SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Elvis Andrus offered his own unsolicited assessment of his abilities as a Major League player."Personally, I'm an average player," Andrus said. Average? He has been an All-Star and the starting shortstop on two World Series teams. "I don't know ... maybe a little more than average," Andrus said. That may still be too modest, but Andrus goes into the 2012 season believing he can be a much better player. He believes there is still a higher level to be reached in his quest to be the best shortstop in the Major Leagues.
"For sure, I haven't reached my potential as a player," Andrus said. "I'm still discovering myself and what I can do defensively and offensively. I don't think I've reached the top yet."He is headed in that direction this spring. Andrus went into Saturday's game against the Angels hitting .410, the 10th highest average in either the Cactus or the Grapefruit League. Throw in four walks, and he's ranked 18th with a .455 on-base percentage. He has yet to commit an error on defense. This is only Spring Training, but Andrus hit .211 with a .273 on-base percentage in the 2010 Cactus League, and .274 with a .284 on-base percentage last year. "No. 1, he's added some weight and strength in the offseason," hitting coach coach Scott Coolbaugh said. "That breeds confidence. He's starting to be more aggressive at the plate. He's getting himself into a better hitting position. That means there are times, rather than just trying to guide the ball to the opposite field, he's getting himself into a power position, swinging more aggressively and hitting the ball more solidly." Over the past three years, Andrus has been the quintessential "little ball player." During that time, his 45 sacrifice hits are the most in the Major Leagues. He is sixth with 24 bunt hits and ninth with 102 stolen bases. In 2011, the Rangers put the hit-and-run on for Andrus 36 times, tied with Boston's Dustin Pedroia as the most for any player. Andrus will be hitting No. 2 in the order behind Ian Kinsler, so the Rangers still want him to be adept at those skills. But they are also encouraging him to drive the ball when he gets the opportunity in the right situation. "You don't want to get away from the little things," Coolbaugh said. "But there are times when you can be aggressive, and with his experience, he's learning the difference." Michael Young's big jump as a hitter came in his third full season in the Major Leagues. When Young first broke in as the Rangers' second baseman in 2001, he was not perceived as a serious offensive threat. He hit .262 with a .308 on-base percentage in '02, and there were some within the organization who were pushing for Frank Catalanotto to be the regular second baseman. But Young kept the job, and had his breakthrough season in 2003, when he hit .306 with 106 runs scored, 33 doubles, nine triples, 14 home runs, 72 RBIs and a .446 slugging percentage. He was 26 years old, and won a batting title two years later. Andrus is just 23. "By the time I got to my third year, I had learned a lot and was able to start applying it," Young said. "Elvis is that way now. He has been in the league three years and seen everything the league has to offer. It's time for him to take a big step offensively. He's not going to be a big home run guy, but once Elvis understands who he is, he'll wear out the gaps and put his great speed to work. People don't realize how strong he is." Defense has long been considered Andrus' strength, but that could get better. Last season he led AL shortstops with 25 errors, and had the lowest fielding percentage in the league at the position. Fangraphs had him with the sixth highest ultimate zone rating among AL shortstops. "I lost focus early in the year and made stupid errors," Andrus said. "I've got to figure it out, not try to do too much or think too much. Just relax and play the way I know how to play." Andrus was focused at the end. He did not commit an error in his last 33 games and made just two in 17 games during the playoffs. That's the kind of defense he needs to play if he wants to win that elusive Gold Glove award. Angels shortstop Erick Aybar won it last year after two straight wins for Derek Jeter. "I don't think about that," Andrus said. "That will just hurt me. If I think about that, I will forget about all the steps I need to take to get there. I'm not focused on awards. I just need to go out and play." Andrus has always played the game. Now he needs to play it at a higher level. He is showing it in Spring Training, and the Rangers expect it to continue into the regular season.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.