Up to eight pitchers in hunt for Rangers' No. 5 spot
ARLINGTON -- Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux has been putting together his plan for Spring Training, and it includes stretching out 12 pitchers in preparation to be starters.
That means as many as eight pitchers could be competing for the fifth spot in the rotation when pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 12 to Surprise, Ariz.
"It will be intense," Maddux said Friday.
Four of the spots in the rotation are set, with Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando. Eight other pitchers will be stretched out as starters, including Robbie Ross. He was the Rangers' left-handed setup reliever last season but will be given a chance to start this spring.
Maddux has six identified competitors in Martin Perez, Justin Grimm, Kyle McClellan, Randy Wells, Cody Buckel and Nick Tepesch. Maddux said one more pitcher will be stretched out as a starter, but he is leaving that spot open.
There will be plenty of time for pitchers to make an impression. Because of the World Baseball Classic, the Rangers are playing 38 exhibition games this spring, the most ever scheduled for a normal spring.
The Rangers will also be without Holland for much of that time. He is pitching for the United States in the WBC, which means his spot in the spring will be filled by those competing for the fifth-starter spot.
"It will give somebody an opportunity," Maddux said. "There are going to be some innings there that we normally wouldn't have."
Buckel and Tepesch have not yet pitched in the Major Leagues. But Ross had never pitched in the Major Leagues either before coming to camp last spring and winning a job in the bullpen.
"Last year at this time, everybody was wondering who Robbie Ross was," Maddux said. "But he introduced himself in Spring Training, and it was good to meet him. He really stepped up. It's up to these guys to step up now."
The Rangers have 36 pitchers on their Spring Training roster. They have 24 on the 40-man roster and another 12 coming in on Minor League contracts. Maddux is planning on at least one group of pitchers to throw live batting practice on Feb. 12, the day before the first official workout.
"I'm calling that Day Zero," Maddux said.
Not all 36 pitchers will be ready to go on Feb. 12. Colby Lewis, Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria and Matt West all underwent major arm surgery last winter and aren't expected to pitch in Cactus League games. Rookie right-hander Roman Mendez also had surgery this winter and is expected to be behind the rest of the group. All others are expected to compete at the beginning of camp, either for a spot in the rotation or in the bullpen.
The bullpen could be wide open. Soria is not expected to return from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery until late May, and Feliz won't be back until August. If Ross wins a spot in the rotation, that will create further competition and a possible need for a left-handed reliever.
Michael Kirkman and Jeff Beliveau, who was claimed off waivers from the Cubs this offseason, are the two most experienced left-handed relievers on the 40-man roster. Perez might end up in the bullpen if he doesn't make the rotation, although it's more likely he'll start at Triple-A Round Rock. Veteran left-handers Neal Cotts and Nate Robertson are also coming into camp as non-roster players trying to win a spot in the bullpen. Joe Ortiz is another left-handed reliever on the 40-man, but he has never pitched in the big leagues.
From the right side, the Rangers have Joe Nathan back as closer but lost three of their top right-handed relievers to free agency: Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Mark Lowe. Moving Ogando back into the rotation means another top reliever has to be replaced.
The Rangers signed veteran Jason Frasor and traded for Josh Lindblom to help make up for the loss. Tanner Scheppers also returns after posting a 4.45 ERA in 39 games as a rookie last season.
Other right-handed bullpen candidates from the 40-man roster include Jacob Brigham, Cory Burns, Wilmer Font, Justin Miller, Neil Ramirez and Coty Woods, who is a Rule 5 Draft pick from the Rockies organization. Non-roster right-handed candidates for the bullpen include Colin Balester, Evan Meek, Yonata Ortega, Yoshinori Tateyama and Johan Yan. Meek was an All-Star reliever for the Pirates in 2010.
"There is definitely a lot of opportunity out there," Scheppers said. "A lot of young guys want to show what we have, show we're healthy and show we're consistent. They're going to field the best 25 guys, so it will be interesting and exciting. I'm looking forward to it."