Why 2009 should be better.

I wrote this, after reading Josh Hamilton's book in October 2008:

Jon Daniels commented late last week, in the context of what the club might be looking for in its new pitching coach, that one thing he'd like to see is a coach who might be able to help Texas pitchers develop the same confidence -- even swagger -- that the hitters always have here.

I thought about Hamilton, and the Kinsler/Young/Blalock triumvirate that sat in the back of the room as he was introduced to the Rangers press in February. They all have that swagger, but it's a quiet confidence that stops short of arrogance, or self-importance.

I wrote this a year before that, after seeing Elvis Andrus at Fall Instructs after the 2007 season:

For some players, the ball just sounds different coming off their bat. Some can spin a breaking ball in such a way that you know the hitter has no chance before the pitch is halfway to the plate. There are others, like Andrus, who you can tell are different simply by how they carry themselves. I'm struggling as to how to explain it. It's not really a swagger that Andrus has. It's more of a comfortable magnetism. He reminds me of a feature tailback, or a really good cover corner, with that smile that says he knows he's going to beat you more often than not. He's going to be a leader.

This came from part of the local media contingent on hand this weekend as pitchers and catchers - and a good number of others, including Andrus - reported to Surprise:

Andrus didn't show any signs of cockiness Saturday, but he is confident. That's one reason why the Rangers are confident he'll be able to handle the jump to the big leagues. Andrus stood in front of his locker Saturday morning and addressed a quaint gathering of media as if he had been doing it all of his life. He's all of 20 years old and about to become the starting shortstop for the Texas Rangers. So, fielding questions — even in his second language — should be no big deal, and it wasn't. . . .

But don't mistake confidence for a sense of entitlement or a know-it-all attitude. Andrus admits he has much to do this spring, and he is ready to pick the brains of his All-Star teammates to ease his jump from Double A to the big leagues.

Want some really interesting organizational insight on Andrus? And Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz, and Chris Davis and Justin Smoak, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden, and Michael Main and Julio Borbon and Engel Beltre and more? Don't miss the interview that Baseball Prospectus's David Laurila did with Rangers Director of Player Development Scott Servais.

BP's Joe Sheehan adds this: "Get thee to Surprise early, for no team in the majors has a system quite like the Rangers, who have invited Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, and Justin Smoak to camp. None will be around the major league camp for too long, but all are worth the trip—the long trip—out to see them if you're down in Arizona. To see Feliz and Holland throw intrasquad innings in March of 2009 will be a bit like watching Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna share a desk in the summer of 1940."

Consider that Rangers special advisor Mel Didier has more than 50 years of scouting experience when absorbing his comment about Smoak, relayed by Jim Reeves: "He's the best young player from both sides of the plate that I've ever seen."

Righthander Brendan Donnelly wasted no time opening eyes. The Rangers held their first pitchers' workout yesterday, and the veteran reliever prompted Nolan Ryan to ask, in the presence of reporters: "Has anybody ever made the team the first day of camp?"

Many position players have already reported to Surprise, in advance of Wednesday's date to do so. The first full-squad workout will be Thursday. Jon Daniels expects everyone in camp on time, with the possible exception of infielder Jose Vallejo, whose wife is still waiting on her visa paperwork to go through.

The club has scheduled an intrasquad game for a week from today, by which time pitching coach Mike Maddux expects all pitchers to have thrown four or five bullpen and live batting practice sessions.

Eleanor Czajka has formatted Ryan Tatusko's two "Back Field Diaries" entries on her Minor Details page.

Seattle designated infielder Tug Hulett for assignment.

Two readers confirmed that first baseman Nate Gold has in fact signed with the La New Bears of the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan. One, in fact, advises that Gold has already been dubbed with the nickname "Handsome Gold."

I'm not here to tell you that 2009 is the Rangers' year, but since there are local columnists out there trying to tell you that there's nothing worth looking forward to, let me suggest that there are plenty of realistic reasons to believe that 2009 can be meaningfully better than 2008's 79-win, second-place finish:

1. Despite all the pitching injuries, Texas was on an 85-77 pace when Ian Kinsler and David Murphy were last in the lineup together early in August. Even an average season from a team health standpoint has to be worth a few wins.

