Nationals

New-look Rangers still have 'some good pieces'

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New-look Rangers still have 'some good pieces'

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) Adrian Beltre watched this offseason as the Texas Rangers tried to sign the top free-agent pitcher on the market and keep slugger Josh Hamilton.

The Gold Glove third baseman who hit .321 with 36 homers last year realizes some big bats are missing from the Texas lineup now that Hamilton signed with the AL West rival Los Angeles Angels, Mike Napoli agreed to a deal with Boston that still hasn't been finalized and Michael Young got traded to Philadelphia.

Yet that doesn't change how Beltre feels about what the Rangers can do this season, a year after being knocked out in a one-and-done wild-card game following consecutive World Series appearances.

``We still have a good enough team to compete and hopefully win the West,'' Beltre said Friday during the team's annual Fan Fest. ``We'll still have some good pieces in that lineup that can do the job. ... There's no doubt they tried. They obviously pursued Zack Greinke. They were wanting to bring (Hamilton) back.''

The Rangers still have Beltre and Nelson Cruz in the middle of a lineup that includes Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus. There will also be newcomers Lance Berkman, a switch-hitting DH, and catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

They also have a pitching staff led by a more comfortable Yu Darvish, the Japanese ace who won 16 games as a major league rookie last season, along with left-handers Matt Harrison (18-11) and Derek Holland (12-7).

Darvish and the Rangers were working at this point last year to complete an extended negotiation for the right-hander to make the move to the majors.

This offseason, Darvish is able to better focus on getting ready for his second big league season.

``Compared to last year, I feel so much more at ease. ... I really feel I'm part of the team now. How I feel right now is a totally different feeling,'' Darvish said through a translator. ``Last year, there was more of a rush in trying to prepare at a much quicker pace. I'm going at my own pace, working out. This offseason, the preparation has been much better.''

In 29 regular-season starts for Texas, Darvish went 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA and 221 strikeouts in 191 1-3 innings. He was an All-Star for the Rangers, who won 93 games.

When asked about last season, Darvish described it as ``so-so.''

Texas manager Ron Washington said Darvish ``certainly has the potential to be an ace,'' but stopped short of declaring him the team's No. 1 starter for the upcoming season.

Another potential opening-day starter is Harrison, also an All-Star last season. The Rangers have been talking to the lefty about a contract extension, and Harrison indicated Friday night that the sides could talk more this weekend while he is in town.

As for the offense, Hamilton hit a career-high 43 home runs with 128 RBIs last season while Napoli had 24 homers and 56 RBIs in 108 games. Young was the longest-tenured Texas player, the team's career hits leader in his 12 seasons.

``It's definitely going to be a different atmosphere,'' Harrison said.

``They played a big role for the team,'' Cruz said. ``We've got to move on.''

Washington made it clear that he doesn't want Cruz, who had 24 homers last season, to have the mindset that he has to try to do more to make up for those losses.

``Nobody's going to do what Josh did,'' Cruz said. ``I'm just going to play my role, do what I do. ... If we play like we're capable, we definitely can go far.''

Cruz and Beltre both would like to play in the World Baseball Classic for the Dominican Republic.

Beltre played for his home country in 2006 but had to skip the event in 2009 while with the Seattle Mariners ``because I was hurt and the team didn't allow me to,'' he said.

Rangers closer Joe Nathan said he has been approached by Joe Torre about playing for the United States, and was told he could have a couple of weeks to think about it.

``We want to make sure as we hit those later months that I'm as good as I can be for this club,'' Nathan said. ``If the WBC isn't part of that equation, obviously I back out.''

Notes: RHP Colby Lewis is starting to throw on flat ground and said his rehabilitation from elbow surgery last summer is progressing at a good pace. He isn't expected to be back in the rotation until at least June or July. ... General manager Jon Daniels said the Rangers like where they are and are ``more than likely'' set with the team they will take to spring training next month. But Daniels also wouldn't rule out another move if it makes sense and improves the team. ... Pierzynski, who won a World Series title with the Chicago White Sox in 2005 and spent eight seasons there, said he's looking forward to his new opportunity. He and his family spent some time Friday buying caps and T-shirts at the Rangers gift shop.

