Phil Niekro is in the best shape of his life

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Niekro AP.jpgReally, he’s rarin’ to go:

Phil Niekro claims he’s in great shape, and if the wind is
favorable enough, the 70-year-old right-hander said he can still crank
his fastball up in the 80-mph range . . . “I’m in excellent shape,” Niekro said on a conference call with
reporters on Monday. “In fact, I’m on the boat right now fishing, and I
just got done throwing this morning. My fastball is up to about 81
[mph] now with the wind behind me, so yeah, I’m looking forward to [the
Classic].

What he means is the Hall of Fame Classic, the exhibition game played in Cooperstown in advance of the inductions in late June. Neikro was announced today as one of seven Hall of Famers who
will play this year.  Bob Feller will be there too, as he was last year. As will newcomers Rollie
Fingers Goose Gossage, Gary
Carter, Harmon Killebrew and Mike Schmidt.

The real question: If Niekro can really throw 80, and if he still has even a modicum of control over the knuckler — to the extent anyone ever really has control over a knuckler — how much better is he than, say, the Royals or the Mets fifth starters this year?

Rangers to sign James Loney to minor league deal

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 21: James Loney #28 of the New York Mets tosses to first base against the San Francisco Giants during the second inning at AT&T Park on August 21, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  The New York Mets defeated the San Francisco Giants 2-0. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
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Free agent first baseman James Loney has reportedly signed a minor league deal with the Rangers, per FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman. The deal includes an invite to spring training and a $1 million salary if he makes the major league roster in 2017.

Loney picked up a one-year stint and starting role with the Mets in 2016, slashing .265/.307/.397 with nine home runs in 336 PA. While his numbers were down a hair from the .280/.322/.357 batting line he produced with the Rays in 2015, he provided the Mets with a necessary, if underwhelming upgrade over an injured Lucas Duda through most of the season.

The 32-year-old infielder is expected to have some competition at first base, with at least five other candidates in the mix: Jurickson Profar, Ronald Guzman, Ryan Rua, Joey Gallo and Josh Hamilton. Rumor has it that the team is planning on platooning Rua and Profar in 2017, barring any impressive breakouts or injuries during spring training, though Loney could still provide the club with some veteran depth and a decent left-handed bat off the bench.

Report: Tyson Ross not expected to pitch in April

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Tyson Ross #38 of the San Diego Padres pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Petco Park September 29, 2015 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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Comments from an anonymous team official suggest that Rangers right-hander Tyson Ross will not be expected to join the rotation until May or June, per a report from Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Both Ross and GM Jon Daniels favor a conservative approach for the 29-year-old as he works his way back up to full health after undergoing surgery last October to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome.

The delay is reportedly being implemented so that Ross will be have the strength and stamina to contribute during the stretch run. Per Daniels:

We would rather err on a little extra time up front with the goal being to finish strong, pitching in big spots, meaningful games down the stretch and hopefully past 162.

Ross signed a one-year deal with the team on Thursday after pitching through an injury-riddled season with the Padres in 2016. If all goes according to plan, he’ll slot into a rotation that includes Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Andrew Cashner and Martin Perez. The Rangers are expected to narrow down their fifth starter alternatives in spring training.