Rangers Spring Training Notes (2/23)

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Lone Star Dugout will be in Surprise for the entirety of spring training, and we begin our in-depth coverage with some notes from Saturday's Cactus League action against the Royals. Some of the players profiled include lefties Michael Kirkman and Joe Ortiz and right-hander Jake Brigham.

Although the Texas Rangers' full-squad minor league camp doesn't officially begin until March 7, most of the organization's top prospects are already in Surprise. In fact, seventeen of Lone Star Dugout's top 50 Rangers prospects are currently working in major league camp. Top young prospects like Lewis Brinson, Jorge Alfaro, Luis Sardinas, Nomar Mazara, and Ronald Guzman can already be found working out on the back fields each morning.

As our guide to minor league camp states, the Rangers' minor league pitchers and catchers don't officially report until March 4. Position players follow on March 7. But the club had all of its starting pitchers report to spring training yesterday––February 24––to begin preparing for minor league spring training games, which open on Thursday, March 14. The Rangers want their minor league starters to work a little longer during spring training games this year––the reason for their earlier-than-usual reporting date.

Texas' big league squad played its second game of the 2013 Cactus League campaign on Saturday, dropping a 4-2 decision to the Kansas City Royals.

  • It's a highly important spring for left-hander Michael Kirkman, who was perhaps the Rangers' most impressive performer on Saturday. Up and down between Triple-A and the majors the last three seasons, Kirkman is out of options in 2013; he'll have to make the big league club out of camp, and he'll have to stick in the majors.

    Inconsistent last spring, Kirkman entered camp as perhaps the favorite for the Rangers' left-handed relief job but ultimately lost out to rookie Robbie Ross. In fact, Kirkman likely also finished behind veteran Neal Cotts, who was impressive before suffering an injury in late March.

    The Florida native began 2012 back in Triple-A with highly inconsistent results, but he pitched well enough after getting a mid-season call to Arlington. In the majors last year, Kirkman posted a 3.82 ERA over 28 relief appearances––35.1 ip, 24 h, 17 bb, 38 k.

    There's no doubt that Kirkman has the best stuff of any Rangers lefty relief candidate in camp; his spotty command has always been the issue, rendering him inconsistent.

    On Saturday, the 26-year-old southpaw flashed solid command, throwing 18 strikes out of 25 pitches and mostly attacking the bottom half of the strike zone with his plus fastball. He worked between 92-94 mph with a plus low-80s breaker that can miss bats against both left- and right-handed hitters.

    One quick aside: Kirkman was actually more successful against righties (.160/.253/.296) than lefties (.216/.317/.392) in the major leagues last season.

    Kirkman's breaking ball almost looks like a power curve with sharp two-plane break and big tilt/depth. He threw six of his nine breakers for a strike on Saturday, getting three swings and misses, two called strikes, and a lineout.

    He retired all four left-handed hitters he faced on Saturday and, at one point, fanned three consecutive hitters––lefty Alex Gordon (81 mph slider), righty Elliot Johnson (82 mph slider), and righty Billy Butler (94 mph fastball).

    Because Kirkman's delivery is on the rigid side, he'll likely always have at least some trouble repeating it and doesn't ever profile for plus command. But with his two-pitch mix––in addition to a decent mid-80s split-change––it just needs to be passable to yield big league success. Getting ahead in counts and repeating his delivery is the biggest thing for Kirkman, and he mostly did that on Saturday. It's just one early-spring outing, but the southpaw is off to a strong start in his quest to break with the big league club for the first time in his career.

  • One of the more entertaining pitchers to watch in camp, 5-foot-7 lefty Joe Ortiz may be tiny, but he attacks hitters with a fearlessness and solid-average stuff. The Venezuela native shouldn't be afraid of any hitter––he's pitched as a lefty specialist for La Guaira of the Venezuelan Winter League since 2008, shortly after his 18th birthday.

    Now 22, Ortiz is a definite long shot to crack the Rangers' opening-day roster. But he was added to the club's 40-man roster over the offseason following an impressive season between Double- and Triple-A, and there's a good chance he sees big league action at some point in 2013.

