Who’s left?

Tied for second among the most frequently asked questions I’ve gotten over the nearly 14 years of this project have been “What ever happened to Jeff Zimmerman?” and “When will Erik Thompson return?,” both of which are firmly ahead of “What kind of law do you practice?” but miles behind the pacesetter:
“Got any spring training tips for a first-time visitor?”
My answer’s always some variation of the same thing.  Back fields, 10 a.m.  There have been spring training trips on which, by choice, I haven’t stepped foot in the stadium one time.  But I don’t ever miss the morning drills.
Yesterday offered a bonus appointment, as the Rangers had a B game scheduled for 10:00 against the Royals, across the complex.  It promised to be lightly attended (a hundred or two, tops), with the best weather of the day and a vantage point from which you could read the seams of the ball.
Then, just before leaving the hotel, I saw the lineups.
Sorry, Luis and Alberto and Yangervis and Greg.  As spirited as the utility infield battle might be, and as much as I hope one of you carves out an Andres Blanco run in Texas, I was thinking I’d rather see Jurickson and Rougned and Hanser taking ground balls and BP.   I did have some interest in seeing Leonys Martin face Jonathan Broxton and Joakim Soria, but as for Engel Beltre and Kyle Hudson and Brad Hawpe, they weren’t going to define this trip the way Jordan Akins and Ronald Guzman and Jorge Alfaro could.
Alexi Ogando would start the morning exhibition, but I’ll be able to watch him all year.  Among the slated relievers, Roman Mendez and Jake Brigham interested me, but an inning each against a largely 4A-studded Royals lineup was only mildly inviting.
I ditched the idea of the B game, and slid over to the minor league fields on the Texas side — but the workout schedule was skewed because of an ownership/sponsorship event playing out on the fields.
So I jumped over to the big league morning workout, and the first thing I saw was an interesting trio of pitchers getting their side work in simultaneously.  The absence of Darren Oliver and Mike Gonzalez has opened the competition for a left-handed reliever to win a job, but the roster members (Michael Kirkman, Miguel De Los Santos, Kelvin De La Cruz, and Martin Perez, who needs to be pitching every fifth day in AAA in April) have struggled a bit out of the gate, and the non-roster veterans brought in (Joe Beimel, Mitch Stetter, and Neal Cotts) and fringe candidate Ben Snyder have had inconsistent showings.
First point: It’s really too early for me to be writing about this.  We’re talking about a couple innings of work for each lefty, plus some side work observations that have reached print about a few of them, and there’s more than three weeks of A and B games to go in this competition.
Second: There’s one development that it’s probably not too early to be writing about, another non-roster invite quietly making some noise.
While Yu Darvish drew a crowd on the PFP field and Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and David Murphy attracted another swarm of fans as they rotated through a round of loud BP, few fans were hanging out in the bullpen area, where Mike Adams and Koji Uehara were getting their work in alongside a third pitcher, a short lefty with a stocky lower half that even the RoughRiders faithful have had only seven opportunities to see.
If Adams and Uehara are in good form, they can be very effective against left-handed hitters and diminish the need for a left-on-left specialist, perhaps one reason the club didn’t match what Toronto offered Oliver and along with the rest of the league hasn’t met Gonzalez’s demand for a healthy big league deal.  The job is likely still Kirkman’s to seize, but that small lefty getting his work in next to Adams and Uehara yesterday morning is entering the picture.
Robbie Ross has made one relief appearance in three pro seasons since being made the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2008 out of a Kentucky high school.  He’s been groomed as a starter, and he’s been a very good one.  Last year, the 22-year-old won the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year award and the circuit’s ERA title (2.26), and he finished particularly strong, firing quality starts nine times in his final 11 Myrtle Beach appearances and earning an August promotion to Frisco, where he posted a 2.61 ERA in six starts (36 strikeouts and five walks in 38 innings) and then struck out a career-high 12 in his lone playoff start.
Ross has rarely been mentioned in the same conversation as Perez, whose power arsenal he lacks, or Robbie Erlin, whose elite command catapulted him to the point at which he was able to key the Rangers’ trade deadline deal for Adams.  But Ross’s deceptive fastball-slider mix has always been difficult for minor league hitters to square up, or keep off the ground, and there’s a telling set of numbers in his 2011 profile that jumps out.
High A and AA opponents managed to hit only .228 off Ross last year, but zero in on what left-handed hitters did against him and you see a new frame, at least for now, to put the picture in.  Ross held Carolina League and Texas League lefties to an anemic .167 average, which included no home runs and only four doubles and a triple in 138 at-bats.
Move off of the hard evidence, and ask the scouts, and they’ll tell you that everything Ross offers moves.
Drill down beneath the tools, and they’ll rave about the kid’s confidence, an obviously key ingredient for any relief pitcher, particularly one whose role would be to come in and get Adrian Gonzalez and Robinson Cano and Eric Hosmer out, and even more important when considering a pitcher who has yet to pitch at this level or the AAA level or any more than a month in AA.
Ross has been a kid to keep an eye on for the last three years, but he may be changing the conversation when it comes to what we’re keeping an eye on him for, and how soon.
Obligatory Darvish observations from Sunday: (1) As he got settled in the home bullpen for the afternoon game against the Indians, he took a seat in a folding chair between bullpen catcher Josh Frasier and AAA pitching coach Terry Clark, with no interpreter in sight.  Cool.  (2) When Derek Holland and the Rangers defense took the field to Chuck Morgan’s introduction of “Your American League Champion Texas Rangers,” one of the 20 pitchers and catchers and coaches in the bullpen area applauded.  It was Darvish.  Cool.  (3) There’s a shaded area next to the two bullpen mounds, behind a chain-link separator.  When Holland jogged out to the pen after his efficient three innings to get a little more work in, Darvish (and Fabio Castillo) leaned up against the chain-link behind the lefthander and paid very close attention to what he was doing.  Cool.
Either non-roster catcher Chris Robinson has some Japanese in his arsenal, or he and Darvish went baseball-English as they chatted during the early innings.  Again, no interpreter.
Nice day for Mitch Moreland, who went 3 for 3 in the morning B game and 2 for 2 in the afternoon game (including a roped double off lefty Tony Sipp) before Ron Washington gave him the rest of the day off.  His batting practice displays have seemed healthy, too.
Ian Kinsler was scratched from the A game with minor tightness in his back, and I wonder if it had anything to do with the one-hopper off Brandon Snyder’s bat in morning BP that hit Kinsler in the back in short left center field as he was walking toward the clubhouse.  He seemed fine when it happened.  I’m sure he’ll be back at it today.
Kevin Goldstein ranks the farm systems for Baseball Prospectus, making Texas number six overall, behind Oakland (fourth) and just ahead of Seattle (seventh), while pegging the Angels at number 23 with this comment: “Without Mike Trout, this would be a nightmare, and he won’t qualify anymore after his first big league game of the season.”
My guess is that Robbie Ross will continue to qualify as a rookie when Goldstein issues his rankings a year from now, but I’m not as sure about that as I was two weeks ago, reserving the right to be even less certain in another couple weeks if he keeps on doing the right things on the back fields and, when he gets the chance, between the lines in the games that don’t really count but absolutely matter.

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