Spring hasn’t been kind to these four contenders

Rough springs don’t always turn into tough seasons. Alex Rodriguez’s steroids admission and hip injury dampened the Yankees’ camp last year and they won the World Series. On the flip side, check the Mets: Their injuries started early with Johan Santana’s elbow stiffness and never let up. They still haven’t, in fact.

Any manager will tell you getting out of spring training with a healthy roster is more important than winning, putting up numbers or even figuring out that No. 5 starter.

"You want to be healthy so good players can be productive, that’s the idea," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said Monday.

His Red Sox have dealt with their share of nagging issues and a bug that spread through the clubhouse but they seem to be gaining full health just at the right time — in the stretch drive of spring training.

Spring has not been quite so kind to four other contenders.

Rangers

Things seemed to be flowing their way after the ownership change ended with Nolan Ryan where he should be, in charge of the baseball side. But then spring training began. Besides injuries, the Rangers also have had to deal with the biggest drug story of the spring: Manager Ron Washington’s positive test for cocaine last season.

The Rangers have had to deal with revelations of Ron Washington's 2009 positive drug test.
The Rangers have had to deal with revelations of Ron Washington’s 2009 positive drug test.

Give the club credit for giving him a second chance. Give Washington his due for being as up front as one can be about his transgression (well, after he changed his story a bit and admitted he had used other drugs before). He offered to resign and said, "I am not here to make excuses. There are none. I am not here to ask for sympathy. That would be asking too much."

Washington certainly faces more pressure to win if he wants to manage past this season and adding to that challenge is a spate of injuries. Slugger Josh Hamilton, who missed half of last season, banged a shoulder early in camp and was sidelined for more than week. Then he had to deal with an infected tooth. He’s been in the lineup lately, though, and is hitting well. Second baseman Ian Kinsler can’t say the same. He suffered a high ankle sprain early in March, hasn’t returned and might not be ready by opening day. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was scratched from a game Sunday because of an upper back issue. He already has trying to come back from a shoulder injury that ended his 2009 in August. The Rangers must be concerned because they traded for another catcher, Matt Treanor, on Monday.

Two of the club’s promising starters, Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland, have been slowed or sidelined. Hunter was penciled into the rotation until he came down with an ab injury. Considering he has, shall we say, a lot of core to support, the injury could linger. Holland’s chance to make the rotation went awry when he sprained a knee early in camp and fell behind. Another lefty, C.J. Wilson, however, has made the most of his opportunity to make the rotation and emerged as the favorite for one of two available spots.

Twins

No club has dealt with such a high and a low this spring, and in the same day no less. A day that started with All-Star closer Joe Nathan saying he would have season-ending Tommy John surgery ended with the club announcing MVP Joe Mauer had agreed to an eight-year, $184 million extension that should keep him in Minnesota through 2018.

As great as Mauer staying is for the future of the club — and the game, really — Nathan’s absence could derail the present. The Twins will say little about his replacement, though 6-11 Jon Rauch figures to be the most likely in-house choice.

But don’t be surprised if Francisco Liriano emerges before opening day. Liriano is the club’s former uber-lefty who has not quite been the same since he underwent Tommy John surgery after the 2006 season. Manager Ron Gardenhire, however, was talking up Liriano on Sunday, saying Liriano’s slider is back to 2006 form when he was blowign away the AL after being called up as a 22-year-old. "Those sliders he threw the other day are unhittable," Gardenhire said. "Guys were swinging and missing by a foot. That slider is really snapping. It is a hard slider."

It should be noted that a year ago, Gardenhire was saying much the same. What has changed, however, is improved fastball location and the return of Liriano’s confidence. But Gardenhire is coy when asked if Liriano, no shoo-in for the rotation, could end up working the ninth inning.

"There’s one guy who we all know who can be a closer," Gardenhire said, and he was referring to Liriano. "He’s got all the closing stuff: punch-out pitches, the whole package. Whether it’s the right thing or whether he wants to do it or not, we’ll have to wait and see."

What if Liriano comes to you and volunteer to closes? "We would talk about him, for sure, if he wants to close. Definitely." Gardenhire said.

Cliff Lee has had to deal with an injury and a suspension this spring.
Cliff Lee has had to deal with an injury and a suspension this spring.

Mariners

Two of their key newcomers have struggled. Lefty Cliff Lee had a foot procedure before spring training that slowed him early and the dreaded abdominal strain — or something akin — struck last week. He will not throw again til the end of the week, likely delaying at least his first start. If injury didn’t threaten his Seattle debut, suspension did. Lee got five games after the commissioner’s office ruled he was throwing at Ariona’s Chris Synder, though he was expected to appeal.

Milton Bradley has avoided suspension but already has been ejected twice for arguing balls and strikes. The Mariners, taking the spring-training view, say they are not concerned. Manager Don Wakamatsu, in fact, called out umpires for a "witch hunt" on his often-troubled player.

"Milton’s here, I’ve been very pleased," Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said last week. "He’s swung the bat very well lately. In the clubhouse, he’s been very engaging. The players like him. Milton likes it here. I don’t care what’s happened in the past. All I care about is what Milton doing right now and I’m very pleased with it."

Rockies

Even true optimist Jim Tracy has to be worried about the end of his bullpen. Its two most important members, Rafael Betancourt and closer Huston Street, are not likely to be 100 percent soon. Street, in fact, might not pitch before May.

The news could have been worse, though. An MRI showed no structural damage on Street’s throwing shoulder so he should pitch sometime sooner than later. How effective he is remains to be determined.

