The halfway point of spring training is approaching, even though it seems at times like the regular season will never come.
It will, or so they say, and when it does the Texas Rangers will have five pitchers in their starting rotation. As of Monday, though, they had only four, and it could be that way until camp breaks March 30.
The competition for the final rotation spot is the most intriguing spring battle this year at the Surprise Recreation Campus and other venues across the Cactus League. Eight pitchers are vying for the spot, and they will be busy this week.
Chi Chi Gonzalez, A.J. Griffin and Cesar Ramos pitched Monday, and Jeremy Guthrie and Nick Martinez will go Tuesday as the Rangers start the search for the final piece of their rotation puzzle.
“I think it’s still a little early yet,” manager Jeff Banister said Monday after a 4-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians. “I think the next couple times out for these guys they need to be able to show us the complete arsenal and be able to manage major league innings.”
Cole Hamels, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Martin Perez are in the rotation, and Yu Darvish is expected to join them in mid- to late-May.
Until then, Gonzalez, Griffin, Ramos, Guthrie, Martinez, Nick Tepesch, Phil Klein and Anthony Ranaudo are bidding to hold Darvish’s spot.
The evaluation process will pick up steam as the candidates begin to throw four and five innings. Some have yet to make their way through an opposing lineup more than once, so they haven’t had to unleash all their pitches yet.
The Rangers aren’t just looking for a body to stick in the fifth spot. They need quality innings as they attempt to defend their American League West crown, and their ideal candidate will be a strike-thrower with the ability to escape trouble.
Guthrie has those qualities. He has pitched well in two Cactus League appearances after a tough 2015 season in which he posted a 5.95 ERA and surrendered 29 homers with Kansas City.
Griffin and Ramos have more experience than others in the field, though Griffin has missed most of the past two seasons after Tommy John surgery and a shoulder injury. Ramos is trying to transition back to a starting role after relieving exclusively in 2015.
But they still have more experiences to draw upon when they need to get out of a tough situation.
“The veteran guys tend to have that skill set down a little bit more because they’ve been there,” Banister said. “Most of the time that veteran guy, he doesn’t show up as a fifth guy. He’s been in the middle of that rotation.
“They’ve had to change their approach over the years. They understand that and they know that. It’s a skill set that is learned.”
Griffin allowed two runs in 2 2/3 innings at Goodyear Ballpark. It was his third spring outing but first start after the Rangers worked on his mechanics and took a cautious approach with his shoulder.
He said that he feels like he did with Oakland before the injuries struck, but the Rangers aren’t sure if one spring will allow him to catch up on the innings he lost the past two years.
“I’d say it’s been a success so far,” Griffin said. “I feel like myself again out there. I have my swagger back a little bit. I feel I can throw any pitch in any count. Every day, I’m feeling better and better.”
Gonzalez worked in a minor league game in Surprise and was tagged for six earned runs in 3 2/3 innings by Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguers. Two of the five hits he allowed were home runs.
He said before the start that he has been told to go out and compete rather than worry as much about working on his pitches. He wants to command his two-seam fastball and get quick outs on the ground.
Bullpen sessions are where he has been working on his curveball and slider until the right sequences pop up during games.
He knows that the others in the mix are going to make it difficult for him to win the open rotation spot.
“Everybody is pitching well,” said Gonzalez, who has allowed only four hits in five scoreless Cactus League innings. “For me, I’ve been getting outs with my fastball. That’s what my game is. It’s good to see that.”
Griffin also sees what the other contenders are doing, but his focus is on himself. He’ll worry about his chances in a few more weeks when the final spot in the rotation is decided.
“You look at it and notice it, but basically all I’m trying to do is take it one day at a time and do what I need to do to stay healthy,” he said. “I felt like I got a lot out of what went down today.”