Rangers Spring Training Notes (3/21)

SURPRISE, Ariz. – The past week in Texas Rangers camp has been busy, with full action both in major league camp and on the minor league back fields. Lone Star Dugout has notes and observations on a number of prospects.

  • Non-roster invitee Robbie Ross enters the 2012 season with only six regular-season starts at Double-A Frisco, but he is pitching his way into the big league mix this spring. In all likelihood, Ross remains a long shot to make the club out of camp. But he is, at the very least, positioning himself to get a look in Arlington at some point this season.

    A starting pitcher through his minor league career, Ross should continue developing as a starter in the minors for the foreseeable future. But if he helps the Rangers in 2012, it'll probably be as a left-handed reliever.

    The 22-year-old has pitched well in relief during four ‘A' games this spring, working four scoreless innings while allowing three hits and fanning six without issuing a walk. He started a rain-shortened split-squad game at Milwaukee on Sunday and yielded four runs (three earned) in 2.1 innings.

    Ross is filling up the strike zone, attacking hitters and locating his lively 89-91 mph fastball (with lots of cutting action and some sink, helping induce ground balls) to both corners. His 83-87 mph slider gives him a second 60-grade (plus) pitch, and it has looked sharper with each outing this spring. He also mixes in a fringy changeup and a big-breaking curveball, but neither pitch figures to be a significant factor out of the bullpen.

    Ross' two 60-grade pitches and deceptive delivery––which includes a high leg kick––has made him tough on fellow lefties in the minors. Between the High-A and Double-A levels last season, he limited them to a .167/.243/.210 slash line with a 31 percent strikeout rate.

    The 5-foot-11 prospect is currently scheduled to make another start for the Rangers at the Angels on Sunday. Ross has mostly pitched late in games thus far, but he's now getting an opportunity to face major league hitters early in contests––a sign that the club is taking a serious look at him for a potential opening-day roster spot. It'll be an interesting test for the prospect, who has displayed a mixture of toughness and polish with decent stuff.

  • Given the unremarkable spring performances from the other non-roster lefties in camp, the Rangers are looking for Michael Kirkman to step up and win the left-handed bullpen job. But the club isn't certain to take a southpaw reliever if nobody wins the job. Cutter specialist Mike Adams and splitter specialist Koji Uehara, in particular, were extremely tough on lefties last season. However, Kirkman certainly has the best stuff of the lefty candidates, giving him the potential to have success against right-handers as well.

    Kirkman has been inconsistent in five spring training relief appearances, surrendering eight runs (seven earned) in eight innings, giving up 11 hits while walking two and striking out four. While the 25-year-old is mostly throwing strikes with a 93-94 mph fastball and low-80s slider, he's catching too much of the plate at times and being hit harder than he should given the power arsenal. Still, because of his major league experience and fastball-slider combination, he could make the opening day roster even without a dominant spring performance. The Rangers would surely like to see a few more easy innings out of Kirkman before camp breaks.

    He took a step in a positive direction on Tuesday by tossing two scoreless innings against the Chicago Cubs, giving up only one hit and striking out one without issuing a walk.

  • Martin will likely start in Triple-A.
  • It appears a near certainty that Leonys Martin, the Rangers' top outfield prospect, will begin the season at Triple-A Round Rock. The Cuba native is 6-for-24 (.250) with two home runs, four walks and five strikeouts in 13 ‘A' games during camp, but it's not his bat or glove that's working against him. Martin is still adjusting to the overall style of play in the U.S., particularly in the base running game. Although he's about a 55- or 60-grade runner, Martin still has some developing to do on the base paths both in terms of stealing bases and general awareness.

    Rangers manager Ron Washington has expressed his wish for Martin to begin the year in the minor leagues, where he can continue developing his overall game. Before the 24-year-old reached Arlington late last season, the club brought him in for a handful of base running clinics with Rangers players and coaches.

  • While Roman Mendez may ultimately become a late-inning reliever in the majors, he's likely to open the season as a starting pitcher at High-A Myrtle Beach. The club recently optioned him to the Pelicans from major league camp.

    Mendez can flash plus-plus velocity in bursts––and his mechanics and secondary stuff have gradually improved over the last year––but the club will surely want him to continue bringing along the slider and changeup as a starter for the time being.

    Pitching as a reliever in major league camp, Mendez tossed 4.1 innings over four appearances. He allowed one run on two hits, walking one and striking out four.

