Nolan Ryan says these Rangers are his best team

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By BOB BAUM, Associated Press

SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) — Texas Rangers president and CEO Nolan Ryan says the team assembling for this spring training "is as strong a club as we've ever been. "

At a packed news conference Wednesday, the Hall of Fame pitcher spoke of how impressed he is with the team's expensive addition from Japan, right-hander Yu Darvish, then talked of the addiction struggles of outfielder Josh Hamilton and his high expectations for this club.

Ryan based his optimism on the Rangers' talented young starting rotation and the nucleus of good players still in their prime.

The two-time defending AL champions signed Darvish to a six-year, $56 million contract after paying his Japanese club $51.7 million just to have the chance to acquire him.

"It's exciting that he has the following that he does and so many people are excited about it," Ryan said. "I walked through the airport and not many Americans know his name yet but they say, 'Boy, how about that Japanese pitcher y'all have?'"

One of the Japanese reporters asked Ryan to compare himself to Darvish at the same age.

"There's a substantial difference," he said. "I still had a control problem. I was very durable but I didn't have the feel for the baseball or my delivery as he does with his."

"That's one of the unique things about him is at 25 he's still a very young pitcher and he has a great delivery and control of his delivery and he has a good feel for his baseball. When I say that, I mean he can throw different pitches, he can locate his pitches and so I think for a 25-year-old that's quite an accomplishment," he said.

Still, Ryan said, Darvish will have to learn the hitters, adjust to a different ball, acclimate himself to a five-day rotation instead of the six days he had in Japan, and deal with life in a different culture.

"What you hope is he doesn't come into camp and feel like he has to try to do more than he can and more than what he is," Ryan said. "I think that's a tendency when contracts and situations come up. I'm sure Prince Fielder will be feeling that to some degree this year going into Detroit's camp. What your hope is he can relax and just focus on what he needs to do to get ready and not try to go out and prove his worth here in spring training."

Hamilton, the Rangers' standout who has dealt with addiction all his adult life, relapsed in early February, drinking into the night at a Texas bar.

Ryan said he has talked to Hamilton and says the former AL MVP is in great shape and anxious to get started in spring training. He is expected to arrive on Thursday.

"Obviously us who don't have an addiction don't truly understand the challenges that Josh has," Ryan said, "so we're concerned for him obviously and as organization we try to do anything we can to help in any way we can. But yes, it is a concern of ours as it is for everybody around Josh and associated with Josh, from his teammates to his family members, to people that just care about him.

"I think that probably is one of the things that Josh realizes after this last time is the support that he does have out here, and I think that's probably very comforting to him."

As for a long-term contract for Hamilton, that will have to wait.

"I can't go into that," Ryan said. "There's so many factors that come into play when you're talking about long-term contracts. It doesn't matter who it is. At this point in time, I think everybody kind of just decided that we'd just let things kind of settle down before we went anywhere."

The Rangers are proceeding with a plan to move Hamilton to left with a competition this spring to find another center fielder.

"We feel like one of them will surface and basically be our everyday center fielder," Ryan said, "but it's a pretty good option if you've got to go back to Josh in center field."

Ryan said Darvish fits right in as a young pitcher with the Rangers' other talented youngsters — Matt Harrison (14-9, 3.39 ERA), Derek Holland (16-5, 3.95), former closer Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando (13-8, 3.51).

"If you want to look at our ballclub and analyze our ballclub, the area that I think we have more upside than any other area is our pitching staff and mainly our starting staff," Ryan said, "because of the youth that we have in there. I don't think those guys have reached the level that I think they're capable of going to, and that includes Yu. Obviously he's in that same age group as the rest of those young starters. I think his better years are ahead of him."

Ryan hopes the Rangers' nucleus stays healthy.

"We have what I call established veterans on the ballclub that aren't at the end of their careers. They're at the peak of their careers," Ryan said. "You kind of go around the ballclub and you look at Josh and you look at Adrian (Beltre) and you look at Ian (Kinsler) and you look at Michael (Young) and Nelly (Nelson Cruz) and that's the nucleus of a ballclub that's not growing old yet."

Last season, the team won despite injuries to important players.

"If we can narrow the amount of time that those guys spend on the disabled list," Ryan said, 'then it even increases the opportunities that we have of being an even better ballclub. That's the way I look at it."

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