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Eager Ross eyes opening in Rangers rotation

Reliever tries again to be a starter knowing Holland, Harrison are dealing with injuries

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- For the second consecutive spring, Robbie Ross is battling for a rotation spot, with the knowledge that he's got a relief job in his back pocket if necessary.

Only this time around, Ross feels as though the opportunity is different. He was given a shot at earning the Rangers' final rotation spot last season, but he eventually fell out of the running in a crowded race. Because of injuries to Derek Holland and Matt Harrison this spring, Ross feels this year's competition is wide open.

"Obviously, I want to get a starter spot, and that's why I'm battling for it," Ross said after allowing a run on two hits in two innings in his first Cactus League outing. "But at the same time, I'm also battling for a relief spot.

"Whichever is fine with me. It's just that I'd love to get a starter spot, and that's what I'm going to battle for until they say, 'Hey you're back in the 'pen.'"

The biggest key to Ross' transition -- according to both Ross and the Rangers -- is increased strength and durability for the 24-year-old southpaw.

"The difference between throwing 70 innings and then throwing 200 innings [is] getting my legs as strong as I possibly can, doing the things I need to, to get strong, trying to get my long-toss program going, get my leg strength up there, just being ready to go," Ross said. "It's not just 'OK, I've got one inning to work for.' It's 'OK, I'd like to go as long as I can until they say 'Hey that's enough.'"

Ross plunked the first White Sox hitter he faced on Sunday, but ultimately settled down a bit. Overall, he was pleased with the performance, even if he wasn't especially sharp.

Typically a fastball-slider pitcher, Ross added three changeups and two curveballs into the mix on Sunday. According to FanGraphs, Ross threw his changeup 1.6 percent of the time last season, and he threw his curveball only in extremely rare circumstances.

"He's different, obviously, as a starter than he was in the 'pen," catcher J.P. Arencibia said. "In the 'pen he threw a lot of heaters and sliders. Now you need to change speeds a little more and be able to pitch, because now you have to go through the lineup three times, as opposed to just facing one and throwing the whole kitchen sink."

Arencibia believes there are two keys to a pitcher making a transition from the 'pen to the rotation: Stamina and a complete arsenal of pitches.

"He can pitch -- He definitely has the pitches," Arencibia said. "Now it's just about being able to go there. It's a special thing to be a starter, in the big leagues especially. To get through a big league lineup once, twice, a third time -- it's huge."

Ross hasn't exactly shown great stamina in his two big league seasons, having struggled after the All-Star break in each. In 2013, he posted a 2.59 ERA in the first half of the season, followed by a 3.92 mark in the second. A year earlier, the difference was even greater -- 0.95 vs. 5.60.

Rangers manager Ron Washington gave Ross a bit of a pass for his poor second half in 2012, saying a dropoff is often to be expected from a rookie in his first full season.

Washington offered no such pretext for 2013, however, simply noting that Ross "couldn't get left-handers out."

Heading into the 2014 season, Washington believes the biggest adjustment Ross must make to earn himself a spot in the rotation is in his routine.

"Starting pitchers have a different work ethic, and he has to develop work ethic so he can sustain," Washington said. "That's what it comes down to. The pitching -- he can pitch."

Ross is eager to develop that work ethic as a starter, regardless of the extra effort it will take.

"You're just expecting to throw longer innings, more pitches, facing batters more than once and trying to keep your team in the game," Ross said of his job as a starter. "You're in control."

AJ Cassavell is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.

Texas Rangers, Robbie Ross