Ron Washington lifted most of his starting lineup before the game was a third old yesterday, letting his veterans get ready to leave Arizona for Texas while giving a handful of the organization’s top prospects a lengthy chance to play against big league ballplayers in front of big league coaches.
In that latter group were Mike Olt and Jurickson Profar, both headed to Frisco for the first time, one with all of 69 games of experience at the High Class A level, the other with 69 games fewer than that. And Engel Beltre, whose diving catch in foul ground ended another spring in Surprise, and whose next stop is probably Frisco as well, which will make it four straight years for the mercurial talent to play home games at Dr Pepper Ballpark.
There’s another Rangers prospect who sights were set on breaking camp by moving his pro career from South Carolina, where he spent most of 2011, to Texas, where he made six starts for Frisco plus one in the playoffs late last year, after one cameo playoff appearance in 2010, only the realistic goal was probably 35 miles north-northeast of where it’s going to be.
I’m sure Robbie Ross planned all winter to be in Frisco on Wednesday, only he didn’t expect it would be in the visitors’ bullpen rather than the home dugout.
Texas didn’t re-sign Darren Oliver or Mike Gonzalez (who remains a free agent) this winter. The club brought veterans Joe Beimel and Mitch Stetter in on non-roster deals, and Neal Cotts in one that at first didn’t even include an invite to big league camp. Rumors of a Roy Oswalt signing that would have pushed Matt Harrison to the bullpen never had any traction.
Frisco lefties Miguel De Los Santos and Ben Snyder were given shots in camp, and Martin Perez was as well, at least in appearance, but they all had less of a chance combined to stick than Michael Kirkman, but his inconsistent spring led the Rangers to send him out on what will be his final option, opening a door that Ross, more than anyone else, refused to let shut.
As for the others, Cotts may have had as strong a bead on a bullpen spot as Ross, but he strained a muscle in his left side on his penultimate pitch on Saturday, taking him out of the mix. Texas told Ross on Sunday that he was a big leaguer.
Rangers Senior Special Assistant Don Welke flew to Florida in April 2008 to catch a game in Florida with dozens of other scouts, most of whom were there to see Niceville High School lefthander Brett DeVall, an Aflac All-American projected to be a first-round pick two months later. DeVall’s opposition traveled 600 miles from Kentucky, and his counterpart on the mound was Ross, who outdueled DeVall in a 2-1 game, reached 94 miles per hour – his highest reading of the day – on the game’s final pitch, and left an impression on Welke that he took with him to the war room, where Texas would take him in June with its second-round pick. Aside from the obvious tools Ross took to the mound, Welke came away raving about his competitiveness, especially with the game on the line.
Just yesterday, former Rangers minor league pitcher Michael Schlact tweeted: “Couldn’t happen to a better dude. Nicest guy ever in the dugout. Meanest guy ever on the mound.”
Ross was named Carolina League Pitcher of the Year and the Rangers’ Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year based on his work as a starter in 2011. He’s locates a heavy fastball and sharp slider, pounding the zone and keeping the ball on the ground. There’s no reason he can’t develop into a starting pitcher, but right now he’s the club’s best bet to get lefties out – but not only lefties – in a bullpen otherwise comprised fully of righthanders. With Myrtle Beach and Frisco last year, left-handed batters hit just .167 off Ross, with zero home runs and only five extra-base hits in 138 at-bats.
Would it be better for his career if Ross continued to work as a starter in Frisco or Round Rock? Not necessarily. There’s a school of thought that supports breaking young pitchers into the big leagues as relievers (see Derek Holland), but there’s something else at work here, too.
This isn’t a club 12.5 games back in the race bringing a 22-year-old Edinson Volquez up to make a spot start at the front end of a late-August doubleheader.
This is the two-time defending American League champion, and Robbie Ross is no experiment, no stunt. He’s established over the last month that he’s best suited to do the job the Rangers are asking him to do.
Late last season, a couple weeks after his promotion to AA, the 22-year-old Ross said: “I want to get to the big leagues any way I can. If that means coming out of the bullpen, so be it.”
So be it.
Ross will be in Round Rock tonight, as the Rangers tune up against the Express in a game that ought to be over shortly after Kansas tips off against Kentucky, the school Ross committed to pitch for had he not signed with Texas out of high school four years ago.
The Rangers told reporters a few days ago they didn’t intend to pitch Ross on consecutive days in camp (a signal that he’ll be asked ideally to go an inning or two as needed, rather than as a left-on-left specialist), and if that remains the plan, he’ll sit tonight’s game out, having gotten through a clean sixth yesterday with a groundout, a strikeout, and another groundout.
If Ross making the team is the biggest story coming out of Rangers camp, and it just might be, that’s great news, because face it: we’re talking about the lowest man on the pitching staff totem pole. That’s not to diminish Ross’s accomplishment, or his future, but no news is good news when it comes to spring training, and every team in the league would happily ignore whatever’s behind Door No. 2 if given the option of having a former first-round pick winning the last bullpen spot emerge as the headline as the trucks load up in Arizona or Florida.
Yesterday’s Cactus League finale featured Colby Lewis making his final appearance before Friday’s opener, followed in relief by Scott Feldman, Ross, Mark Lowe, Alexi Ogando, and Joe Nathan.
While Washington got his position players off the field in the early innings, his pitching appointments were far more representative, in fact conceivably not unlike a succession that he could run out there on Friday to start and lock down an Opening Day win, followed by a handshake line behind the Rangers Ballpark mound that should take place at about the time that the players Ross probably figured his teammates would be are getting off the bus at Hammons Field in Springfield, Missouri, getting ready for Game Two of a RoughRiders-Cardinals series that will just have to go on without him.