    The former Red Sox prospect appeared to be working on his secondary stuff against Cleveland on March 13, when he logged 1.1 shutout innings with one walk. It wasn't Mendez's sharpest outing, although he began it with one of his better sliders (a sharp 82 mph pitch for a called strike) and ended it with one of his better changeups (an 85 mph offering located with some fade and sink for a groundout to short).

    Mendez's 80-84 mph slider and mid-80s changeup both show promise on occasion. However, both pitches are inconsistent, and that's why the club will want him getting an opportunity to throw them often in a starting role this season. The following is his chart from that outing against the Indians: B (ball), C (called strike), S (swinging strike), F (foul ball), FB (fastball), SL (slider), CH (changeup).

    Ryan Spilborghs (RH): 82 SLC, 95 FBB, 82 SLB, 93 FBF, 84 SL – 6-4 fielder's choice (left the slider up, but it was rolled over)
    Andy LaRoche (RH): 79 SLB, 92 FBB, 80 SLB, 91 FBB – walk
    Michel Hernandez (RH): 91 FBB, 76 SL – 5-4-3 double play
    Ezequiel Carrera (LH): 85 CH – 6-3 groundout (good change, located on the outside corner with some fade and sink)

    Mendez pitched in a Double-A game on Tuesday and, though the results weren't fantastic, he showed his best velocity of the spring, reaching 95-96 mph a number of times. He's clearly working to develop both secondary pitches this spring and throwing them often in every outing.

  • Infielder Yangervis Solarte has impressed with his bat this spring. The former Twins farmhand, who was signed to a minor league free agent contract this past offseason, is 6-for-19 (.316) with two home runs. Solarte has a quick bat and makes plenty of contact––he hit .329/.367/.466 in 121 Double-A games last season, walking only 24 times but with just 38 strikeouts.

    The 5-foot-11, 195-pound switch-hitter might have the potential to become a major league-caliber bench bat. Though he was a six-year minor league free agent, he's still only 24 years old.

    But Solarte isn't a serious candidate for the Rangers' vacant utility infield role at present because he doesn't have the ability to play shortstop. He played shortstop in the rain-shortened game at Milwaukee on Sunday and committed two quick errors. Solarte has played only 10 of his 356 career minor league games at short, with most of his action coming at second base (124 games), third base (82) and the corner outfield (82). The Venezuela native has displayed mature actions at both second and third this spring, but he doesn't have the range to play short. The Rangers assigned him back to minor league camp on Tuesday morning, and he's likely to open the season with Triple-A Round Rock.

  • Catcher Luis Martinez, a member of the Rangers' 40-man roster, has some intriguing tools behind the plate, including definite plus arm strength. Martinez was acquired from the San Diego Padres in exchange for right-handed relief prospect Ryan Kelly this offseason.

    The Rangers probably won't carry three catchers going into the season, meaning Martinez will begin the season as the Triple-A Round Rock backstop. The 26-year-old is positioning himself to play in the majors this season as a potential backup, going 9-for-20 (.450) at the plate in 11 games while playing strong defense with the plus arm.

  • Now, a couple notes from minor league games. Big right-hander Jose Valdespina, who is listed at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, was the Rangers' top arm in the Dominican Summer League last season.

    The 19-year-old is a good athlete with a very strong arm. He has the potential to develop a plus-plus fastball after maturity, though his secondary stuff is very raw. In a 1-2-3 inning last Thursday, the prospect used a big keg kick and flashed a 91-94 mph fastball with lots of run and some sink. His one curveball was a 64 mph offering that didn't have much spin or break––it's definitely something he'll need to develop as he matures.

    In his second spring outing on Monday, the Dominican Republic native showed a similarly soft and raw curveball, but it did have better shape. He's likely a long-term reliever given the potential for a dominant fastball and lack of secondary feel. He could add a cutter or splitter down the line––or maybe even drop the arm slot slightly and begin using a slider––though that's just speculation.

    Valdespina has some big-time tools to work with, though, including his athletic ability and arm strength. The youngster touched 96 mph both during the DSL campaign and at fall instructional league last year.

    The chart from his quick first outing:

    –91 FBC, 93 FBF, 94 FBB, 92 FBB, 89 FBB, 91 FBF, 92 FBS – strikeout; fastball had lots of life
    –64 CBB, 93 FB – groundout to third; lots of run with some sink on the fastball
    –94 FBB, 93 FBB, 93 FB – broken-bat groundout back to the mound

  • I wasn't able to see right-hander Luke Jackson in a recent intrasquad game––I was watching another field––but the Newberg Report's Scott Lucas reports that Jackson was sharp in his outing and ran his fastball up to 97 mph. Though inconsistent in his first professional season last year, Jackson flashed three potential plus pitches at times, including a fastball up to 97, a sharp curveball, and an advanced changeup. He appeared to tire down the stretch last summer, as his stuff gradually lost sharpness late in the year.

