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Around the Horn: Starting rotation

Around the Horn: Starting rotation

The following is the fifth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each week until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Starters.

ARLINGTON -- Rangers pitcher Kevin Millwood, a golfing fanatic, has a new hobby.

Kickboxing.

"I started out doing it for fun, but it's an unbelievable workout," Millwood said. "I really enjoy it."

The Rangers need him to do more than just enjoy his offseason workouts. They need him to get the most of those workouts, report to training camp in the best possible shape and assume the role of staff ace.

He wasn't in the best possible shape in 2007 and the results were obvious. Millwood, after winning a club-high 16 games in 2006, was 10-13 with a 5.16 ERA while missing most of May with a strained left hamstring.

"I just want to be in the best possible shape I can be so nobody can say that I wasn't in shape," Millwood said. "If I stink, then I stink, but I don't want people to say that I wasn't in shape."

Rangers manager Ron Washington said he has noticed a significant difference.

"He looks strong," Washington said. "He looks very strong. His demeanor is different. He has a look about him. He's working hard."

Conditioning and health is going to be huge all through the Rangers rotation this season, after the disaster that collectively befell that group in 2007. By every measure the 2007 was a horrible year for the Rangers starting staff, as they finished last in the American League in wins (42), innings (838) and ERA (5.50).

Injuries played a significant role in their problems as Millwood, Vicente Padilla and Brandon McCarthy all spent time on the disabled list because of injuries. Rookie left-hander Kason Gabbard, acquired from the Boston Red Sox on July 31, didn't go on the disabled list, but he was shut down at the end of the season because of a tired arm.

The Rangers only added to their health concerns this offseason by trading pitcher Edinson Volquez to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Josh Hamilton and then replacing him by signing free-agent pitcher Jason Jennings. A native of Dallas, Jennings is coming off right elbow surgery after going 2-9 with a 6.45 ERA with the Houston Astros.

"Health is going to be a big factor," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "I feel like a broken record, but if all those guys stay healthy, they have a chance to go deep in the game every night and give us a chance to win. So far, we've had positive reports on everybody."

Texas Rangers
Catchers: Rangers have some options
Corner IF: Lefties provide power
Middle IF: No worries up middle
Outfielders: Rangers reload
Starters: Healthy Millwood leads way
Bullpen: Vets will vie for spots
DH/Bench: DH platoon not yet set

The three veterans -- Millwood, Padilla and Jennings -- all struggled in 2007, but were solid in 2006. Millwood was 16-12 with a 4.62 ERA, Padilla was 15-10 with a 4.50 ERA and Jennings was 9-13, but had a 3.78 ERA in 212 innings for the Colorado Rockies in 2006.

That at least gives the Rangers some hope that their rotation could be significantly improved in 2007. McCarthy (5-10, 4.87) and Gabbard (6-1, 4.65) had their moments, but need to show they can put together a full season of 160-180 innings.

McCarthy had blister problems and a stress fracture in his right shoulder blade last season that limited him to 22 starts. Gabbard made 29 starts with a career-high 156 1/3 innings between the Red Sox, Rangers and Triple-A Pawtucket.

Both are healthy and should be ready at the beginning of Spring Training. McCarthy has added 15 pounds to his lanky body, with the idea of increasing much-needed endurance. Offseason workouts are much different than regular-season grind, however.

"I think we'll be a stronger club," Millwood said. "Our defense will be better, but we'll go only as far as our pitching takes us. That's no different than any other year. Our pitching can be better."

The rotation does appear set with Millwood, Padilla, Jennings, McCarthy and Gabbard. The Rangers insist there will be competition in Spring Training and health issues could change that scenario. Bullpen candidates Kameron Loe, Jason Davis, Robinson Tejeda and Jamey Wright all have started at the Major League level and the Rangers figure to take a look in Spring Training at two of their top prospects: right-handers Eric Hurley and Luis Mendoza.

Hurley was 11-9 with a 4.00 ERA in 28 games, including 27 starts, at Triple-A Oklahoma and Double-A Frisco in 2007, while Mendoza was 15-4 with a 3.93 ERA at Frisco.

The possibility exists that one or both of those guys could create some excitement in Spring Training and create the impression that the rotation is not quite as locked in place as it appears to be at the end of January.

Those two could also be part of another rarity: an all-prospect rotation at Oklahoma. The RedHawks rotation could consist not only of Hurley and Mendoza, but also A.J. Murray, Thomas Diamond, Matt Harrison and/or Doug Mathis.

Murray pitched in relief most of last year and appeared in 14 games for the Rangers. But the Rangers see him better suited to starting, and want him to build up arm strength and endurance as a starter at Oklahoma. Diamond needs to do the same after missing all of last year, because of Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery on his right arm.

Mathis was 11-7 with a 3.76 ERA in 22 starts at Frisco while Harrison was 5-7 with a 3.39 ERA in 20 starts for Double-A Mississippi before being one of five players acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the Mark Teixeira trade. A problem with turf toe and shoulder tightness kept him from pitching for the Rangers after the trade, but he was 5-0 with a 2.00 ERA in the Arizona Fall League.

Beyond that upper tier of prospects come the "kids" that have the Rangers so excited: a deep list of young arms at the Class A and short-season levels that have everybody excited, but still need substantial development and experience before they get anywhere near Arlington.

The list includes Kasey Kiker (7-4, 2.90 in 2007), Omar Poveda (12-6, 3.22), Zach Phillips (11-7, 2.91), Michael Schlact (8-10, 5.62), Neftali Feliz (2-2, 2.55), Fabio Castillo (3-5, 5.92), Beau Jones (9-1, 4.01), Wilmer Font (2-3, 4.53) and Jacob Brigham (5-4, 3.16). There is also the four first-or-supplemental round picks from the June First-Year Player Draft: Blake Beavan, Michael Main, Tommy Hunter and Neil Ramirez.

It's one of the best groups of young arms the Rangers have ever assembled. But they are years away. The Rangers have enough arms at the big league level right now. What they desperately need is a group of healthy arms and not what they had last year.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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