 275 at bats after the break,Teixeira--who banged 43 homers in 2005 and averaged nearly 36 homers in hisfirst three seasons in the majors--went yard 24 times, which was second only toRyan Howard's 30 for the Phillies over that span.

PHOTOCHRIS BERNACCHI/SPORTPICSGOING, GOING ...Blalock, who watched his home run totals fall by 50% from 2004 to '06, should feel more confident under his new skipper. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (LOFTON) PHOTOJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (YOUNG)Young

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)