ARLINGTON -- Right-hander Nick Tepesch was the first pitcher on the mound Tuesday morning. With the temperature at 44 degrees, Tepesch threw 35 pitches to open the Rangers' annual mid-winter pitching camp at the Ballpark in Arlington.
Tepesch threw several changeups during the session as pitching coach Mike Maddux watched from behind the mound. The changeup was a point of interest for Maddux as the Rangers mull a gaping hole in their starting rotation.
"The changeup is big for everybody, especially Nick," Maddux said after the session. "If you have four pitches ... it's a very good tool to put in his box."
It would be a good tool to put in the Rangers' rotation now that Derek Holland will be sidelined for the first half of the season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee earlier this month.
"It's definitely unfortunate what happened to Derek," Tepesch said. "I hope he gets better as soon as possible. From my standpoint, I'm not changing anything. My goal coming into Spring Training is to win a job."
A good changeup would help him do just that. As a rookie last season, Tepesch relied heavily on his sinker and breaking ball. He used the slider most of the time as his breaking ball, although he mixed in a curve as well.
But Tepesch is not overpowering with a fastball that averaged 91.1 mph. Texas' other five main starting pitchers last season -- Holland, Yu Darvish, Martin Perez, Matt Garza and Alexi Ogando -- all averaged 92.9 mph or better on their fastball. Tepesch, according to STATS Inc., also had lower swing-and-miss rates on his fastball and slider than those other five starters.
Beyond crunching radar gun numbers, scouts just watching Tepesch could see that his repertoire needed a better changeup. He threw one last year but only on 5 percent of pitches and got a swing-and-miss on just 22.6 percent of those. Perez threw his changeup 24.1 percent of the time with a swing-and-miss rate of 39.8.
Spring Training camps across baseball are filled with pitchers tinkering with new pitches. It is one of the most rehashed stories of March, and most pitchers usually abandon their experiments once the season starts. They usually prefer to stick with what's worked in the past.
But after Tepesch went 4-6 with a 4.84 ERA in 17 starts and two relief appearances last season, it's clear to even him that the changeup is going to be critical to his success. Scott Feldman became a front-line starter in the Major Leagues once he added a quality changeup to his fastball-slider repertoire. Tepesch and Feldman have similar styles.
"I threw some pretty good ones today," Tepesch said. "It's a lot better than it has been. I have really been focusing on it in my throwing program this winter. It's something I feel can help me turn the corner."
Tepesch surprised everybody by winning a job out of Spring Training last season after pitching in just 16 games in Double-A the year before. He is no longer an unknown. There are still more than three weeks to go before the Rangers begin another Spring Training, but right now Tepesch appears to be the leading candidate to win the fifth spot behind Darvish, Ogando, Perez and Matt Harrison.
Tepesch will have internal competition and still has to win a job. The Rangers continue to get good reports on Colby Lewis, who is signed to a Minor League contract, and he could come into camp ready to compete for a job after two years of injuries.
The Rangers still have Michael Kirkman, and they plan to stretch out relievers Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers with the idea of looking at them as starters. Texas is also considering outside possibilities as the free-agent market for starting pitchers has stalled while clubs continue their pursuit of Japan's Masahiro Tanaka.
The Rangers don't appear to be in the running for Tanaka but could get involved with others. Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Bronson Arroyo are ranked as the best of the remaining free-agent starters.
"We've reached out on a couple of fronts," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "We'll see what happens. We're not pursuing the top-of-the-market guys, but as they sign, we could see the market thaw out a little bit. We're looking at guys who could come in and provide some depth and give us some competition. There are always guys signed this time of year who end up playing big roles on good clubs."
Even if the Rangers do make a move or two before Spring Training, Tepesch remains a big part of their plans both now and in the future. This is a 6-foot-4 right-hander with talent, poise and a solid makeup. There is a lot to like about Tepesch, and Texas saw it last year before he had to be shut down at the beginning of July because of inflammation in his right elbow.
Now Tepesch needs to finish off his development by working on his changeup and building on the experience he gained last season. If Tepesch does that, he could be better than anyone the Rangers bring in at this point of the offseason.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less