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12/09/08 11:10 PM EST

Washington expects improvement in '09

Rangers skipper optimistic despite slow start to offseason

LAS VEGAS -- Rangers manager Ron Washington still has high expectations for his team, but he's learned to temper his optimism.

Maybe it's because it's still early in the offseason and the Rangers have yet to make a significant move to upgrade a team that finished 79-83 in 2008. So far, they have only subtracted by trading Gerald Laird to the Tigers, selling Kameron Loe to Japan and likely losing Milton Bradley, Jamey Wright and Ramon Vazquez to free agency.

So he's not ready to make any major proclamations on what the Rangers will do next season as he has done in past years at the Winter Meetings. His only expectation is the Rangers will be better, even if they are unable to make any major moves before the offseason is out.

"I would feel great with that, simply because we do have a lot of appreciation for the young talent that we have," Washington said Tuesday. "Our mantra is we want to try to do as much as we can from within and the experience that our young kids had last year, can't do anything but make them better.

"Sitting right here, right now, I haven't gotten my team together yet. But as long as we can improve on what we did last year and have some luck fall into our laps, a number, I just can't give you. But I do expect us to be better."

He does believe there is one reasonable goal in front of the Rangers.

"A winning record is definitely a reasonable goal," Washington said.

Washington knows it's still all about pitching and defense, and there is no doubt that the Rangers will do something -- anything -- at some point this offseason to add pitching. But he still has a pretty good idea of how his team could look going into Spring Training.

• Washington said he will go into Spring Training with an open mind at catcher and take a good hard look at Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez. The Rangers are likely to give Saltalamacchia the first shot now that Laird has been traded but Washington is not committing to anything at the position.

"We certainly have some good ones there," Washington said. "We'll just try to get them as much exposure as we possibly can [in Spring Training] and see where it goes from there."

• Washington reiterated that Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla are the only two locks for the rotation. Matt Harrison, who was 9-3 with a 5.49 ERA, is a leading candidate for the third spot. Scott Feldman, Brandon McCarthy and Dustin Nippert are also in the first wave of candidates.

Behind them are a group that includes Eric Hurley, Tommy Hunter and Luis Mendoza. Washington also said that Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz -- the Rangers' top two pitching prospects -- will be invited to big league camp.

"I think we have some choices," Washington said. "We have got some young choices. They've got their feet wet. We just hope they learned from that and gained some experience and are able to improve upon that."

• Kason Gabbard, who opened the season last year as the Rangers No. 4 starter, is still in the picture but made just 12 starts because of injuries and Washington said others have passed him by. He could end up in the bullpen.

"I still think Gabbard can pitch," Washington said. "I still think he has excellent work ethic. I still think that he has an idea of what he's doing out there. None of that has changed. But there are some people that have performed while he was out, and it's like anything else, when he comes into camp, he has to perform just like everyone else for the job."

• Frank Francisco goes into camp as the closer but Washington said C.J. Wilson will still get a shot at a major role in the bullpen.

"All he has to do is come in, show his arm is healthy, and I think C.J. will take care of whatever slot he has to take care of in that bullpen," Washington said.

• Chris Davis ended last season as the Rangers third baseman, but Washington said he wants to move him to first base with Hank Blalock moving to designated hitter. That leaves Travis Metcalf as the leading internal candidate at third base.

"We will just go into camp and see what we pick up before we get there," Washington said. "We don't need reinforcement. But if something is out there and it's good for us, I think we can think about it. Once again, our whole mantra is to try to do as much as we can from within."

• Washington said the Rangers are committed to Nelson Cruz in right field. He could end up replacing Milton Bradley as the Rangers cleanup hitter.

"What we are committed to is allowing Cruz's potential to continue to grow, especially what he showed us in September," Washington said. "If he can continue to improve at the rate he's going; and he's doing very well again in the Dominican, maybe he has finally got to the point where he figured it out and we certainly are going to give him an opportunity to show us if he figured it out or not."

• Washington would like to add another right-handed bat this offseason. But pitching is and will always be the Rangers' first priority.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.