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Rangers camp report: Avoiding 'used to be good' tag

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Close your eyes, and you can still see Josh Hamilton muff that easy fly ball in Oakland's bright afternoon sun during the lost last week of last season.

Close your eyes, and you can still see the Rangers twice moving to within one strike of sideswiping the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 World Series.

Jon Daniels' job, however, does not include closing his eyes. It is to keep them open. To keep them focused. And most importantly, to always keep them trained on what is ahead of him.

He is the general manager of the Texas Rangers, and no matter how much agony that has entailed as the past two seasons have thudded and then crash-landed to a conclusion, there remains the vivid contrast between what is and what was.

The silver linings baseball playbook in Texas is that Daniels, club president Nolan Ryan, ownership and a crackerjack team of scouts and other baseball men have elevated this franchise to a level at which it annually expects, rather than hopes, to be playing in October.

Yes, Daniels knows where the Rangers haven't quite gotten to over the past two seasons.

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He also knows exactly where he doesn't want to go.

“Where I don't want us at is, ‘Hey, we were successful the last few years so just keep doing the same things and everything will be fine,'” the GM said. “No.

“That's how you become the team that used to be good.”

You might have heard about the rough Rangers winter. Hamilton signed with the rival Angels. Michael Young and Mike Napoli are gone. Zack Greinke escaped to the Dodgers after the Rangers made a spirited run at him.

Yes, the Rangers used to be good. Back-to-back AL West titles in 2010 and 2011, and then a total of 178 days in first place last summer before losing it -- along with the fly ball Hamilton blew -- to the Athletics in the final series of the season.

“I just missed it, man,” Hamilton explained then.

“You've got to keep moving forward and not be afraid of change,” Daniels explains now.

Standing under the optimistic noon sun among the back fields at the club's complex here, Daniels is intently watching a kid pitcher who this summer will be cocooned within a farm system ranked among the top 10 in the game for six years running now by Baseball Prospectus.

Without Hamilton's MVP bat and without Young's metronome-steady clubhouse leadership, you cannot overstate how different things will be in Arlington this summer.

But with juicy prospects Jurickson Profar (the game's consensus top prospect), Leonys Martin, Mike Olt and Martin Perez on track to join key returnees Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler and Yu Darvish, it also would be a mistake to underestimate how good things still can be for the Rangers.

“It's not rose-colored glasses,” Daniels said. “We like the guys we have.

“We genuinely like the group we have, the options we have.”

All-Stars Darvish and Matt Harrison, along with Derek Holland, give the Rangers a solid front three to their rotation. Closer Joe Nathan anchors the ninth inning.

And just like the winter was a work in progress, so, too, will be the summer.

Starter Colby Lewis (elbow surgery last July) and former Royals closer Joakim Soria (Tommy John ligament transfer surgery) both could return as early as May, or early June, if rehabs continue on schedule. Another starter, former phenom Neftali Feliz (Tommy John surgery) is expected back by August.

“For me, one of the lessons from last year is that it's not about being the best team on opening day,” Daniels said. “It's not about being the best team on paper. Because we were both of those. And we limped to the finish.

“For me, it's about getting better over the course of the season and peaking at the right time. That's kind of our mindset. We have a true understanding of where the finish line is.”

Between the pitchers who are expected to get healthy over the next few months and the prospects who reasonably can be expected to mature and develop, there are reasons to believe these Rangers should improve, rather than erode, during the upcoming summer.

“To the degree that we have younger guys on the club, you like to think they're going to get better,” Daniels said. “It's realistic that we can get stronger as we go. That's the design. …

“You have to expect some of those things, but you can't slow down waiting for them.”

It is still too soon to say how the Profar dilemma will play out. There are those within the organization who think the shortstop is ready for prime time. But with Andrus at short and Kinsler at second, there is no room. The Rangers talked to Kinsler over the winter about maybe playing first, which would have opened second base for Profar, but Kinsler is uninterested. So Mitch Moreland slots in at first.

The Rangers will not keep Profar in a utility role where he only gets a few at-bats a week. If there is some creative way they can figure out a rotation in which regular rest for their four infielders and designated hitter Lance Berkman includes a semi-regular role for Profar, then perhaps he breaks camp with the big league club.

However it plays out, two things are clear:

Post-Hamilton and post-Young, this sets up as a transition year for the Rangers.

Transition year or no, the expectation remains: Play into October.

“There's no reason to think otherwise,” outfielder David Murphy said. “Coming into the season, everyone's expectations are World Series or bust.

“Sometimes you have more realistic expectations than other times. But looking at this from a realistic point of view, we have every reason to think we can get to the World Series.

“Yes, we lost Josh, and that's a big presence in the middle of the lineup. But we are extremely deep 1 through 9. It's not the strongest lineup in the nine years I've been here, but we're going to win with pitching.

“Our franchise is the rare example where we were known as an offensive franchise, we put up great offensive numbers in the ‘90s and early 2000s, but it never got us anywhere.”

Crushing as last season was, the Rangers still steam into this season from somewhere. This spring is not about who's missing in Surprise.

As ever under Ryan, Daniels and Co., it is about the places those here can take the Rangers.

“It's not as if there's one thing that stood out [from last year's collapse] and we're good to go,” Daniels said. “It's a new team and a new year. I think we all learned things from the past, but you've got to move forward.

“The biggest thing is, we've been successful over a three- or four-year period, and teams have caught up. That's the bottom line. Teams have made adjustments and they've gotten better and they caught us.”

Same dynamic, he notes, as happens between a pitcher and a hitter in a single at-bat.

“Now,” the GM continued, “are we able to make the adjustment?

“If you keep doing the same thing, you're going to get the same results. Can we stay ahead of that? That's what we've got to figure out.”

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