Five keys.

A couple months ago, I’d never heard of Parker Millsap, had never been to a country music show and had never wanted to be.  Things change.

Four days ago, Nelson Cruz was rumored to be on the verge — no, really, for real this time! — of signing a multi-year deal with Seattle.  Then came news of righthander Hisashi Iwakuma’s finger injury, which threatens to keep him off the Opening Day roster, and suddenly, with Seattle considering spending significantly on another starting pitcher, Cruz is once again not a sure Mariners thing.

Three days ago, I hadn’t thought in years about Jim Fregosi, a baseball lifer who was once traded by the Angels for four young Mets players that included a 24-year-old Nolan Ryan (the only time Ryan was ever traded) and who six years later was traded by Texas to Pittsburgh for corner man Ed Kirkpatrick (a player that was involved, two months after that, in the strangest-ever Rangers trade that nobody knows about), but who in between was part of a Rangers delegation of four or five players (I’m going to say Roy Smalley and Bill Fahey and Bill Singer were in the mix, too) who came out to Northaven Park one Saturday morning in the spring of 1976 to widen the eyes of a few hundred Dallas Chamber Baseball players, among which was at least one seven-year-old dreaming of a life in the game that ended up quite a bit different, though with baseball still a big part.

Two days ago, I’d never heard of T.J. Oshie.

Things change.

A day ago, the last time we’d seen the Texas Rangers in uniform — aside from a couple notable pressers in November and December — was in an ineluctably quiet ninth inning in which Adrian Beltre skied out to left, A.J. Pierzynski rolled out to second, and Cruz bounced out to short.

Today, Beltre is in presumably packing for Arizona.

Pierzynski is in Florida.

Cruz is in limbo.

Soon Beltre will join the three dozen or so 1’s and 2’s who officially reported to Surprise Recreation Campus today and started getting their work in.  This morning, it was a case of last-in/first-out, as the newest Ranger, righthander Tommy Hanson, was the first pitcher sent out to throw a bullpen.

If the organization feels by the end of March that the 27-year-old doesn’t have his fastball or his command back, the investment could cost reportedly as little as $125,000.  If, however, Hanson regains his form to the point at which he earns a rotation spot and then hits all his incentives, the one-year deal could pay as much as $3.6 million.

And due to service time, Texas would have discretionary control over Hanson in 2015 as well.

There’s a sizable range of outcomes with respect to Hanson, but given what will be needed from the fifth spot (we hope), it’s not as if the 2014 season hinges on how this educated roll of the dice turns out.  Jayson Stark (ESPN) polled 23 league executives on an assortment of things going into spring training, and among the results was the collective opinion that, next to the Yankees, the Rangers are the most improved team in the American League.

That’s not because of Tommy Hanson.

If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse, and Texas was extremely active this winter to make sure the needle would be pointed again in the proper direction.  But winter work and off-season surveys only mean so much.  So, for that matter, does spring training.  Preparation is key, but the next six weeks are mostly about health and getting your head right with ball.

Last year I rolled out a “Five Keys” report as camp opened, so I figured I might keep that going and do the same today.  There’s not going to be anything particularly provocative on this list.  We all know what’s going to be important for this team to do from the end of March through the end of September to make sure the season doesn’t end there.

This list won’t include Beltre or Yu Darvish being great, or Prince Fielder being better.  Those are givens, things that Texas is obviously relying on and expecting.  What I’m looking at the more pivotal issues that could key this club to a lengthier season than the past two.

So here we go, my second annual Pitchers & Catchers (and 20-day cleanse)-commemorating “Five Keys”:

fivekeys

5.  Tactics.

The Rangers have to be better tactically.  Ron Washington has to be better tactically.

I’m a Wash guy.  But Wash can be better.

Whether Tim Bogar will help make Wash better is something we won’t know until things start to play out, but especially in a season in which coaching strategy takes on an added layer with the introduction of instant replay and challenges from the dugout, the role of bench coach is now even more important.

I’ll go ahead and add baserunning here, because the bulk of the problems this club had on the bases in 2013 involved bad decisions — but those appear to fall on the shoulders of the runners themselves.  Wash preaches aggressiveness on the basepaths, something that’s been a signature of this team when it’s playing its best baseball, but, right or wrong, he entrusts the decision-making in large part to his players.

