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Happy Prince gives Rangers reason to smile

Fielder's disposition clearly different from last spring, when he played through injury @philgrogers

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- You're not really supposed to hit the ball hard during live batting practice, at least not in February.

Even the best hitters take some time to catch up to pitching in Spring Training.

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- You're not really supposed to hit the ball hard during live batting practice, at least not in February.

Even the best hitters take some time to catch up to pitching in Spring Training.

Yet that didn't stop Adrian Beltre from getting on Prince Fielder on Thursday, when the Rangers held their first full workout at the Surprise Stadium complex. Fielder hit weak ground balls on consecutive swings against Neftali Feliz, which drew some unwanted commentary from Beltre, who was leaning against the batting cage, awaiting his turn.

Video: Outlook: Fielder looks to bounce back after injury

"Shut up, man," Fielder shot back. "Can I play baseball?''

On the next pitch, Fielder took his hardest swing, looking to do damage to a fastball. Unfortunately for him, Feliz threw a slider that dived down to his Fielder's shoetops while he swung and missed.

Fielder did almost a 180-degree spin, winding up facing Beltre. He broke into a huge grin.

It was one of those smiles that says everything's all right, don't worry about me.

"This is a lot of fun,'' Fielder said a couple of hours later at the end of the workout. "It's been a while since I was able to be out here with the guys. It's just good to be here and hanging out.''

Nine months removed from a cervical fusion to repair herniated discs in his neck, the largest Ranger is feeling like his old self, only better. That's the best sign of all for rookie manager Jeff Banister, whose start-of-camp message to his team was "Why not us?''

After a nightmare 2014 in which manager Ron Washington would resign because of a personal matter and a run of injuries would force the Rangers to set a Major League record by using 64 players, the franchise that went to back-to-back World Series in 2010 and '11 is whole again. It has largely the same roster and some of the same issues -- How's the bullpen? Who joins Shin-Soo Choo and Leonys Martin in the outfield? -- as a year ago, but Fielder, Choo, Derek Holland and Yu Darvish are all healthy.

That's a great starting place for Banister.

Fielder, who was acquired from the Tigers in a trade for Ian Kinsler, and Choo, signed to a seven-year, $130 million contract, combined to hit .243 with 16 home runs and 56 RBIs in 165 games last year. Both of them were pressing at the start of the season, and it took until mid-May for Fielder to admit he was hurt.

His right shoulder and neck had bothered him since late in the 2013 season, but he had prided himself on being a tough guy who played through injuries.

"I was being stubborn," said Fielder, who had a streak of 547 consecutive games played. "I've obviously played through injuries, playing that many games in a row. I was obviously banged up a little bit. 'I thought once it goes away, I'll be fine.' But it wasn't going away. Once we knew what it was, it was a relief that it was something that could be fixed. It was just, 'Get it fixed and come back strong once it healed.' … I don't wake up with the stiff neck anymore. I blamed my pillow for a long time, thinking I slept badly. I don't have any of that any more. Everything feels good, feels strong. I'm ready to go.''

After being 31-31 on June 7 last season, the Rangers did a freefall to their 67-95 record, marking their worst season since 1985. The road back starts with the 275-pound Fielder crushing the ball like he did in 2009, when he hit 46 home runs and drove in 141 runs.

"Crucial,'' Banister said about Fielder's significance in answering the "Why not us?" question. "They're all crucial, but obviously any time you have an opportunity to put a player like Prince Fielder back into the lineup, it sure looks a lot better with him in it than when him out of it, doesn't it?''

Aside from a late trade for Yovani Gallardo, it was a quiet Hot Stove season for the Rangers. General manager Jon Daniels admits his hands were tied after making the major financial commitments to Choo and Fielder (at the time of the trade owed $138 million over seven years by Texas, with the Tigers paying another $30 million).

"We knew we were going to sit back a little bit,'' Daniels said. "We knew our best new acquisitions were going to be the guys who were hurt the year before coming back.''

Fielder delivered only three home runs in 150 at-bats for the Rangers before going on the disabled list last year. Daniels says that in hindsight it was clear he wasn't at 100 percent last spring.

"There was some talk at times," Daniels said. "When you go see BP, certain guys stand out. Josh Hamilton stands out on our back fields. Joey Gallo stands out. Mitch Moreland takes great BP. I kind of expected him to stand out. We didn't sound any alarm bells, but at the same time, it didn't jump off the page at you. We didn't connect the dots at all, but hindsight being what it is, I look back and I kind of draw some conclusions.''

Based on how Fielder is carrying himself, Daniels believes he's back to being the player who was a five-time All-Star for the Brewers and Tigers.

"The biggest difference is he's laughing, joking with his teammates, with the staff, giving everyone a hug,'' Daniels said. "He's got a smile on his face. He is clearly excited to be back playing. Last year was a big trade, the first time he had gone through that; new team, big expectations, all that stuff. And meanwhile he was dealing with these symptoms that really nobody knew at the time. That's been the biggest change.''

Fielder split last summer between Arlington and his home in Orlando, Fla. He spent a lot of time with his wife and two sons when the Rangers were on road trips, even once joining injured Yankee CC Sabathia on a long weekend in France with their wives.

"It was definitely weird, but I had to make the most of it,'' Fielder said. "I didn't want to be negative. I didn't want to be that guy. I just hung out with my kids more, really hit my rehab hard, trying to get back, just focused on being healthy.''

Once his neck had healed sufficiently, Fielder began punishing cross-training. He lifted weights, ran on treadmills and mixed hour-long sessions in a boxing ring with Pilates training alongside his wife. Before leaving to come to Arizona, he was pressing 405 pounds and doing 480 on a dead lift.

He's a strong man feeling his strength, and the Rangers love it.

They also don't seem to mind that they're being overlooked by many of the same analysts who were picking them to win the American League West at this time last season.

"We haven't been talked about, and when we have been talked about, I would say there's a very small percentage [of commentators who] actually make us relevant,'' Banister said. "Tell them thanks.''

Look for the Rangers to go as far as Fielder's smile carries them.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Texas Rangers, Prince Fielder