Ross putting himself in the mix

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Despite his lack of upper-level experience, left-hander Robbie Ross has put himself in the mix for an opening-day roster spot with his excellent performance this spring. Lone Star Dugout interviewed the 22-year-old pitcher, who has tossed seven scoreless innings in camp.

Left-hander Robbie Ross is making an impression on the Rangers' coaching staff and front office with his strong performance this spring, and he's doing it at the right time.

While most of the opening-day roster spots appear to be set, the club is still searching for a left-handed reliever and had eight different candidates in camp at one point. That number is currently down to five. And although most of the organization's top pitching prospects have recently been sent to the minor leagues––like Martin Perez, Neil Ramirez, Roman Mendez, and others––Ross remains in major league camp.

The 22-year-old isn't just sticking around, but he's also beginning to get looks against more established big league hitters. It's a sign that the Rangers are considering the young southpaw for an opening-day bullpen spot.

In all likelihood, Ross, who isn't on the 40-man roster and came to camp as a non-roster invitee, is still a bit of a long shot to make the club. But lefty Michael Kirkman, the favorite to win the job, hasn't done himself any favors by surrendering 12 runs on 16 hits in 10.1 innings this spring despite flashing above-average velocity, a good slider and an improved changeup. Kirkman had strung together a few solid outings in a row before allowing four runs on five hits in 1.1 innings on Sunday. His command has been inconsistent.

While Kirkman is having his ups and downs, Ross has been consistently good. After Sunday's two-inning, zero-run performance against the heart of the Angels' lineup, Ross has hurled seven scoreless innings this spring. He has given up just four hits while walking one and striking out nine.

The Kentucky native entered this spring with only six regular-season starts at Double-A Frisco, but he is pitching like a veteran, working quickly and attacking hitters with his fastball-slider mix. He's throwing strikes and commanding his arsenal, which has led to some quick innings and lots of ground balls against quality competition.

As mentioned in a recent spring training notes piece, the Rangers have to like the fact that Ross limited fellow left-handers to a .167/.243/.210 slash line with a 31 percent strikeout rate between the High-A and Double-A levels last season. His fastball has lots of cutting action and some sink, and his slider is a plus pitch that can miss bats.

Ross says that he's also working to introduce a low-to-mid 70s curveball into his repertoire. He threw the pitch in one early-spring game against the Royals––in the dirt versus Kevin Kouzmanoff when he was fouling off a few pitches with two strikes––but expects to develop it more when (or if) he returns to a starting role. He's also still refining his changeup, though he isn't getting much of an opportunity to use it in games out of the bullpen right now.

For most of the spring, Ross has thrown his lively fastball between 89-91 mph and located it well to both sides of the plate. But in a recent 1-2-3 inning against the San Francisco Giants, his velocity ticked into the 91-93 mph range to go along with a sharp 84-86 mph slider.

Even if Ross doesn't make the major league roster when camp breaks, his impressive performance––the mixture of level-headed demeanor, stuff, and command––is putting him in line for a look in Arlington at some point this season.

And if he begins the year in the minor leagues, he'll likely return to a starting role for the time being, where he can continue developing his curveball and changeup. Scouts appear to be split on Ross' future. Armed with two plus pitches, a presently fringy changeup and a new curveball, Ross has some scouts believing he could become a middle-of-the-rotation starter. But some scouts prefer to see him as a potential impact left-handed reliever with late-inning potential.

The jury is still out on Ross' future role, but he's proving one thing this spring––he is a definite major league-caliber arm.

Prospect Video:

Robbie Ross mechanics (best viewed in full screen and HD).

Jason Cole: To start it off, I want to talk about your first experience in big league camp. What has it been like for you so far?

Robbie Ross: It has been sweet so far. I'm just getting the experience out here and being around these guys. I'm working on things and learning some things I haven't learned before. To just kind of go through it has been awesome so far. I've really enjoyed it. I'm just happy to be around it and kind of just getting this opportunity. It has been a real blessing. I've been thankful.

Cole: Coming into big league camp, you knew there was going to be a competition for the left-handed relief role. Did you have anything in mind coming into it? Did you know you had a shot at competing for an opening day spot?

Ross: No, not really. I just kind of came in enjoying it and having fun with it. I didn't want to put pressure on myself or anything. I really just came in not expecting anything. Just really focused on trying to work on things and get ready for the season. As of right now, I'm still the same mentality. I want to go out there, battle, and have fun and enjoy it. That's pretty much all I've really been focusing on.

Cole: What are some of those things you've been working on so far?

Ross: Throwing curveballs. I've actually been working on a curveball, so there's that. I'm also working on my command with my fastball. Working on just battling, attacking batters, and trying to stay ahead in the counts and things like that.

But then also being able to work out of situations and what might not go as well. Just focusing on the fact that it might be good at some point, but then it might go south the other day. Just kind of focusing on the good things and then also taking care of the bad things that I might be going through that I'll need to just work on.

Cole: You mentioned the curveball to me late last season, saying you were starting to work it into bullpens but not games as of then. Is that something you worked on during the offseason?

Ross: I worked on it in the offseason a lot, actually. It has been going real well. I got to work with that and just throwing it a few times. Every bullpen, I'm throwing it and trying to just work with it. But right now, coming out of the bullpen in spring training, I haven't been doing it too much. But every side and every bullpen that I get a chance to work on it, I'll work on it.

Cole: I recall you throwing one during your first major league game in the stadium against Kouzmanoff, I believe.