Much like we’ll have to wait and see how bad springs carry over into the regular season.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Rough springs don’t always turn into tough seasons. Alex Rodriguez’s steroids admission and hip injury dampened the Yankees’ camp last year and they won the World Series. On the flip side, check the Mets: Their injuries started early with Johan Santana’s elbow stiffness and never let up. They still haven’t, in fact.

Any manager will tell you getting out of spring training with a healthy roster is more important than winning, putting up numbers or even figuring out that No. 5 starter.

"You want to be healthy so good players can be productive, that’s the idea," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said Monday.

His Red Sox have dealt with their share of nagging issues and a bug that spread through the clubhouse but they seem to be gaining full health just at the right time — in the stretch drive of spring training.

Spring has not been quite so kind to four other contenders.

Rangers

Things seemed to be flowing their way after the ownership change ended with Nolan Ryan where he should be, in charge of the baseball side. But then spring training began. Besides injuries, the Rangers also have had to deal with the biggest drug story of the spring: Manager Ron Washington’s positive test for cocaine last season.

The Rangers have had to deal with revelations of Ron Washington's 2009 positive drug test.
The Rangers have had to deal with revelations of Ron Washington’s 2009 positive drug test.

Give the club credit for giving him a second chance. Give Washington his due for being as up front as one can be about his transgression (well, after he changed his story a bit and admitted he had used other drugs before). He offered to resign and said, "I am not here to make excuses. There are none. I am not here to ask for sympathy. That would be asking too much."

Washington certainly faces more pressure to win if he wants to manage past this season and adding to that challenge is a spate of injuries. Slugger Josh Hamilton, who missed half of last season, banged a shoulder early in camp and was sidelined for more than week. Then he had to deal with an infected tooth. He’s been in the lineup lately, though, and is hitting well. Second baseman Ian Kinsler can’t say the same. He suffered a high ankle sprain early in March, hasn’t returned and might not be ready by opening day. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was scratched from a game Sunday because of an upper back issue. He already has trying to come back from a shoulder injury that ended his 2009 in August. The Rangers must be concerned because they traded for another catcher, Matt Treanor, on Monday.

Two of the club’s promising starters, Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland, have been slowed or sidelined. Hunter was penciled into the rotation until he came down with an ab injury. Considering he has, shall we say, a lot of core to support, the injury could linger. Holland’s chance to make the rotation went awry when he sprained a knee early in camp and fell behind. Another lefty, C.J. Wilson, however, has made the most of his opportunity to make the rotation and emerged as the favorite for one of two available spots.

Twins

No club has dealt with such a high and a low this spring, and in the same day no less. A day that started with All-Star closer Joe Nathan saying he would have season-ending Tommy John surgery ended with the club announcing MVP Joe Mauer had agreed to an eight-year, $184 million extension that should keep him in Minnesota through 2018.

As great as Mauer staying is for the future of the club — and the game, really — Nathan’s absence could derail the present. The Twins will say little about his replacement, though 6-11 Jon Rauch figures to be the most likely in-house choice.

But don’t be surprised if Francisco Liriano emerges before opening day. Liriano is the club’s former uber-lefty who has not quite been the same since he underwent Tommy John surgery after the 2006 season. Manager Ron Gardenhire, however, was talking up Liriano on Sunday, saying Liriano’s slider is back to 2006 form when he was blowign away the AL after being called up as a 22-year-old. "Those sliders he threw the other day are unhittable," Gardenhire said. "Guys were swinging and missing by a foot. That slider is really snapping. It is a hard slider."

It should be noted that a year ago, Gardenhire was saying much the same. What has changed, however, is improved fastball location and the return of Liriano’s confidence. But Gardenhire is coy when asked if Liriano, no shoo-in for the rotation, could end up working the ninth inning.

"There’s one guy who we all know who can be a closer," Gardenhire said, and he was referring to Liriano. "He’s got all the closing stuff: punch-out pitches, the whole package. Whether it’s the right thing or whether he wants to do it or not, we’ll have to wait and see."

What if Liriano comes to you and volunteer to closes? "We would talk about him, for sure, if he wants to close. Definitely." Gardenhire said.

Cliff Lee has had to deal with an injury and a suspension this spring.
Cliff Lee has had to deal with an injury and a suspension this spring.

Mariners

Two of their key newcomers have struggled. Lefty Cliff Lee had a foot procedure before spring training that slowed him early and the dreaded abdominal strain — or something akin — struck last week. He will not throw again til the end of the week, likely delaying at least his first start. If injury didn’t threaten his Seattle debut, suspension did. Lee got five games after the commissioner’s office ruled he was throwing at Ariona’s Chris Synder, though he was expected to appeal.

Milton Bradley has avoided suspension but already has been ejected twice for arguing balls and strikes. The Mariners, taking the spring-training view, say they are not concerned. Manager Don Wakamatsu, in fact, called out umpires for a "witch hunt" on his often-troubled player.

"Milton’s here, I’ve been very pleased," Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said last week. "He’s swung the bat very well lately. In the clubhouse, he’s been very engaging. The players like him. Milton likes it here. I don’t care what’s happened in the past. All I care about is what Milton doing right now and I’m very pleased with it."

Rockies

Even true optimist Jim Tracy has to be worried about the end of his bullpen. Its two most important members, Rafael Betancourt and closer Huston Street, are not likely to be 100 percent soon. Street, in fact, might not pitch before May.

The news could have been worse, though. An MRI showed no structural damage on Street’s throwing shoulder so he should pitch sometime sooner than later. How effective he is remains to be determined.

Much like we’ll have to wait and see how bad springs carry over into the regular season.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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