Washington entering decisive year

Washington entering decisive year

ARLINGTON -- Manager Ron Washington has two years of managerial experience and a revamped coaching staff. He said he is smarter and wiser after what he has gone through over the past two seasons.

Washington believes that pounding the same message about fundamentals and "executing the little things" is starting to sink in with his players. He believes that will ultimately pay off on the field and in his record.

So far it hasn't. Two losing seasons have followed a familiar script: poor starts, strong finishes, bad pitching and many injuries.

Washington knows that can't continue.

"We need to take our game to another level, and that's what I'm expecting," the skipper said.

He may not have the same contractual security that most Rangers managers have enjoyed in the past, but Washington -- entering his third season on the job -- is still able to generate and operate on the same high level of optimism and enthusiasm as he has since he came to Texas.

"I feel good," Washington said this week on the eve of Spring Training. "I feel as good as I did the first year. I feel like we are finally getting to the point where everybody knows what's expected of them and what we expect out of each other, and that makes it easier. I know what I want to get out of Spring Training, I've met with my coaches and we've talked about it, and I feel as good as I ever have going into Spring Training."

Washington, with pitchers and catchers reporting on Saturday, is entering the final season of his contract -- although the Rangers hold an option for 2010. A Texas manager hasn't entered a season in the last year of his contract in at least the past 30 years. The last seven full-time managers -- from Don Zimmer to Buck Showalter -- left the job with at least one more guaranteed year remaining on their contracts.

"If we get the job done, the coaching staff and myself, the contract will take care of itself," Washington said. "If we don't get the job done and they don't want me back, I'll understand. I'm not going into the season worrying about that. We'll do the best we can and see where the chips fall."

Washington is hardly the only Major League manager in that situation. Jim Leyland, Clint Hurdle, Bob Geren, Fredi Gonzalez, Cecil Cooper and Dave Trembley are other Major League skippers in similar situations. Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa have never had a problem with it, despite the label of "lame duck" that goes with it.

But Joe Torre had to deal with lame-duck status in the spotlight of New York in 2007. He wanted a two-year deal for '08, and the Yankees' refusal is one big reason why he walked away.

"I wouldn't read too much into it," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said about Washington's situation. "That's not something we're thinking about as any sort of issue."

It strongly sounded like an issue early last season, when the Rangers lost 16 of their first 23 games. Rumblings were undeniable. But the Rangers rallied. By May 17, they were back to the .500 mark and the rumblings quieted.

The club was six games over .500 on Aug. 5 before injuries to Ian Kinsler and David Murphy piled onto the weight of their pitching problems, and the Rangers staggered to a 79-83 finish. They did finish higher than third place for the first time since 1999, but that hardly satisfied anybody.

It still hasn't shaken Daniels' faith in his manager.

"I have all the confidence in the world in Ron," Daniels said. "In reality, we've asked him to take on a pretty tough challenge, managing a team that is in transition. He's never complained. He's worked with a lot of young players in helping them have success, and he's gotten a lot out of veteran players at various stages of their careers.

"He has embraced the direction and embraced the young players. He understands the challenges associated with the position, delegating to his coaches and understanding all the different things outside what happens at [game time]: communicating with players, front office, media, medical staff, fans, all the different constituents you deal with regularly. That's probably been the biggest difference."

To win under Washington, the Rangers need to pitch better and play better defense. They were last in the American League in team defense in each of the past two seasons. They were last in the AL pitching in 2008, and had the fourth-highest ERA in '07.

"The main thing has been to try to get the players to buy into the agenda," Washington said. "That's one of the toughest things I've had to do, but I now believe myself, the coaches, the players and the front office are all on the same page, so you don't have to fight as many battles.

"I've been trying to get the players to focus on what you feel is important. I've spent two years doing that, and now they have an idea of what they need to focus on."

The Rangers have not done as much as they hoped to as far as upgrading their pitching. Their main acquisitions were non-roster relievers Eddie Guardado, Brendan Donnelly and Derrick Turnbow. They are counting heavily on better health, improvement of young pitchers and their staff embracing the new program preached by club president Nolan Ryan.

Their defensive outlook depends heavily on how Michael Young handles third base and how rookie Elvis Andrus settles in at shortstop. Nobody really knows what Andruw Jones can bring to the outfield.

Washington still believes the Rangers can win with what they have. He believes in his heart that it's not the most talented team that wins on a given night, but the team that plays the best. He believes his system and style of managing is conducive to doing that.

"I'm a guy who pounds on the fundamentals, and I've kept trying to get them to understand that you have to do the little things to win and play together as a group," Washington said. "Those are the things you have to do to be successful. The uphill battle was the first year, when we were trying to establish what we wanted to do. Going into last year, I think we started to come together. Now if we can get a better pitching staff and catch the ball, I think things will start to fall into place."

This would be a good year for that to happen, for the Rangers and for Washington.

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