Ross: Yeah, I did.

Cole: You threw it when he was fouling off some pitches with two strikes.

Ross: Yes.

Cole: Is that what you kind of envision using the curveball as? To get guys off your fastball and slider and kind of catch them off-balance at the different velocity and plane?

Ross: Yeah, just trying to get guys off-balance a little bit. And I think it's a good pitch when you just want to flip something in there. It has been good so far, just getting to kind of work with that and see how it goes. Whichever role I'm in, I can use it whenever. It's kind of nice to get a feel of that.

Cole: How would you describe the curveball that you throw?

Ross: It's anywhere from like a––my arm slot is three-quarters or whatever you want to call it––and it's probably like a 10-to-4 kind of action. It's a lot slower than all my other pitches, so it's something that I just want to get to––not really a loop in there––but kind of just use it as an effective pitch that I can throw slow and then go back to the hard stuff every once in awhile. It's kind of a get-me-over type curveball. I'd like to be able to, one day, get it to where I can throw it all the time. But right now, it's just something I'm trying to work on.

Cole: Assuming you do go back to starting at some point, do you expect to throw the curveball in at least a handful of times per game?

Ross: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Definitely. It's good because, in a starting role, I can throw that. Say I'm in the second or third inning, and I can flip it in there for a get-me-over strike or whatever. It's just to get guys off-balance from always a fastball, a slider, or a changeup. So being able to have that is kind of nice––just having something that I can get in there and just throw in there. It has been nice, just getting to work with it.

Cole: I know the changeup was a big focus for you, especially down the stretch last season. Given the fact that you've been working in short outings this spring, have you gotten much of a chance to work on it out here?

Ross: Yeah, I've gotten to work with it with Mike Maddux and Andy Hawkins down in the bullpen. I'm just kind of working on that––throwing it and getting used to it. It has been good. It has been really good. It's a good pitch for me when I want to get a ground ball or I want somebody to be out on their front foot.

It's still always a work in progress. I'm just trying to throw it every day. When I'm in the outfield, I'm trying to work with it and try to get that action that I want with it. It has been good.

Cole: All of your pitches tend to have cutting action. I know one of the things with the changeup is trying to get it to fade instead of cut. Have you ever really known why your stuff tends to cut?

Ross: Honestly, I think it's when I come across. When I come across my body, I'll fly open a little quicker than I do usually. Sometimes, when I want to keep on a line, I'll stay over and through it a little longer. And then when I want it to come in a little more, I'll cut across it and kind of pull my body through it. It has been nice having the movement and stuff like that. And sometimes it's like, ‘Whoa. It's moving a little more on other days.' But it has been good.

Cole: So you have to really like the movement you can get on the fastball and the slider, but not so much on the changeup.

Ross: Oh yeah, the action I want on the changeup is more of a two-seamer but with a little less speed on it. Definitely more of the arm-side movement than glove-side. Because I've been getting a lot of cut on it. But as of right now, just trying to get that movement is the biggest key.

Cole: Tell me about your outing against the Giants. It was a pretty quick inning. What were your thoughts?

Ross: It was good. I enjoyed it. It's fun, just coming in for an inning or two. I like having that mentality of just getting in there and trying to battle. It was fun, getting to experience like that. It was a different look at things because I'm used to starting.

Getting in relief like that in those situations is really fun. It gets my adrenaline pumping, for sure. It's kind of cool because you know you're grinding it out in a 1-0 game, and you're trying to keep the lead. Also you're trying to get in and out before the hitters get to hit. It has been fun.

Cole: Your velocity this spring has been about 89-91 mph in every outing, but you were up a little bit last night––more in the 91-93 range. Do you feel like you're starting to get a little more loose as you go along?

Ross: Yeah. Last year was the same way. During spring I wasn't hitting the numbers that I thought I was going to hit. And then once the adrenaline starts getting kicked in and you throw in the night game––I don't know what it is about the night, but I just get amped. I don't know what it is. I just get excited. It's just really nice. It kind of gets you into the mood of, ‘Dang, this is real baseball right here.'

Cole: It definitely seemed like a regular-season type game. Not only the fact that it was basically the regular lineups, but also that it was a close game with a big crowd.

Ross: Yeah, that's definitely probably it. I was just pumped. I was excited to get to go in and do what I had to do. I wanted to try and get our team back in there to hit. It was an exciting situation to be put into.

Cole: You've obviously pitched well in the ‘A' games out here. And while they're sending down lots of minor league players recently, you're still here in big league camp. Have they said anything to you about your odds of making the opening day roster?

Ross: No, not really. I'm just taking it every day and having a good time with it. I'm not expecting anything. I'm young right now and just enjoying it. I don't want to put any pressure on myself.

I'm happy they haven't come up to me and told me anything. I'm kind of thankful for that, because once you start putting pressure on yourself, you just start losing it. I'm just thankful for being out here. It's a real blessing just to get to be here.

Cole: If you do begin the season down in Double-A or Triple-A, do you know whether you'll open the season as a starter or reliever?

Ross: No, there has not really been anything. I've not gotten anything whether I'm going to be a reliever or a starter. As of right now, in my mind, I'm just going to go with the flow and just enjoy it. Wherever they put me, they put me. I'm ready to roll wherever they want.

Cole: You had never really relieved before this camp, had you?

Ross: No, but I enjoy it. I really do. I like the idea of it. It's really cool, getting the feeling of getting in there and doing what you have to do.

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