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Filling out back end of rotation is key for Rangers

Club has eight pitchers battling for starting spots after injuries to Holland, Harrison

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers are at about the halfway point of Spring Training. They have not reached that mark at full gallop.

They might be closer to that pace if pitcher Derek Holland had not fallen over his dog in January and suffered torn cartilage in his left knee. But that unfortunate and unforeseen injury remains the biggest reason why the Rangers still have much work left to do in the desert before they are ready to start the season.

Holland's injury, plus Matt Harrison's delayed return from back surgery, has thrown wide open the competition for the back two spots in the starting rotation. A team that spent the winter focusing on improving its offense has had to abruptly shift focus back toward the pitching staff.

The uncertain rotation, and the potential impact on the bullpen, is hardly the only reason why the Rangers have not sprinted out from the Spring Training starting gate. Jurickson Profar is swinging the bat well but has yet to play second base because of the tendinitis in his right shoulder. Catcher Geovany Soto is not expected to play in a game until at least March 15 while recovering from left ankle surgery. Shortstop Elvis Andrus has been dealing with a sore shoulder, and Alex Rios has been sidelined briefly by first a sore big toe and now a strained muscle in his right rib cage.

"We're making real good progress," Rangers manager Ron Washington said on Friday before a 2-1 loss to the Dodgers left his team 2-6-1 in the Cactus League. "Every day we're getting better. Once again, not looking at wins and loss results, but every day these guys' game is getting better, and pretty soon we're going to get consistent.

"My assessment is that we get consistent going down the stretch into the season. I'm not so concerned about consistent right now because, like you said, we have a lot of moving parts, a lot of people we're looking at, there's a lot of people that are vying for jobs and competing."

The Rangers still assume the lineup will be fine and the early spring aches will fade as Opening Day approaches. Right now, full attention is on the rotation, an area the Rangers have been scrambling to reinforce since Holland's injury. Tommy Hanson was signed just before the beginning of Spring Training, but that did not alleviate the Rangers' gnawing concerns, so veteran left-hander Joe Saunders was added three days ago.

Saunders pitched two scoreless innings in a "B" game on Friday, marking his official entrance into the rotation sweepstakes. The list of candidates grew even longer when Washington said Jose Contreras is now a candidate for the rotation after pitching three scoreless innings against the Padres on Thursday. Contreras, 42, has 175 Major League starts but none since 2009.

For those scoring at home, the list of candidates for the rotation now includes Hanson, Saunders, Contreras, Nick Tepesch, Colby Lewis and Michael Kirkman, plus relievers Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross. Scheppers, superb as a setup reliever last season, will make his first start of the spring on Saturday against the Dodgers.

That's eight pitchers competing for two spots behind Yu Darvish, Alexi Ogando and Martin Perez. Presumably one of those spots is temporary as the Rangers expect Harrison to join the rotation sometime in April. Kirkman and Tepesch have both impressed early in spring, but that was the same way last year as this time.

"I'm going to keep an open mind," Washington said.

Washington said the off-day on March 19 is a key date. Washington said the Rangers would like to have the rotation competition narrowed down by then. Those who have fallen behind will likely be sent to the bullpen to win a job there. The Rangers still have to put a bullpen together as well before they leave camp.

The closer's job remains open between Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria and Scheppers. The Rangers were hoping Feliz would come in and seize the job, but that hasn't been the case. He is still trying to get his velocity back and smooth out his mechanics. The Rangers have been able to get Feliz to come over the top again with his delivery, but the velocity is still well below his pre-surgery years.

"The most important things are his arm and the slot were high," Washington said. "He kept it up there, and that's what we're trying to do. The velocity will take care of itself as we move along."

Soria has thrown well but is the least over-powering of the three on a team smitten by power arms above all. Scheppers will get his audition for the rotation, but moving there would be a huge hit to the bullpen. The Rangers were hoping to build enough depth behind Scheppers if he needed to go to the rotation, but early spring injuries to Shawn Tolleson (shoulder) and Miles Mikolas (elbow) have added to the pitching concerns. Both have had some success pitching in relief in the Majors prior to being acquired by the Rangers this winter.

Both are expected to pitch in the game by early next week, and there is time for them to get in the bullpen race before spring is over. There is time for the Rangers to sort through a growing list of utility-infield and fourth-outfield candidates. There is also time for Mitch Moreland and Leonys Martin -- a combined 5-for-25 between them -- to get hot, and catching will only become a concern if Soto isn't ready by March 15 or shortly thereafter. The same goes for Profar at second base.

The only really pressing matter right now is the rotation, and starting to identify the top candidates would be the best way for the Rangers to accelerate a slow start to the spring.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.

Texas Rangers, Jose Contreras, Tommy Hanson, Michael Kirkman, Colby Lewis, Robbie Ross, Joe Saunders, Nick Tepesch