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Phillies’ manager Gabe Kapler says he’s ‘fascinated’ by Bryce Harper

Phillies’ manager Gabe Kapler says he’s ‘fascinated’ by Bryce Harper

LAS VEGAS -- Gabe Kapler commanded his nondescript, off-brown chair during his media session Monday at the Winter Meetings. He wore a black leather jacket, presumably the only MLB manager sporting such a look, spoke firmly and with projection when going over what went right, wrong and is to come for his Philadelphia Phillies.

The first question posed to Kapler was about...Manny Machado. Soon enough, Bryce Harper came up. Kapler said Harper “might be the best player in baseball” in September. Monday, he lauded a player his organization is rumored to be in hot pursuit of.

“I think -- in my opinion, Bryce Harper does a number of things well, but one of the things I found most fascinating about him last year was even through the times of his struggles, he still worked an incredible at-bat,” Kapler said. “So it wasn't like rolling over to the second baseman on the first pitch when he was struggling, although that happened from time to time. But when he struggled he still put together a quality at-bat. He still worked the pitcher. He still made the opposition uncomfortable. And sometimes he'd end that at-bat with a walk, which I think there's a lot of value in that."

“Now, when he's going good, he's one of the more difficult players to get out in the game. And I love the way he plays. I think there's so much to like about what Bryce Harper brings to the table.”

Kapler’s laudatory comments are not a surprise. And, Harper does appear an on-field fit in Philadelphia after their recent trade with Seattle which extracted Carlos Santana from first base, enabling Rhys Hoskins to move there from the outfield, where the Phillies played him out of necessity last season. That opens an outfield spot. Harper could easily slide in there.

Harper also makes sense in the Philadelphia lineup. He would pair nicely in front of or behind the right-handed Hoskins. Kapler said his initial thought is to hit Jean Segura second, Odubel Herrera third and Hoskins fourth. For all the progress they made last year, the Phillies still finished just 11th in National League OPS. They were 14th in OPS among right fielders. The No. 1 right field OPS in the National League last season? The Washington Nationals.

Miami in a vice

The Nationals and Phillies are sorting out their free agent plans with marquee players on the market. Atlanta won the division, added Josh Donaldson and has moves ahead. The Mets acquired Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz. They are expected to do more in order to beef up their team as opposed to break it apart.

Then, there are the Marlins. Things are bad in Miami. They are set to remain so in 2019.

Monday, Marlins manager Don Mattingly, who is in the final year of his contract, was asked if he could definitively name a starting position player for 2019 outside of Starlin Castro at second base. He couldn’t.

“We knew it was going to be a tough year, but we needed to take steps forward,” Mattingly said.  “You see what's going on in the division, what's happening with all the other teams."

“And it's not going to get easier with the teams in our division. So it's hard to say anybody definitely in one spot. But I think our thought process is just continue, you gotta get better. And I think that's what [Michael Hill] has talked about, it's what Derek [Jeter] has talked about.”

Mattingly said he thinks catcher J.T. Realmuto, the team’s best player, is handling all the trade rumors about him well. Beyond Realmuto, the conversation centered on the bushel of prospects and young players Miami will be rolling onto the field in 2019.

Miami won 63 games last season. It finished 26 ½ games out of first place. Its best player will probably be gone by Opening Day. Other than that, everything is going well.

Baines, Smith ready for the Hall

Harold Baines and Lee Smith were surprise guests Monday at the Winter Meetings. Maybe not so much Smith, but certainly Baines.

Both were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday by the Today’s Game Era Committee, a 16-person panel not associated with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which also votes on Hall of Fame candidacy.

Baines piled solid numbers during a 22-year career. However, he never come close to inclusion by the writers. His chances changed once his candidacy was presented to the committee, which included Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns the Chicago White Sox. Baines played 14 of his 22 seasons for the White Sox.