The absence of Craig Gentry takes away one of the Rangers’ most effective base runners (not just their fastest), but Leonys Martin can be better, Elvis Andrus can be better, Jurickson Profar isn’t going to steal a lot of bases but he can be more aggressive in taking the extra base, and so on.

With the margin of error in the standings being so slim the last two years, it feels like an uptick on the tactical side of things, even a slight one, is something that has to be a focus.  Getting just a little bit better in that area could be huge.

4.  My favorite Martin’s.

Both Leonys and Perez showed flashes last season.  The outfielder’s came in May and June.  The lefthander’s came in August and September.

Obviously Perez’s finish prompts a lot of folks to assume he’s ready to grab a number two or number three responsibility on this staff, while Leonys’s disappointing second half at the plate (.238/.289/.348) blunted the excitement of that early run of baseball that suggested he’d arrived.

But there’s no reason Leonys, who will be 26 when the season begins, can’t take that next step in terms of consistency.

There’s also no guarantee that Perez, who will first take the ball in April right around his 23rd birthday, will be able to avoid a sophomore slump.

If those two are able to build on the really good parts of 2013, the Rangers are in business.

3.  Nef.

Joe Nathan is gone.

Neftali Feliz’s fastball is back.

We know the first thing is true.  By all reports coming out of the Dominican Winter League, the second is as well.

Wondering if a guy like Tanner Scheppers is ready for the ninth inning is one thing.  In Feliz’s case, we know he can own that role.  There are physical questions he’ll have to answer stateside, starting now, and mental questions he’ll have to quash, something that will have to wait until April, and probably beyond that.

And having Bengie Molina back around — well, that can’t be a bad thing.

If Feliz can reclaim the closer’s role, allowing Scheppers and Joakim Soria to contribute in theirs and Neal Cotts to once again do Neal Cotts things, this bullpen has a chance to be exceptional.

If Feliz can’t nail the job down, then we just might have an issue.

2.  The first inning.

How hard do you have to strain to imagine a lineup featuring Shin-Soo Choo at the top, Andrus hitting second, Fielder hitting third, and Beltre cleaning up as the front four of an American League All-Star lineup?  Unlikely, of course (not that Scott Boras would agree), but none of them would constitute a ridiculous longshot on his own.

The Rangers have a chance to put real pressure on teams by coming out on the attack in the first inning, seeing lots of pitches and doing damage with the ones that damage can be done with.

Profar and Martin — who hopefully draw from the at-bat-grinding approach that Choo and Fielder bring to this team — will have three or four or more chances each night to set things up for that Choo-Andrus-Fielder-Beltre machine.

We all remember that very long stretch of baseball last summer during which Texas could get absolutely nothing done in the first inning.

That needs to change, and there’s very good reason to believe the Rangers can be a good bit better at 1 and at 2 and at 3 in the lineup in 2014 than they were in 2013, not to mention at 8 and at 9.

1.  Matty.

It hurts my head (unless it’s the cleanse supplements I started today) to think about where Texas would have ended up, rather than charged with a play-in Game 163, if Matt Harrison pitched in 2013.  Coming off 14-9, 3.39 in 2011 and 18-11, 3.29 in 2012, he gave Texas two starts last year, both losses, before shutting down for the year with a lower back injury a week into the season.

Baseball-Reference.com provides an “ERA+” statistic for pitchers, which normalizes ERA by using a score of 100 to represent the league-average ERA and adjusting for ballpark.  In the last four years (the two World Series seasons and since), these are the top 15 ERA+ seasons for a Rangers starting pitcher:

150  C.J. Wilson (2011)
145  Yu Darvish (2013)
134  C.J. Wilson (2010)
133  Matt Harrison (2012)
133  Alexi Ogando (2013)
130  Matt Harrison (2011)
128  Colby Lewis (2012)
126  Alexi Ogando (2011)
121  Colby Lewis (2010)
120  Derek Holland (2013)
120  Tommy Hunter (2010)
114  Martin Perez (2013)
113  Cliff Lee (2010)
112  Yu Darvish (2012)
112  Derek Holland (2011)

If Harrison made his customary 30+ starts in 2013, rather than only two, meaning some significant portion of the starts made by Nick Tepesch (17), Justin Grimm (17), Matt Garza (13), Josh Lindblom (5), Ross Wolf (3), and Travis Blackley (3) would have instead gone to the club’s Opening Day starter . . . .