2. Mike Maddux.

3. Kevin Millwood is pitching to vest a 2010 contract that he'll never get on the open market, and if he doesn't reach 180 innings, he's in the same boat as Vicente Padilla, pitching for what should be the final multi-year contract of his career.

4. A full year of Chris Davis.

5. Nelson Cruz hit .356/.448/.667 in September. Hank Blalock hit .337/.385/.695 in September (prompting one scout to tell Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman that he was "the best hitter I saw in the second half"). They had the top two OPS figures in the American League among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances for the month. A full season from Cruz and a healthy one from Blalock could be big.

6. Guess who led the league in batting average in September (among hitters with 100 plate appearances or more)? Would you believe Josh Hamilton, who local columnists decided from the Cowboys press box had a terrible second half? Hamilton's home run total dropped off after his momentous All-Star Break (22 before, 11 after), but after his explosive .310/.367/.552 first half, he did hit a healthy .296/.376/.498 in the second half, boosted by his .366/.443/.516 September. That September clip was his best monthly batting average of the season.

There's probably a way to create splits that will show what Hamilton's output was in the 114 games that Milton Bradley hit fourth, as opposed to the 48 games he didn't. I bet the disparity was significant. Answering the question of who will fill the cleanup void is high on the list this camp, but if Cruz or Blalock can produce the way he did at the end of the season, we're talking. (Yes, you'd prefer to go left-right in the three-four spots, but Hamilton hit .288/.342/.459 and Blalock hit .277/.337/.566 against lefties in 2008. Not terrible.)

As for Hamilton, a year without all the draining road trip press conferences, without a book to write, with a better idea of how to condition himself for the duration? (Chances are he'll also have a long-term deal in place before the season starts.) It's reasonable to think he's set up to approach the production he gave this team in 2008.

7. The defense will be better at first base. I believe it will be better at second base. I have enough faith in Michael Young's skill set and how he'll attack his program for the next six weeks to believe that Young and an Andrus/Omar Vizquel tandem at shortstop will mean better defense on the left side than the combination of Young and eight third basemen were in 2008.

8. Young at the plate? Ten unbroken fingers rather than eight. Bet on the numbers bouncing back.

9. Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez, and Jon Garland out. Bobby Abreu, Brian Fuentes, and Dustin Moseley in.

10. The bullpen? Frankie Francisco started last season in AAA. He starts this season coming off 13 straight dominant appearances (1-0, 0.00, five saves in five chances, 21 strikeouts and four walks in 12.2 innings, four hits [.093 opponents' batting average]).

C.J. Wilson wasn't healthy. Now he is.

Does Eddie Guardado have anything left? It didn't look like it a year ago, and all he did for four months was get outs. Derrick Turnbow? Scott Eyre? Don't know, but it's not as if Joaquin Benoit gave this team much in 2008.

Worried about filling the void created by the departure of Jamey Wright? In two of his final three months last season his ERA was over 8.00. No reason Donnelly, who is here on a non-roster deal (just like Wright was in each of his two Rangers seasons), can't come in and give this team as much as Wright did in the second half of 2007 and the first half of 2008.

More innings out of the starters would mean a less brutal workload than Wright and Josh Rupe were put through last year. That would be good news for Rupe, who was as good as anyone in Rangers relief in May and June (2.12 ERA) but struggled in the second half (6.44 ERA).

Don't rule out a surprise emergence from someone like lefthander Joe Torres. Ron Mahay and Brian Shouse were longshot journeymen brought to camp on non-roster deals once upon a time, too, and look at them now.

I'm not ignoring Warner Madrigal or Dustin Nippert or Kason Gabbard. Thomas Diamond or John Bannister could figure in at some point as well.

11. I have more confidence in the 23-year-old Saltalamacchia than I did the 22-year-old version. And I love the idea of Teagarden growing with, and helping shepherd, the young pitchers who have arrived or are on the way.

12. It can't get worse for Brandon McCarthy. He's the poster child for the organization's new expectations of its pitchers.

