SURPRISE, Ariz. -- There was a time this winter when the Rangers appeared to have a set five-man rotation. That was before Derek Holland tore the cartilage in his left knee and Matt Harrison developed back and neck stiffness from sleeping on a too-soft mattress at the beginning of Spring Training.
That was also before the Rangers decided that Alexi Ogando needed to earn a spot in the rotation rather than having it handed him to it. He has not earned it yet.
"The Texas Rangers haven't come up with three starters yet," manager Ron Washington said. "That's why we have guys out there competing. It means the competition is still going on. Guys have to push harder and not take anything for granted. But we will come out of here with five starters."
About the only thing known about the final three spots is Harrison will not fill one of them, at least not immediately. Harrison made his first Cactus League appearance on Monday night, pitching two innings against the Royals and throwing 35 pitches. Harrison had a crisp scoreless first inning but then gave up three runs in the second after a leadoff walk to Alex Gordon as he struggled with command of his secondary pitches.
"I've definitely got some work to do," Harrison said. "I was glad to be back in an 'A' game and get the feel of going through the routine. Everything went well and I feel good. But I have a lot of work with my location and pitches."
Harrison missed almost all of last season with a herniated disk and hasn't pitched in a Major League game since April 6, 2013. That anniversary will likely pass before Harrison pitches in the Majors again. He will likely get two more starts here in Arizona before the Rangers break camp. At best he will get up to four innings and 60-65 pitches. The Rangers want him to get up to at least 100 pitches before he is considered an option at the Major League level and that won't be until mid-April. He also needs to be effective as well as durable.
The Rangers trimmed the number of rotation candidates on Monday by optioning Nick Tepesch to Triple-A Round Rock and telling Jose Contreras that he is not going to make the team. Contreras may retire. That leaves Joe Saunders, Tommy Hanson, Colby Lewis, Michael Kirkman, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross fighting for at least two jobs and possibly three if Ogando doesn't hold on to his spot.
Ogando will try again on Tuesday night against the Cubs in his fourth start of the spring. So far he has a 8.64 ERA and a 1.92 WHIP, and the Rangers would like to see him get better. Kirkman, who is out of options and has a 3.38 ERA this spring, follows Perez on Tuesday afternoon in the first game of the split-squad doubleheader against the Brewers in Phoenix.
"Everybody is pitching for a spot," Washington said.
Hanson, who has a 3.24 ERA in three Cactus League starts, did his work on Monday against Triple-A Tacoma in a Minor League game, allowing three runs in 4 2/3 innings. He allowed three runs on six hits, including a two-run home run. He walked two and struck out six while throwing 81 pitches.
Saunders, who was signed in the first week of Spring Training, followed Harrison to the mound in the A game on Monday night and allowed two runs in four innings against the Royals. He allowed four hits, a walk and struck out four while throwing 70 pitches. Despite signing late, Saunders has come into camp ready to compete and should have his pitch count up to around 100 pitches before the regular season starts.
"I thought he did a good job," Washington said. "He threw free and easy, had a good changeup and something on his fastball. He came in and did a good job."
Lewis, coming back from flexor tendon and hip replacement surgery, gave up six runs in 1 1/3 innings in his last start against the Athletics. He'll get at least one more outing after Wednesday's off day and how he does in that game could determine if the Rangers think he can be ready by Opening Day.
Scheppers and Ross, who are both trying to switch from the bullpen to the rotation, have pitched well lately and will both get one more extended outing later this week. At that point the Rangers will have to make a decision on where they'll pitch this season. They both have shown the ability to start but moving to the rotation would be a big hit to the bullpen, especially with Scheppers also a candidate to be the closer.
The Rangers sent 10 players to the Minors on Monday but left behind plenty of bullpen depth to compete for jobs if Scheppers and/or Ross go to the bullpen. Among those still in camp are left-handers Aaron Poreda, Ryan Fiererabend, Rafael Perez and Pedro Figueroa and right-handers Shawn Tolleson and Roman Mendez.
"Once we pick our five guys for the rotation, then we'll figure out the bullpen," Washington said.