— SURPRISE, Ariz. - Rich Harden almost had made it through an entire post-outing interview session when an observer noted that none of the questions had been about Harden's usually balky health.
“You just asked a health-related question,'' Harden responded with a smile.
So there's nothing wrong with his wit. But for their $7.5-million, one-year investment, the Rangers are hoping for more wins than one-liners from Harden. So far, so good.
The numbers haven't been great, truth be told. Harden was talking to reporters after allowing four runs in 3.2 innings against the San Francisco Giants, raising his spring ERA to 9.72 in eight innings.
But Harden said he isn't concerned about mid-March numbers in hitter-friendly Arizona — not when he feels so good.
"There are no questions in my mind,'' he said. "I'm healthy. I'm strong. I'm further ahead (at this point in spring training) than I've been in a while. I'll be ready for the start of the season.''
Until manager Ron Washington's cocaine-use confession this week, health, readiness and comebacks had been the story of Rangers camp. In fact, it's hard to find a potential contender with a bigger need for its injury-riddled stars to stay on the field.
Besides Harden, whom the Rangers are counting on to replace Kevin Millwood as their No. 1 starter, sluggers Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero are obvious comeback keys to a hoped-for challenge of the Los Angeles Angels' AL West supremacy.
Harden made 26 starts and logged 141 innings last season — his most on both counts since 2004. But there was a seventh trip to the disabled list in May, and then he was shut down in mid-September, so questions remained coming into camp.
Guerrero, now 35, was let go by the Angels after playing only 100 games in 2009 — many obviously at less than 100 percent — and slipping to only 15 homers and 50 RBI, his lowest since his 1997 rookie year with Montreal.
It cost the Rangers only $6.5 million to sign Guerrero for one year, and they'll keep him exclusively in the designated hitter role to increase his chances of staying in the lineup.
He's always crushed Rangers' pitching and is a .394 career hitter at Rangers Ballpark. And what's clear this spring is that he is running far more pain-free than last year.
"Knock on wood; he's looked great,'' Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "He's running well. Our goal is to keep him healthy. His ability will take it from there.''
But nobody will make the Rangers go more than Hamilton. Much was made of the Rangers' offensive struggles last season, but the real reason was Hamilton's reduced production — from .304-32-130 in 156 games in 2008 to .268-10-54 in 89 games last season.
Hamilton already missed time this spring due to a shoulder injury and a hand bruise from a hit-by-pitch. But he believes he has locked-in the tap-step timing mechanism that led to his 2008 breakout season, and gave proof with a long home run against Seattle's Ian Snell on Wednesday night.
“I got it back,'' Hamilton said. "I told (third baseman) Michael Young, 'we need to break camp right now'.''
The National League equivalent to the Rangers are the New York Mets.
The difference is that ace Johan Santana, coming off surgery, flashed some of his characteristic brilliance in his last outing, throwing four shutout innings and striking out four against the Marlins. That makes him the least of the Mets' rotation worries.
Shortstop Jose Reyes' overactive thyroid is another matter, however. Doctors are cautioning that the condition can have ramifications for the heart. So blood hormone levels will have to normalize before we see Reyes, who is all but certain to start the season on the disabled list.
That will leave a 3-4-5 of David Wright, Jason Bay and David Murphy, as Carlos Beltran will be out until May while recovering from late-winter surgery. And you have to feel for manager Jerry Manuel, whose job is on the line.
In the A's camp, it's 2½ weeks from Opening Day and Ben Sheets' ERA is floating around at 31.15, Justin Duchscherer hasn't thrown in a Cactus League game, and general manager Billy Beane can't help but hear the second-guessing.
Beane's decision to give Sheets a guaranteed $10-million deal after the right-hander missed all of last season after undergoing surgery, raised eyebrows at the time, and the doubters are looking smart about now.
Granted, most of that ERA damage came in Sheets' last start — nine earned runs, no outs recorded against Cincinnati — when he caught some tough luck with some would-be plays that weren't made.
But even though he says he feels fine and velocity readings were normal, the scenario of Sheets leading the way for Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden and Trevor Cahill is getting harder to picture.
Duchscherer, who also didn't pitch in the majors in 2009 and underwent elbow surgery, threw three scoreless innings in a minor-league intersquad game on Wednesday.
The next step will be a Cactus League outing, and he'll have two more before camp breaks. So it appears as if at least for the early part of April, the A's once again will find themselves riding their talented young starters — no way to make up ground on the Angels, Rangers and Seattle Mariners.
A: Suzuki, 26, certainly doesn't get the acclaim that All-Star receivers such as Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, Victor Martinez and Jorge Posada receive. But I believe he has earned a lot of respect as one of the game's best young catchers, and currently sits on that next rung behind Mauer and Co.
Suzuki's 2009 season was one of the few bright spots for the A's, as he jumped to 15 homers and 88 RBI from 7 and 42 respectively in 2008.
He also led all big-league catchers with 37 doubles, finished third in runs scored and stolen bases, and while his on-base percentage dropped, his slugging and OPS increased markedly. And you have to remember that Suzuki's home ballpark is one of the biggest pitchers' parks in the game.
With any further improvement in 2010, Suzuki could crack through and make an All-Star Game appearance. It also would help if the A's can put together a better season, and possibly contend in the AL West.
A: I'd say one of the more surprising non-events of the spring has been Washburn's absence from any camp. With so many teams needing dependable, innings-eating starting pitchers, you'd think somebody would have met Washburn's asking price by now.
That said, Washburn has turned down a couple of offers, so he could be somewhere if he really wanted to be. Washburn could have landed in Seattle or Minnesota, among other places, but has decided to hold out for something more financially.
It's hard to say where he could end up, because all it could take is one starting pitcher for a contending team to come down with an injury, or to pitch ineffectively.
But Washburn has limited himself to a team that has some money to spare, as teams for the most part already have spent whatever they're going to spend on payroll.
The Diamondbacks and Dodgers might have been possibilities, but both have financial limitations. The Diamondbacks chose to sign Kris Benson this week. The Dodgers reportedly have more interest in Braden Looper than Washburn.
A: The possibility is being considered, of course, and it wouldn't surprise me that at some point in the near future, a worldwide draft goes into effect.
Personally, I like things the way they are. The current system — in which only players from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico are subject to the draft — fosters a 'final frontier' mentality that adventurous teams can adopt if they so desire.
Personnel and resources can be alloted in areas such as the Pacific Rim, or on Cuban defectors as you mention, in an effort to get an edge over other teams.
And it doesn't necessarily give that advantage to the big-market teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox. In fact, a new trend we're seeing is small-to-mid-market clubs putting more into scouting and development in general, and in signing international talent, because they see that as a cheaper way to improve their franchises.
The most-notable recent example is the Reds spending $30-plus million on Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman. During the recent owners meetings, Reds owner Robert Castellini talked about how his team has little chance of signing a top-dollar big-league free agent because of the money involved, but can take the risk and sign a potential-filled prospect such as Chapman.
The Pirates are another team getting aggressive in this area — a flashback to a generation ago, when they were a leader in Caribbean scouting — with great results, I might add.