13. Matt Harrison in his nine wins (over only three months): 2.75 ERA, opponents' line of .241/.299/.382, nearly twice as many strikeouts (33) as walks (17). In his six losses and no-decisions: 12.04 ERA, opponents' line of .416/.469/.788, more walks (14) than strikeouts (nine). He'll be just 23 almost all season. Some more consistency from the lefthander could mean big things.

14. Holland will be here at some point in 2009. Feliz might be, too.

15. Ben Sheets?

16. This is going to be true this summer, and next winter, and every summer and winter in the foreseeable future: If this club is in the hunt, or feels it's one or two impact players away from making serious noise, no team is better positioned to offer high-end prospects to get a major trade done.

17. I won't put Andruw Jones on this list, because I suggested at the top that these were realistic expectations for improvement. Never know, but I'm not counting on Jones making this team, or making a big impact if he does break camp on the roster.

18. This team simply has to have a better April. Its record through the end of the first month in the two Ron Washington seasons is 20-33 - which is a .377 win percentage, or a 61-win pace.

Why does that change in 2009? Several factors to consider: (1) Texas opens at home this year, after opening on the road the previous two; (2) Texas plays more home games than road games this April, after the opposite the previous two; (3) of the 22 games on the club's April schedule, three are against a team that had a winning record in 2008. And that team's winter has been highlighted by the loss of A.J. Burnett and the addition of Keith Millar on a minor league contract.

But the biggest reason to realistically believe that April 2009 will be better is that is has to be. The Rangers showed some character when their backs were against the wall in May last year, with major changes reportedly imminent, and in any number of games throughout the season when they came back to win in dramatic fashion. In a sense, their backs are against the wall coming right out of the gate this year. Another bad April will mean a new manager in May. These guys love playing for Ron Washington. They know he's got to have a good start to survive, and that's on the players.

Better defense in April is imperative. Better pitching is, too, obviously, and we can hope that one offshoot of the stricter off-season conditioning programs and the more challenging spring training regimens will be that the starting pitchers in particular will break camp ready to roll. Even the offense is responsible for a better start: April was the Rangers' worst month in terms of OPS last year, and their second worst in 2007.

Hamilton is saying 90 wins is within reach. Ryan suggests this team should win at least 87. But those are just numbers. You don't run out of the dugout on April 6 or April 17 or June 8 thinking, "We're playing like an 87-win team tonight." You go to war with a mindset like the one Hamilton articulated this weekend: "We know we have to start off better. It's about starting with intensity from the very beginning, not wait until you get down and get the fire in [you]."

Does a better April mean a better season? Not by definition, but it sets a tone, and forges a momentum. In the last seven seasons, Texas has had two winning Aprils, in 2004 and 2006. Those were the only years in that stretch when the Rangers won at least 80 games.

Again, I'm not counting on a playoff berth in 2009. But for the four local TV sportscasts, three of which apparently won't even send a crew to Surprise in the next six weeks, and some of the Metroplex's general columnists, the Rangers are a handy punch line. Given how uninformed (and disinterested) those opinion-makers are, the joke to me is not the subject matter, but the messenger.

Everyone who pays attention agrees that this organization is headed in the right direction, though not everyone agrees on the timetable. Even if 2009 doesn't extend past October 4, there's a very real chance that this season will be better than the last, and that shouldn't be overlooked.

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(c) Jamey Newberg

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title_authors

Jamey Newberg

Dallas attorney Jamey Newberg has been commenting on Rangers from the big club down through the entire farm system since 1998.

Scott Lucas

Scott Lucas was born in Arlington, Texas, to Richard and Becky Lucas. He lived mostly in Arlington before moving to Austin, where he graduated from The University of Texas. Scott works for Austin Valuation Consultants, Ltd., and has published several boring articles about real estate appraisal and environmental contamination. He makes a swell margarita and refuses to run longer than ten kilometres.

Eleanor Czajka

Eleanor grew up watching the AAA Mudhens in Toledo, Ohio. A loyal Ranger fan since 1979, she works "behind the scenes" at the Newberg Report.

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