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Rangers eyeing progress of young arms

Rangers eyeing young arms

Thomas Diamond is back, Matt Harrison is being honored and Eric Hurley is still trying to get his game together.

Pitching remains of vital importance to the Rangers, the farm system is being rebuilt around it and as each day passes comes developments both promising and of concern. These arms are the Rangers' future as pitch-by-pitch the club works toward becoming a pitching-development powerhouse.

At least that's the goal and every arm helps, especially if it's your No. 1 Draft pick from four years ago getting ready to climb the hill again and pitch in a Minor League game for the first time since Sept. 1, 2006.

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Diamond returns Wednesday night for the Double-A Frisco RoughRiders after missing almost 21 months because of Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. Diamond had the operation on March 20 and, 14 months later, is being assigned to Frisco. He pitches on Wednesday against the Tulsa Drillers.

"He was up to six innings in extended Spring Training," Minor League pitching coordinator Rick Adair said. "We're looking at five innings and 75-80 pitches. We'll give him two extra days off, then he'll start pitching every fifth day."

Diamond was the Rangers' No. 1 Draft pick in 2004 out of the University of New Orleans and was their Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2005. He followed that up by going 12-5 with a 4.24 ERA and a league-leading 145 strikeouts for Frisco in 2006.

That put him on the brink of being in the Majors and he would likely be in the Rangers rotation right now if he had not blown out his elbow in Spring Training last year. Now the Rangers hope for full recovery, a strong summer and a possible September callup.

"I just hope he's healthy," Adair said. "He's throwing the ball well. We'll see."

Diamond has long been considered one of the jewels of the Rangers farm system and Hurley has been accorded that status as well. Hurley was the second No. 1 Draft pick by the Rangers in 2004, but he was taken out of high school and had a longer road than Diamond.

Hurley almost made the Rangers rotation out of Spring Training, but was sent down to Triple-A Oklahoma and has had a hard time quelling his disappointment. He is just 1-3 with a 6.80 ERA after nine starts for Oklahoma and that has kept him from being an option as the Rangers try to plug holes in their Major League rotation.

"There are a lot of things going on with him and some of it is adjusting to the fact that he's got high expectations," Adair said. "He wants to be in the big leagues yesterday and he's had trouble paying attention to daily details. He's still got the ability and he's a great young man, I think in the next month or so I expect him to start figuring it out."

Harrison, another top prospect who was given a chance to make the big leagues in Spring Training, also got off to tough start at Frisco. The Rangers gave him a couple of weeks off to rest his tired left shoulder, and it seems to have served him well. He is 2-0 with a 1.06 ERA in three starts since the layoff, topped off by his no-hitter against San Antonio on Sunday.

"[Harrison] was exceptional," Adair. "He had six walks and they were all with two outs. A lot of young pitchers when they get two outs, they get anxious trying to finish off the inning and get ahead of themselves, trying too hard. But he was great. He topped out at 95 mph on his fastball and pitched at 92. His slider was good and his changeup is good."

Another guy to watch at Frisco is right-hander Tommy Hunter, the 54th overall pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Alabama, who is coming quickly. He was promoted to Double-A after going 5-4 with a 3.55 ERA in nine starts at Class A Bakersfield.

Class A to Double-A is the biggest jump in the Minor Leagues and Hunter started off by beating San Antonio on Monday, holding the Missions to one run in seven innings. He struck out four and did not walk a batter. In 65 1/3 innings, he has struck out 54 and walked eight.

"[Hunter] threw a lot of fastballs against a patient ballclub and came through it pretty well," Adair said. "Tommy has a chance to help us in the big leagues in a year or so."

Hunter is farther along than many of the crown jewels of the system who are still learning their trade in the lower levels of the Minor Leagues.

Left-hander Kasey Kiker, the Rangers No. 1 pick in 2006, is 2-0 with a 5.67 ERA in six games at Class A Bakersfield after being held back at the start of the season by some shoulder fatigue, but had eight strikeouts in his last start against Lancaster and is getting better. Right-hander Omar Poveda and left-hander Beau Jones are also being watched carefully because of some arm issues.

The pitching news has been almost all good out of Class A Clinton, where the LumberKings are off to a 30-11 start. Pitching coach Danny Clark has a young staff that includes Neftali Feliz (4-1, 2.53), Kennil Gomez (7-0, 2.45), Blake Beavan (2-1, 4.50), Derek Holland (4-0, 2.45), Fabio Castillo (3.03, three saves) and others sitting third in the league with a staff ERA of 3.19.

"Clinton has done well," Adair said. "Maybe all of those guys are in their first full year, and for those Latin American kids it's the first time they've experienced cold weather and snow. But they're competing well. Danny Clark has done just a great job with those kids."

Beavan was the Rangers' first pick in the 2007 Draft. Two other right-handers taken out of high school in the first and supplemental Draft are still in extended Spring Training. Both Michael Main, who is still recovering from a stress fracture in his rib cage, and Neil Ramirez are not expected to pitch in a regular Minor League game until mid-June.

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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