    Against the Royals, Ortiz retired the side with a quick 1-2-3 sixth inning, throwing only nine pitches. His chart is as follows (B is ball, C is called strike, S is swinging strike):

    Max Ramirez: 90 FBB, 90 FB – groundout to shortstop
    Salvador Perez: 84 CHB, 91 FB – groundout to third base
    Brandon Wood: 83 SLC, 92 FBF, 82 SLB, 92 FBB, 84 CHS – strikeout swinging

    Ortiz walked just nine batters (while striking out 52) in 62.2 minor league innings last season. While he shows plus fastball command against left-handed hitters, he has room to improve against righties. In fact, between Double-A, Triple-A, and winterball last season, fellow lefties hit just .193/.220/.360 against him with a 2.5 percent walk rate and a 26 percent strikeout rate. He also threw 70 percent strikes against them. Righties, on the other hand, hit .266/.309/.370 with a 6.2 percent walk rate, 18 percent strikeout rate, and he threw only 63 percent strikes.

    In the end, the diminutive reliever profiles as a middle relief type and somewhat of a lefty specialist––though he's not quite a straight LOOGY. Ortiz has decent stuff. His 89-92 mph fastball––which touches 93––and low-80s changeup both have decent life. He pounds the lower half of the zone with both offerings. Ortiz's out pitch is his slider, a plus pitch (with good horizontal break and tilt) that he varies the velocity on and locates extremely well to both sides of the plate. On Saturday, he commanded a back-foot 82 mph slider to Wood with two strikes––impressive for a young hurler.

    Listed at 5-foot-7, 175 pounds, Ortiz is built like a bowling ball and certainly doesn't have an ideal body on the mound. But there are little moving parts in his compact, simple delivery, making it easy to repeat. There's still a little room for the Venezuelan prospect to improve his command, but he's always going to come right after hitters with decent stuff, and that may set him up for at least some big league success.

  • As always, it's important to take things with a grain of salt early in camp. Not every pitcher comes out showing their usual velocity––some gradually work their way up throughout March.

    Jake Brigham is one hurler who didn't have his usual velocity on Saturday. Coming off a season-ending elbow injury suffered in August, Brigham was traded back to Texas in exchange for righty Barret Loux this offseason.

    Against the Royals, Brigham's normally plus fastball was just 90-91 mph, and his normally plus slider lacked the bite and velocity that it generally shows. He did get a strikeout of Max Ramirez with a good 80 mph slider but quickly issued a four-pitch walk before giving up a walkoff two-run homer to Brandon Wood. A former top prospect, Wood crushed a hanging 80 mph slider into the left-field bullpen for the game-winner.

    Likely profiling as a reliever long term, Brigham pitched out of the bullpen for half of the 2011 season at Double-A Frisco. But he's otherwise been a starter throughout his minor league career, including last season. It'll be interesting to see if the Rangers put Brigham in the bullpen (or continue starting him) in 2013.

  • With shortstop Leury Garcia and third baseman Mike Olt getting the start in Sunday's game, I'll hold off until tomorrow's notes piece to make comments on them. Garcia flashed his impressive tools in the field on Saturday, though it also came with a wild throw and a mistake on the base paths.

  • Julio Borbon made a difference after entering as a mid-game substitution. Like Kirkman, Borbon is out of options; if he doesn't make the opening-day roster, he'll have to be traded or designated for assignment at the end of camp. With Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry currently ahead of the 27-year-old on the center field depth chart, Borbon is playing for the other 29 teams (their scouts, at least) as much as he's playing for the Rangers right now.

    Although Borbon hit a decent .304/.349/.433 with 20 steals in Triple-A last season, he didn't see any major league time. It's no secret that Borbon's struggle to execute the "little things," such as getting bunts down and avoiding mistakes on the base paths, has frustrated Ron Washington and landed him in the skipper's doghouse.

    It's going to take a big spring to get Borbon back in the Rangers' major league conversation. But he got off to a strong start on Saturday. After smacking a first-pitch single into right field, he took off and stole second base on the next pitch. Borbon then took third on a wild pitch that didn't get too far away from the catcher. He was aggressive on the base paths and looked decent on Saturday, but we'll see how the rest of camp goes. As mentioned, Borbon is a pretty big long-shot to crack the team this spring.

  • On the back fields, first baseman Ronald Guzman and outfielder Nomar Mazara immediately stand out for their bodies. Guzman is beginning to fill out his lean, lanky 6-foot-5 frame, adding a good deal of muscle in the offseason. Mazara, still just 17, is also looking a lot more mature body-wise this spring. They'll be fun to watch throughout camp, and if you're in Surprise, I would recommend a trip to the back fields to watch them take batting practice.

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