March 16, 2013

Two weeks until season starts, but Rangers have much left to decide

The No. 5 starter and four bullpen spots remain available as the ends of spring training nears.

Here’s a dose of good news for those starving for baseball: Opening Day is only two weeks away.

The Texas Rangers will be at Minute Maid Park in 14 days as they and the Houston Astros open the major league season March 31.

No one with the Rangers is complaining that the window to evaluate players this spring is closing after more than a month in Arizona. The team will leave the desert March 27 and play exhibition games the next three days before the 2013 lid-lifter.

But the evaluation process is far from complete.

The Rangers are still searching for a No. 5 starter, as many as four relievers and a backup shortstop.

While they have a good idea of what will happen in center field and with most of their bench, they still have to consider what they will do in the event that Nelson Cruz is hit with a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Auditions continue to take place this weekend at the Big League Weekend at Cashman Field and in the West Phoenix Valley. Time is running out for the roster hopefuls.

“They’ve got to start showing something,” manager Ron Washington said Saturday. “It’s a big weekend for everyone. We’re still playing spring training games. We’re still evaluating.”

Nick Tepesch was first up Saturday as he continued his bid for the last rotation spot. Considered a long shot at the start of camp, Tepesch is in a competition that at this point is a dead heat but made less complicated after Kyle McClellan was diagnosed with a strained right lat muscle.

Robbie Ross, another candidate, will pitch here Sunday against the Cubs. He would likely take a bullpen spot if Tepesch or Randy Wells is picked as the fifth starter.

Derek Lowe made a quick first impression Friday with two scoreless innings against San Francisco regulars, and Joe Ortiz and Nate Robertson continue to post zeroes. The Rangers would like to see Josh Lindblom fix what’s been ailing him on the mound to provide them with a power right-hander.

“Let’s let it play its way out,” said Washington, who has Joe Nathan, Jason Frasor and Michael Kirkman penciled in as relievers. “We’re going with the best. What we’re not taking is just a specialist.”

But the Rangers are looking for a player who can back up shortstop Elvis Andrus. Jurickson Profar is still under consideration for a roster spot, but the movement to let him develop at Triple A still has support.

They continue to look outside of the organization, as they did in 2010 when they found Andres Blanco well into camp. Yangervis Solarte, though, has made a good impression on Washington.

Solarte’s range isn’t thought to be good enough, but Washington has seen him make tough plays the past week.

“He’s doing all right, but then, he’s been working, too,” Washington said. “It’s been paying off.”

The versatile Jeff Baker, who entered Saturday as the leading hitter in all of baseball, appears to be a shoo-in at this point for a roster spot, as do center fielders Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry.

Julio Borbon has also performed well this spring in the three-man race for time in center, but Martin and Gentry have been better. They also have the arm strength to play right field, which could come in handy should Cruz be suspended for his involvement with an anti-aging clinic that allegedly distributed performance-enhancing drugs.

Mike Olt could also be an option in right field, said Washington. Olt continues to find a comfort zone this spring, and is turning himself into a capable right fielder.

“Being relaxed helps you dictate what’s going to happen in the game,” said Olt, who played right field twice last week. “It’s gotten a lot better trying to get reads off the bat and do all the stuff.”

The Cruz issue might not be decided before the Rangers head to Houston in two weeks for the season opener. But the evaluation continues for as many as six roster spots, five of them on the pitching staff.

“People haven’t taken the lead and stepped up,” Washington said. “We’re looking at all our arms. We’re just trying to piece what we have together and see who we think can best get us the outs we need.”

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