Rangers set for Washington experience

Rangers ready for Washington experience

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers have talked all winter about manager Ron Washington's energy, passion and positive enthusiasm.

Now, here in the desert at their Spring Training facility that is as pristine and immaculate as it was five years ago when it first opened, the Rangers will get a first-hand view of what Washington is all about.

He is hardly new at this. Washington begins his 37th year in professional baseball. He has been a player, a Minor League manager and a big-league coach.

Now he is the field boss, settling comfortably into the office that was occupied by Buck Showalter for the past four springs.

"It's my first spring as manager, but it's not my first Spring Training," Washington said Friday morning before beginning an all-day meeting with general manager Jon Daniels and other club officials. "I know what has to be done. I just need to make sure it gets done.

"I don't feel any different. This is the best time of the year for me. I don't have any anticipation; I'm very confident of what we are capable of doing."

Daniels also has an idea of what Washington is capable of, and what he will bring to the Rangers in his first training camp.

"I expect it to be a continuation of his personality," Daniels said. "High energy and very positive, focusing on what players can do and putting them in the best position for success, a lot of teaching and a lot of fundamentals.

"It sounds simple but he has the ability to focus on the positive. He said something recently, about it being easy to identify a player's weaknesses, but he'd rather focus on the positives and let the coaches and the Player Development people work on the weaknesses."

Most of his players won't be meeting Washington for the first time. After being named to replace Showalter in November, Washington spent much of the offseason traveling around the country and the Dominican Republic to meet with as many of his veterans as possible.

He made a strong first impression.

"I thought he was awesome," catcher Gerald Laird said. "I came back after talking to him and told my wife and dad, 'This is going to be great. It's going to be great fun in Texas.' He's so loose. You can tell he has attitude and fire. He wants to win and he has been a winner.

"I believe in him. That's the sense you get when you first meet him. He's a leader and he's going to lead."

The Rangers have had just one winning season in the past seven years, but the energy and passion that Washington has conveyed is just one reason why the Rangers are bubbling with optimism in the spring.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. "Everybody is so excited and hyped about this year. I think there will be a big change.

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"Every year you have high expectations, for yourself and for the team. But we've added a lot of quality people to our club and quality players. The way our roster is shaping up, we should be one of the favorites to win the division."

Confidence, energy and passion carry you only so far. Rare is the new manager who doesn't come off that way. Washington knows that as well as anybody.

There are other areas of concern that will be addressed in his first spring as manager.

"It's important that we tighten up our fundamentals and it's important that we are a team that pitches and catches the ball," Washington said. "That's where our focus needs to be. If we can do that, success is waiting to happen. If we don't pitch and catch the ball, we're in trouble."

Defense wasn't a serious problem for the Rangers in 2006. They were sixth in the league in team defense and committed just 98 errors. That's only the third time since 1972 in a non-strike season that the Rangers have committed less than 100 errors in a season. They were tied for the fifth-fewest unearned runs allowed in the American League.

Pitching remains a troubled spot. The Rangers were eighth in American League pitching in 2006, and their 5.16 ERA over the past seven years is the second-highest in the league. Only the Royals have a higher ERA in that stretch.

"I just want to make sure we as a pitching staff work fast, pound the strike zone and not be afraid of contact," said Washington, who saw first-hand with Oakland how far pitching can take a team.

"The only difference between our staff and the Oakland pitching staff is the Oakland pitching staff knew that everything was predicated on them," Washington said. "They took it upon themselves to work fast and pound the strike zone, and give your team a chance to win.

"That's the message I want these guys to understand. Give your team a chance to win the game. Don't be worried about throwing shutouts. Just keep your team in the ballgame."

The Rangers know all about their pitching reputation, but they also know that Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla won 31 games between them in 2006, that Robinson Tejeda finished strong and that Brandon McCarthy, who was acquired from the White Sox in the offseason, has the potential to have a serious impact.

They also know their bullpen had the fourth-best ERA in the American League, and he could be even stronger if closer Eric Gagne is back to full strength.

This team is not looking for excuses. They are expecting to win and right now, their manager is as confident as anybody.

"The overall expectation is winning," Washington said. "That's the expectation and they are capable. We have enough coaches who understand what winning is about, and they're going to make sure these guys get what they need. We just need to come together as a unit and go out there and go to work."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.