ARLINGTON -- There is one overriding question facing the Rangers as the calendar goes into 2013: Just how far are the Rangers willing to commit to young players after seeing so many significant veterans depart the organization?
There are other questions that need to be addressed and answered, but all are secondary to the one central to the Rangers' plans.
Is a team that is in a win-now mode and just drew a record 3.5 million fans to the Ballpark in Arlington really willing to commit to talented but unproven young players in key positions.
"We like our young players," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "We think we have a lot of attractive internal options. We like the team we have right now. There may be ways to upgrade and we may be better off going with our own. But we're not just going to give anything away. Opportunities have to be earned."
Which leaves the Rangers with an opening to backtrack if they go to Spring Training and decide their young players aren't ready. They can talk about going with young players and they can continue to trump their tremendous farm system. But it still takes a leap of faith to steer away from the many tempting free agents still sitting on the market, players who possibly provide a measure of safety with their track records over prospects who can frustrate with inexperience as much as thrill with their talent.
With that in mind, here are 10 questions facing the Rangers going into the new year.
1. Who will be the fifth starter?
Martin Perez finished the season as Texas' fifth starter, so theoretically, it's his job to lose. But if the Rangers could get another left-handed reliever to go with Michael Kirkman, it wouldn't be surprising for them to move Robbie Ross to the rotation. He was a starter in the Minor Leagues before making the team as a reliever in 2012. But the Rangers are considering putting him into the rotation.
2. Is this a crucial year for Nelson Cruz?
No question about it. He may be the most pivotal player on the team right now.
Cruz was able to stay off the disabled list in 2012 for the first time in four full seasons with the Rangers, but the numbers weren't that overwhelming. He hit .260 with 24 home runs and 90 RBIs, but his .460 slugging percentage and .779 OPS were the lowest in four years of playing regularly. His batting average with runners in scoring position went from .328 in 2011 to .237 this past season. He is a free agent after the season.
3. Are the Rangers really serious about moving Ian Kinsler to first base?
They're really serious about getting infielder Jurickson Profar into the lineup. That concept is a truck moving downhill without any brakes. The Rangers also want Profar to break in as a second baseman rather than a shortstop, because he won't face as much pressure in that role. That means Kinsler either goes to first base or the outfield. Right now, the Rangers are talking about first base.
4. What stands between Leonys Martin and being the everyday center fielder?
Martin needs the confidence of his manager and the commitment of a front office that's not going to be lured into a lucrative contract for free-agent center fielder Michael Bourn. Skipper Ron Washington likes Martin's talent, but also sees him as being raw and unpolished, especially on the defensive end. Outfield coach Gary Pettis has put in long hours working with Martin on his game. Now the Rangers have to decide if they are going to let Martin loose, platoon him with Craig Gentry or find an expensive "sure thing" on the free-agent market.
5. How much will Dave Magadan help as hitting coach?
Depends on how much players are willing to listen to him. Most coaches -- hitting and pitching -- teach the same concepts and fundamentals. Much of their success is dependent upon the trust and the relationships they are able to develop with their players. But the Rangers led the league in runs scored last season while winning 93 games, so it's not like Magadan has a chance to affect a complete turnaround. But perhaps his approach might help Texas squeeze out a few extra wins in some close games with a return to more disciplined situational hitting.
6. What does the future hold for Mike Olt with Adrian Beltre at third base and Kinsler moving to first?
Right now Olt is set up to platoon at designated hitter with Mitch Moreland. But, with Michael Young having been traded to the Phillies, Olt becomes more important to the Rangers. Beltre turns 34 on April 7, and the Rangers are going to need a capable backup for him. The possibility is Beltre could play 75 percent of the time at third base and Olt getting 25 percent of the starts, at least in 2013. That percentage could go up in the next few years. The Rangers don't have anybody else behind Olt to play third if something happens to Beltre, who is signed for three more years.
7. Who is a Minor League player to watch?
Catcher Jorge Alfaro. He is 19 years old and played at Class A Hickory last year. He is the No. 5 prospect in the Rangers' system according to MLB.com. He is athletic, has a strong arm and has shown the potential to hit for power. He is the best of the many catching prospects Texas has been trying to develop for the past five years.
8. What do the Rangers expect from Neftali Feliz?
Feliz underwent Tommy John surgery on Aug. 1, and recovery time is usually 12-15 months. If the Rangers do get him back in the second half, he will be used as a reliever at least for the rest of the season. But it will probably be 2014 before Feliz reverts to the pitcher that he was in 2010-11. His injury was the biggest blow for Texas in 2012.
9. Who will catch for the Rangers?
The Rangers have two catchers who are used to playing regularly. But right now manager Ron Washington said A.J. Pierzynski is the No. 1 guy and Geovany Soto will be the backup. But if Soto can play like he did early in his career, he could push Pierzynski. The Rangers feel a lot better about their catching than they did around Thanksgiving.
10. Are the Rangers still a contending team?
Absolutely. Pitching is still of primary importance, and the Rangers enter 2013 with a rotation that includes Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando. If Holland gets his act together for a full season, the Rangers could have one of the best rotations in the American League. They still need to reinforce their bullpen, but if their rotation holds up, this team is very much a contender -- even if the Rangers do go with young players in key spots.