  • Grimm focused on his changeup last season.
  • Justin Grimm, 23, has continued to improve since signing with the Rangers as a fifth-round selection in the 2010 MLB Draft. The University of Georgia product was never short on raw talent. Over the last two years, the Rangers have worked to improve both his delivery (helping him command his fastball low in the zone) and changeup. Despite a power arsenal, Grimm was too often hittable in college because his fastball floated up in the strike zone.

    Both aspects showed progress last season between Single-A Hickory and High-A Myrtle Beach, and he was impressive with the command and change in the intrasquad game. The 6-foot-3 Grimm located down in the strike zone at 91-93 mph, throwing a number of 79-83 mph changeups. The pitch is still somewhat inconsistent but shows at least average potential. In the scrimmage, he was using it to both left- and right-handed hitters to good results, throwing the change with deceptive arm action and a little fade. He got the left-handed Jurickson Profar to strike out swinging on an 81 mph changeup before inducing a swinging strike on a righty-righty change versus Davis Stoneburner.

    At his best, Grimm throws his fastball between 91-96 mph with a sharp-breaking 79-82 mph curveball. While the two potential plus pitches make him an intriguing potential relief prospect, he has a chance to stick in a starting role if the command and third pitch continue to develop.

  • Two tall right-handed pitchers who fly under the radar at present are Jerad Eickhoff and Connor Sadzeck. The two hurlers, both big-bodied righties with plus fastballs but somewhat less developed secondary stuff, are worth keeping an eye on.

    Eickhoff, 21, was the Rangers' 15th-round pick last year out of Olney Central College. He posted a 2.37 ERA during his debut summer between the Arizona League and Spokane, logging 19 innings and allowing nine hits while walking four and striking out 22.

    In his first outing of the spring, the 6-foot-4 Eickhoff threw his fastball between 92-94 mph. He topped out at 95-96 on occasion after signing last summer. Although his mechanics appear clean, he wasn't consistently getting on top of his arsenal. But when he did, the Indiana native was able to work low in the zone while mixing in a big-breaking curveball, an 85-87 mph cutter and a raw changeup.

    Eickhoff's 72-74 mph curveball isn't mature, but it has good shape with lots of depth when he gets on top. The breaking pitch could potentially become at least a usable offering with some development.

  • Sadzeck, 20, didn't appear in a game last summer after signing with the Rangers for an above-slot $350,000 bonus as an 11th-round pick last year. A native of Illinois, Sadzeck pitched his freshman season at Howard College (Big Spring, Texas) in 2011 and had signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Texas for his sophomore season.

    Like Eickhoff, Sadzeck is a tad raw but has a lively arm. Working from a three-quarters arm slot, he produced a 92-95 mph fastball in his first spring appearance but had command issues. His curveball was also inconsistent, through the first one he dropped in was a sharp 78 mph offering with tight spin and late break.

    It'll be interesting to see not only where Eickhoff and Sadzeck play the 2012 campaign, but also what role they're used in. If the Rangers can find room, they may prefer to use both in starting or piggyback roles in order to maximize their opportunities to develop the secondary stuff.

  • The Rangers' lower-level talent up the middle isn't going unnoticed by scouts who visit the back fields this spring. The club's recent efforts on the international market has produced a number of plus-glove second basemen and shortstops like Rougned Odor, Luis Marte, Alberto Triunfel, Odubel Herrera, Santiago Chirino, Nick Urbanus, Luis Marte and others. Just about every prospect playing in the middle infield during the lower-level games this spring has at least good athleticism with potential above-average defense.

  • Speaking of Odor, he's been one of the most impressive overall performers in camp thus far. The 18-year-old Venezuela native has a short stroke with quick hands and a strong core, helping him both make contact and drive the ball with consistency despite his youth. He's also advanced with the glove at second base.

    The Rangers will almost certainly send Odor to Single-A Hickory for the entire season in 2012, where he will mostly play second base but could also see time at shortstop. The middle infield will be loaded, though, assuming Luis Sardinas and Hanser Alberto (two more solid defensive shortstop prospects who weren't mentioned above) also start with the Crawdads.

    Regardless of where he plays, Odor is showing that he should be able to hold his own––if not excel––offensively at the full-season level this year.

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