With Opening Day just a few days away, there is much optimism in the Rangers’ spring training complex in Surprise, Arizona.
Once again I made my trip to the desert to look at the 2019 team. First thing I noticed was the large number of new players and coaches, including new manager Chris Woodward, who is debuting as a major league manager this season.
There is a lot of excitement in the clubhouse. With the retirement of Adrien Beltre last year, the new clubhouse leader is shortstop Elvis Andrus, who is entering his 11th year in the big leagues. Andrus is the only remaining member of the Rangers World Series teams of 2010 and 2011. I noticed that he now has Beltre’s old locker.
During spring training, the Rangers clubhouse opens to media around 8:30 a.m. As I entered the clubhouse, I approached Andrus and congratulated him on the birth of his daughter, Lucia Alessandra, last November. He was in a talkative mood, and we chatted for about 10 minutes. He’s optimistic about the season and believes the team is going to surprise a lot of people.
“We have a good team, and we’re going to be tough to beat,” he said. “It’s going to be an exciting season.”
We talked about Opening Day and the upcoming season. He recalled his first Opening Day, when he doubled against then Cleveland Indians pitcher Cliff Lee for his first Major League hit.
“I gave that ball to my mother, and when Cliff Lee came to the Rangers in 2010, I asked my mother for it so that Lee could sign it,” he said.
Our conversation then turned to his native Venezuela. He is really disturbed about what is going on there.
“I kind of foresaw that, and that is why I brought my entire family here a few years ago,” he said.
Andrus is preparing to become a U.S. citizen this year and will be taking the exam soon. He said the last time he was in Venezuela was four years ago when he took part in a homerun derby with fellow Venezuelan Jose Altuve.
Later we talked about his first major league camp. Most rookies in camp have high football-type numbers, so I asked him what his number was when he first came to camp while with the Atlanta Braves organization.
“I had number 69 then,” he said. “When I came to the Rangers, I wanted number 17 because that is the number my father had, but that number at the time belonged to Nelson Cruz, so they gave me number 1.”
He said he tried to get the No. 17 after Cruz left, but his No. 1 jersey is a top seller, so he was advised against it. No. 17 later went to Shin-Soo Choo.
My next stop was at the locker of the other veteran on the team, outfielder/designated hitter Choo, who is entering his 12th Major League season, his sixth with the Rangers.
Named the Rangers’ player of the year last year, Choo was also the Rangers’ lone representative in last year’s All-Star game. The 36-year-old veteran talked mostly about his 14-year-old son, Alan, who is a defensive lineman at one of the Southlake middle schools. Choo commented that his wife sometimes spends more time watching Alan play than him.
“I tell her she should be watching me since I’m the one making the money,” he said jokingly.
Later, I visited with Rangers closer Jose Leclerc and congratulated the 26-year-old right-hander on his new contract and for being named the team’s closer. Leclerc was first installed in that role last year after the Keone Kela trade. He was 12 for 12 in saves after the deal, and his performance actually improved.
The Dominican Republic native set career highs last year and earned the Rangers’ pitcher of the year honors in his third season with the team.
“I’m happy with the contract and the confidence the team has in me,” he said.
He also changed his uniform number from 62 to 25, saying 25 has always been a favorite number.
Also changing uniform numbers was first baseman Ronald Guzman. As a rookie last year, he wore 67. Now in his second year, he will be wearing 11.
“I wanted a lower number,” said Guzman, who hit 16 homeruns in his rookie season, including three in one game against the Yankees in New York.
The 6-foot-6-inch first baseman known as “the Condor” is a great target for Rangers infielders, who can pretty much throw the ball anywhere in Guzman’s vicinity, and he will reach up, out, or down and get it.
I then spent time with veteran pitcher Edinson Volquez, the 35-year-old right-hander who is trying to bounce back from “Tommy John” ligament replacement surgery. He said he purchased a house across the street from the training complex since he spent the entire 2018 season recovering from the surgery and working out at the spring training facility.
“I’m ready to go now,” he said.
He is expected to be one of team’s starting pitchers. The Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, native was signed by the Rangers in 2001 at age 18, and he made his major league debut with the team in 2005. He was dealt to Cincinnati in 2008 for outfielder Josh Hamilton.
“I’m looking forward to being back in Arlington,” he said.
Also back in Arlington will be Fort Worth native and UTA alum Hunter Pence, a three-time All-Star who helped lead the San Francisco Giants to world championships in 2012 and 2014.
“I feel like a rookie again,” said Pence, who played 26 games in winter ball to get ready for his comeback after playing in only 97 games last year due to injuries.
While I was in spring training, Manager Woodward announced that veteran left-hander Mike Minor would be the Opening Day starter against the Chicago Cubs on March 28 at Globe Life Park in Arlington. It will be Minor’s first Opening Day start.
“He’s earned it,” Woodward said.
In his first season with the Rangers last year, Minor finished 12-8 with a 4.18 ERA in 28 starts.
And speaking of Opening Day 2019, it will be the last at Globe Life Park in Arlington as the Rangers prepare to move to their new $1.2 billion home across the street at Globe Life Field next year. There are just 81 more regular season home games to be played in the historic 44,114-seat open-air stadium that has been the site of an All-Star Game, two World Series, and dozens of postseason games.
Ozzie Garza is an Arlington-based writer and a frequent contributor to the Fort Worth Weekly.