Reshaped staff gives reason to believe
Millwood, Padilla, Otsuka additions help set high hopes
The Rangers have a tradition of honoring Texas heroes on Opening Day, and this year it will be the University of Texas Longhorns national championship football team.Head coach Mack Brown will throw out the first pitch accompanied by Texas legend Darrell Royal, and a sellout crowd will rise to give both a standing ovation. There will be other ceremonies as well, including the introduction of players, and the biggest ovations will likely be accorded to All-Star infielders Mark Teixeira and Michael Young and third baseman Hank Blalock as well as fan favorite Kevin Mench. Then they'll clear the field, Kevin Millwood will walk to the mound and all eyes will be on the Rangers' big-name free-agent signing of the offseason, the guy they signed to be the long-coveted No. 1 starter, the primary reason why people think this might be the year the Rangers might have enough pitching. A guy who had his most success in the Major Leagues as a third or fourth starter on a Braves staff that included Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz will have the spotlight placed squarely on him. "For myself, there's nobody who can put any more pressure on me than myself," Millwood said. "My expectations are very high." His new teammates feel the same way, simply because of the pitching that the Rangers acquired in the offseason. The Rangers not only signed Millwood but also traded for starters Adam Eaton and Vicente Padilla and reliever Akinori Otsuka. The celebration of pitching progress took a hit, however, in the final week of Spring Training when Eaton suffered an injury to his right middle finger that is expected to cause him to miss as much as three months of the season. Although the Eaton diagnosis is sobering, the acquisition of pitching talent to go with all their offensive talent has the Rangers believing they can be contenders again and possibly even win their first division title since 1999. "Management did their part, now we have to do ours," first baseman Teixeira said. "Since I've been with the Texas Rangers, this is the best team put together with winning in mind," outfielder David Dellucci said. "This is the team, now it's time for us to do our part and play to our own and others' expectations." For 20 years or more, the dominant topic of conversation surrounding the Rangers has been pitching, who they have and, more significantly, who they didn't have and who they were going to get.
They've had, at various times, Nolan Ryan, Kevin Brown, Charlie Hough, Kenny Rogers, Bobby Witt, John Burkett, John Wetteland, Rick Helling and Aaron Sele and others.But never enough at one time to succeed in their quest of the Holy Grail that is the World Series. They and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are the only American League teams without a Cy Young Award winner in their history and the Rangers' 5.26 ERA since 2000 is second-highest in the Majors. "Without a doubt. I think everybody realizes the key to winning is our pitching staff," Millwood said. "The bottom line is if we go out and pitch the way we're capable and give out guys a chance to win the game, we're going to win a whole lot of ballgames." General manager Jon Daniels admitted the offseason acquisitions were "high-risk, high-reward."
Padilla has been a 14-game winner twice with the Philadelphia Phillies, but not since 2003. Eaton has won 11 games in each of the last two years but has yet to put together a complete season that represents the kind of talent he possesses, last year largely because of his injury. Both can be free agents after the season.The Rangers likely will try to sign at least one after the season, but if nothing else, those two help buy time until a group of impressive young pitchers can finish their development. That list includes Edinson Volquez, Thomas Diamond, John Danks, Josh Rupe and others. But they represent the future. The Rangers want to win now and they would certainly hold off the arrival of any young stud if they could get Roger Clemens to agree to pitch one more season and do it as a Ranger. That would certainly reinforce owner Tom Hicks' claim -- made before the Eaton injury -- that this was "the best rotation we've had since I bought the team." Right now, though, the Rangers feel they are good enough with a rotation led by Millwood, a bullpen headed up by Francisco Cordero and an lineup built around All-Star infielders Blalock, Teixeira and AL batting champion Young. "We think we have a lot of talented guys in our clubhouse," Young said. "Now it's a matter of getting the breaks and staying healthy. "We're in the best division in baseball. The whole league has gotten more competitive and that makes the Wild Card tougher. Our goal is to win the division. We have the pieces to do it. It's a matter of people doing their job and playing to win."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.