I can’t even finish the sentence.

Of all the things to change for 2014, that’s number one.  Harrison and Darvish threw bullpens this morning after Hanson did, and the most important story there is that Harrison threw his pitches and came out of it just fine.

His return is massive, and I would suggest a bigger “addition” to this pitching staff than Masahiro Tanaka would have been.

Jim Bowden (ESPN/XM) thinks Jon Daniels had the second-best winter of any big-market GM (next to New York’s Brian Cashman), ranks the trade of Ian Kinsler for Fielder and $30 million as the second-best trade of the off-season (next to Oakland trading Jemile Weeks for closer Jim Johnson), and considers the Rangers’ trade of Gentry in a deal for Michael Choice the third-boldest move of the winter (next to Seattle’s Robinson Cano contract and Detroit trading Fielder for Kinsler).

In Stark’s column, the one in which executives all over the league had Texas as the second-most improved team in the AL, the Fielder-Kinsler trade wasn’t judged to be the best overall — but Stark notes that four execs voted for Texas in that category, three voted for both teams in a “win-win” sense, and zero thought Detroit made the best deal.

The Texas-Detroit deal, as big as it was from a headline standpoint, probably falls somewhere between the Rangers’ trade of Alex Rodriguez (either time) in the off-season after 2003 and the one that Joel Sherman (New York Post) reports today that the Rangers and Mets apparently discussed just before camp in 2004, when they “engaged in escalating talks built around [Alfonso] Soriano for Jose Reyes,” who was just coming off his rookie season at the time that the Rangers picked Soriano up in the A-Rod deal with the Yankees.  Sherman writes that Rangers owner Tom Hicks “scuttled those [talks], telling his baseball executives he never would be able to explain to the fans trading A-Rod and Soriano.”

(For what it’s worth, I looked back at my reports from that month, and there were stories in the media then that both the Rangers and Mets denied that any such trade talks took place.)

Sherman puts a bow on his story (at least from a Rangers standpoint) by noting “how close the Rangers came to having a double-play duo of Reyes and Cano.”

And if that doesn’t get you going, watch tonight’s 30 for 30 documentary on ESPN, titled “The Deal,” which walks us through the timetable of the A-Rod trade, first to Boston, which was killed by the league, and then to the Yankees.  You’ll hear from Cashman and John Hart and Theo Epstein, who tells us that if he’d succeeded in working a financial deal out with A-Rod that the league accepted — after trading Manny Ramirez and Jon Lester to Texas to get him — he was going to turn around and trade Nomar Garciaparra to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez and Brandon McCarthy.

So, yeah, Texas could have had Soriano and Cano (instead of Soriano and Joaquin Arias, as we all know), and allegedly could have flipped Soriano for Reyes . . . or the Rangers could have had Ramirez and Lester in the first place, before Aaron Boone got hurt playing basketball, which led to the Texas-New York talks, and if McCarthy had gone to Boston then John Danks would never have been traded with Nick Masset and a kid for McCarthy and a kid . . . and think about what all changes for the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Rangers if that’s how things went down 10 years ago.

But I’ll leave that anger/schadenfreude cocktail to you guys, and focus instead tonight on what’s supposed to be a game-changer of an episode of HBO’s “True Detective” (which I can hardly get my head wrapped around, considering what a game-changer last week’s was).

A few days ago, I don’t think I’d ever heard all that detail on Soriano and Reyes and Ordonez and McCarthy.  A few weeks ago, I guarantee you I didn’t hold Matt McConaughey, whom I knew 25 years ago in a much different setting, in the regard I hold him now.

Things change.

T.J. Oshie has elevated things exponentially for himself in the last couple days, too, and I’m not betting against Parker Millsap doing that in the next couple years.  A little elevation in 2014 in the way the Rangers approach things tactically, in the way Leonys Martin and Martin Perez go about taking that next step, in Neftali Feliz’s game and in the Texas attack at the top of the lineup and in Matt Harrison’s health, and things are going to change in a big way this year.

I’m so ready for baseball.

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