Texas Rangers vs. Mariners in Seattle.
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To Start or Not to Start? 

Neftali Feliz and C.J. Wilson will report to Surprise as candidates for the starting rotation. When the Rangers announced these plans there were essentially three spots open and the Rangers had little money to spend on upgrades so it was realistic at the time. 

A winter of genius roster retooling by Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels has reduced the open spots to one, making the odds of Feliz and Wilson cracking the rotation less than slim. 

Considering how careful the Rangers were last season with Feliz’s arm the organization will probably ease him into the rotation later in the ’10 season or even wait until 2011 to keep his innings down. Especially considering the massive hole the Rangers would create in the bullpen should Feliz move into the rotation. 

The same could be said for C.J. Wilson, a decision that has been a mindbender since the Rangers announced he would be stretched out this spring. Wilson was a starter his first year in the majors and struggled immensely going 1-7 with a 6.94 ERA in 2005.

The Rangers moved the eccentric southpaw to the pen the next season and his career began to take off. Now that his focus is on using his dominant pitches instead of developing a laundry list of below average pitches, Wilson has become an elite set-up man for closer Frank Francisco.

The Rangers would be wise not to mess up Wilson’s career track by putting him in the rotation.

Prediction: Both start the season in the bullpen setting up Francisco. 

Who’s the Fifth Starter?

The Rangers have four starters penciled into the rotation and are likely to open the season with Rich Harden, Scott Feldman, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter in the first four spots.

Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Brandon McCarthy, Neftali Feliz and CJ Wilson will compete for the final spot with those missing out on the rotation heading for the bullpen or AAA rotation. Odds are the Rangers will have some major league ready starters in Oklahoma City in case of injury or ineffectiveness at the major league level. 

Feliz and Wilson were covered in the first question so let’s focus on the remaining three contenders. Considering the first four members of the rotation are all right handed pitchers, the two contenders from the left side would seem to have the advantage over McCarthy, especially considering the health risk McCarthy brings to the table.

However, when McCarthy has been on the mound lately he has been good enough to warrant a long look in Surprise this March. Despite all the right-handers in the rotation already, McCarthy has just as good a chance as Harrison and Holland. 

Matt Harrison was putting together a fine first half of the season before becoming yet another member of the Rangers to have surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome wiping out the rest of his season. Harrison is healthy and has more experience than Derek Holland; with a good spring he can make the rotation.

Derek Holland has the most raw ability of any of the contenders for the Rangers rotation, but his up and down season last year places many question marks on the young lefty. 

Holland is the preferred choice by the Rangers because of his superior stuff and the courage he shows on the mound, but to make the rotation he will have to show he can adjust to the big league level. He may have the inside track to the fifth spot, but he’ll have to earn it just like everyone else.

Prediction: Holland wins the fifth spot, Harrison and McCarthy to AAA Oklahoma. 

Can the Rangers Offense Rebound?

In a cruel twist filled with irony, the Rangers missed the playoffs last season because the offense fell flat on its face. In early June the Rangers held a 4.5 game lead in the West and then the bats went silent. 

By the time the dust settled the Rangers barely held off the surging Seattle Mariners for second place finishing 10 games behind the division champion Angels.

For the Rangers offense to get back on track new hitting coach Clint Hurdle has to help Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Chris Davis return to their 2008 form or the Rangers will struggle again in 2010.

Josh Hamilton tweaked his swing going into Spring Training last season, found his old swing to be better and tried to change back the final week leading up to the season. When he struggled out of the gate, Hamilton panicked and began swinging at everything thrown at him. 

The result was a large drop in both average and power which obliterated the heart of the Rangers order. It didn’t help that medication for Attention Deficit Disorder robbed him of his appetite causing a drop of 20 pounds and a very fragile body. Not a great combination for an aggressive outfielder who collides with the outfield wall on a regular basis.

All reports out of Arlington suggest Hamilton is back in his 2008 form. His batting practice has returned to its legendary status and he’s regained the weight lost last year. The Rangers are hopeful everything will fall into place with Hamilton this season. Having Vladimir Guerrero hitting behind him probably won’t hurt either.

Ian Kinsler has always been known as a fly ball hitter, but his 2009 performance was beyond ridiculous. His batting average and slugging percentage dropped from .319 and .517 in 2008 to an anemic .253 and .327 in 2009. 

An abundance of pop-ups and shallow line drives replaced doubles to the gaps and towering home runs, something Clint Hurdle is trying to bring back to Kinsler’s game citing his quick hands and ability to drive inside pitches to the right field gap. 

Hitting in the fifth spot behind Guerrero should take some of the pressure off Kinsler, allowing him to focus on driving the ball instead of setting up the heart of the order for a big inning. The move will also help the Rangers use his power more effectively. 

Chris Davis had a terrible spring and an even worse beginning to the 2009 season thanks in large part to starting his cage work later in the offseason. Davis couldn’t catch up to the fastball and was vulnerable to breaking pitches prompting a demotion to AAA mid-season. 

He regained his stroke at Oklahoma City prior to his recall late in the season and was a completely different hitter. Davis to his credit has recognized what caused his problems and only took a small amount of time off after the season before resuming his cage work this offseason. With Justin Smoak on his heels, Davis cannot afford another slow start to the season or the Rangers will replace him in the lineup once Smoak is ready. 

If Hamilton, Kinsler and Davis all return to 2008 form the Rangers offense will be back in business in 2010. If not, a division championship will fall between their fingers yet again because of a lack of offense. 

Something unheard of in Arlington until last season.