Smith delivered 478 saves in his 18 seasons.

Both selections rankled the baseball community, to a degree. They also had a positive impact for players like Edgar Martinez, who are struggling to be voted in by the writers, but could find a more congenial path with the committee based on these two selections.

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Mike Rizzo left to clarify mixed messages on Harper

Mike Rizzo left to clarify mixed messages on Harper

LAS VEGAS -- Sixty stories above the street, Mike Rizzo was asked to clarify once more what the organization’s stance on Bryce Harper is.

The reason Rizzo is going through this again was born last Friday when Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner declared the team all but out on Harper. At the time, Rizzo was a few feet away saying the Nationals hadn’t determined anything. The door remained open. An initial offer was made, the organization would go from there. 

That sounded like a common-sense strategy. Offer a low, but respectable, deal. Let the sides work on other things. Circle back to an agent and player the organization has significant ties to.

Instead, Lerner’s comments made the pursuit sound concluded. The Nationals had done the best they could, he said. Other teams would present more cash, piles the Nationals could not -- or at least would not -- match. This was counter to Rizzo’s open stance.

Which is why Monday, Rizzo was trying to merge the sentiments and navigate back to a better place of public understanding.

“I didn’t make much of it,” Rizzo said of Lerner’s comments. “Mark was asked to speculate about Harp’s future and, the one thing I have learned doing this for a long time, I don’t speculate about free agents, where they are going, how much they’re getting. It’s just too difficult because there’s so many factors involved.

“Nothing’s changed with Harp since the end of the season except I think we’re a better team than we were at the end of the season. But we’re not closing the door on anything.”

Rizzo added they do not have a meeting in Las Vegas scheduled with Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, or Harper himself. So, there’s that, too.

The general view of Washington’s handling of Harper has been positive. He was thankful for his treatment since arriving as a 19-year-old comet. Rizzo defended him at all turns. The support moved into the offseason, during which Rizzo has said positive things about Harper to anyone who asked. He’s not playing semantics in that department, using his statements to negotiate or twist what may occur. He told NBC Sports Washington last week their relationship is one of “open dialogue” from both sides. Rizzo has backed Harper in all ways.

Hence, things were smooth. Until last week when Lerner’s comments emerged. They present layers of questions and complications. 

Here’s what the Nationals knew in July, if not sooner: Harper was going to become a free agent. Gio Gonzalez would not be back, leaving a hole for a left-handed starting pitcher in the rotation. Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel would become the prime candidates to fill that spot. They would cost at least $100 million each. And, apparently, the organization’s max offer to Harper would be $300 million, one he would never accept. All this was clear.

So, why was he still here? 

The Nationals reportedly pulled back a mid-summer trade on the table at Lerner’s behest. Five months later, he would also say publicly -- we’ll get to the oddity of that decision in a minute -- the Nationals made their best offer to Harper. Which means he knew around the trade deadline Harper was not coming back via a too-low offer, yet kept him around anyway. That doesn’t add up. Not soundly, at least.

Maybe what Lerner said was part smoke. He wanted to make it appear the Nationals were fading away from Harper. That process was long anticipated for several reasons. Not the least of which is the glut of talented outfielders and more than half-a-billion dollars dedicated to the top three in the rotation.

But there’s no reason to say that in public. It’s a competitive disadvantage at a minimum. Rizzo’s framing allowed the Phillies to think the Nationals could still be around. Similar comments from ownership, which would ultimately make the decision, could supplement that idea. Pushing the price on Philadelphia may not have a direct result now. However, it could eventually kick it beyond the competitive balance tax in the future. It could complicate dealings with the next uber free agent, like Mike Trout or Mookie Betts. It at least doesn’t ease the situation. Seeds of doubt count as a pound of flesh when tussling with a division rival.

Instead, on a day the New York Yankees publicly backed away, when it appears Harper’s options are dwindling, the Nationals were forced to recycle a general sentiment in order to unwind ownership comments from three days prior.

They’re open, Rizzo said. And he seems to mean it. The question is if his owner does, too.

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