Sports

Rangers need to land solid left to fill out bullpen

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Texas Rangers' rotation for 2012 appears to be set only a week into spring camp, and seven of the eight bullpen spots are either spoken for or have a strong candidate ready to step in.

Only the role of lefty specialist remains open, and it's clear that the Rangers want one on the Opening Day roster.

They have eight left-handers in big-league camp competing for the job after finishing 2011 with two on the World Series roster. Darren Oliver, though, signed a free-agent deal with Toronto, and Michael Gonzalez is still looking for work.

This spring's lefties are a diverse bunch. Some have never thrown a pitch in the major leagues, and two of those who have are coming off injuries. Just a year ago, another was the last rotation candidate to be sent to minor-league camp.

There's no guarantee that the Rangers will leave the desert April 1 with a left-handed reliever, but it won't be because they didn't try to find one.

"We've got some candidates, and they will get an opportunity to pitch and go out there and show what they can do in competition," manager Ron Washington said. "They've all got different styles. They're going to get a chance. I would like one."

Though the competition is said to be wide open, Michael Kirkman is the morning-line favorite for the job. The Rangers know the most about him and like what he has done out of the bullpen when he is able to command his fastball.

Kirkman was a starter last spring, and didn't get sent out of big-league camp until the final full week. The club moved him into a relief role midway through the season, and he's fine with the decision.

He recognizes that he has to be able to locate his fastball to make his breaking ball more of a weapon.

"Whether or not there's a need, I still need to perform," said Kirkman, who has held lefties to a .214 average (15 for 70) early in his career. "I'm comfortable as a reliever, and I know the best way I can help the club is as a reliever. We've got a good mess of starters. Those guys can really chunk the ball."

Kirkman is one of four candidates on the 40-man roster, but Martin Perez, Kelvin De La Cruz and Miguel De Los Santos have never thrown a big-league pitch. Perez is the Rangers' top pitching prospect, but he is likely ticketed for Triple A to continue developing as a starter.

The other four lefty relievers are in camp on non-roster deals, and two come with major-league experience. Mitch Stetter and Joe Beimel, though, are coming off seasons in which they were injured, and Beimel has been slowed early in camp because of elbow stiffness.

But he has the longest track record in the group, as he enters his 12th season. He saw the Rangers' need for a lefty, and jumped at the opportunity to sign with them.

"You can't beat an opportunity with a great team," said Beimel, who has allowed a .261 career average against lefty hitters. "I knew this team was going to win a lot of games. As a player that's what you want to be a part of."

Ben Snyder and Robbie Ross are also in the mix. They finished out 2012 at Double A Frisco, where Snyder held lefties to a .202 average. The Rangers have recently shown that they will take the hot hand, even if he's a long shot, to start the season.

That was the case with right-hander Mason Tobin last year, and that has bolstered Snyder's confidence that he can earn a spot on the Opening Day roster.

"They're not looking for guys and what they've done in the past," he said. "They're a team that wants to win now. They've done special things in the postseason, and they've got to take guys who are going to put them in the best possible position to get back to that level."

The evaluation begins in earnest today and Friday with two intrasquad games, and the Cactus League schedule begins Sunday. The hope is that a left-hander shows that he can be a big piece in the 2012 bullpen.

"Right now, we have a lot of numbers," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "Hopefully, some of the younger guys will step up and get our attention. That's what the opportunity is here for, to open our eyes and continue to get better. Right now, everybody is on a clean slate."

Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760

@JeffWilson_FWST

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