Texas hurlers brace for competitive camp

Texas hurlers brace for competitive camp

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Forget Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers. Want to lose weight?

Ask Rangers pitcher Matt Harrison. He certainly seems motivated in the dietary department.

"I think I've lost 30 pounds since last year," Harrison said. "This is probably the best shape I've ever been in. I knew coming in I would have to do everything I could to make the ballclub."

That message has been received loud and clear in the Rangers clubhouse as pitchers and catchers officially reported on Thursday. They are all bracing for an extremely competitive Spring Training.

"It's going to be serious," pitcher Tommy Hunter said on Thursday.

"It's not going to be easy," Derek Holland said. "The main thing is to go out there and give it everything you've got."

There will be 31 pitchers on the field when the Rangers hold their first Spring Training workout on Friday. Only six of those pitchers have clearly defined roles on the staff: starters Scott Feldman, Rich Harden and Colby Lewis, closer Frank Francisco, right-handed setup reliever Darren O'Day and left-handed reliever Darren Oliver.

There are also seven pitchers who aren't likely to make the team, including Eric Hurley, who is coming back from shoulder surgery, and Alexi Ogando and Omar Beltre, who just got here after a five-year odyssey dealing with their visa issues. Minor League left-handers Michael Kirkman, Kasey Kiker and Zach Phillips are all in big league camp for the first time but are unlikely to make the team.

That leaves 19 pitchers who will be competing for a spot on the team. That includes reliever C.J. Wilson, who is guaranteed a spot on the team but is hoping to win a spot in the rotation.

"I have no idea what will happen," Wilson said. "All I know is I asked for the chance. I don't know what I'll get. I'm ready for it. I'm ready to go out and perform."

The Rangers will also look at Neftali Feliz as a starter. Wilson and Feliz were in the bullpen last year but will compete with Hunter, Harrison, Holland and Brandon McCarthy for the final two spots in the rotation.

"If somebody beats me out because they are better than me, that's fine with me," Wilson said. "If it's a competition, that's fine. If it's not a competition, then I don't have a chance."

Some pitchers have a better chance than others. Hunter is considered the leading candidate for the fourth spot in the rotation but knows that's not a given.

"Thanks ... but it's still one of those things," Hunter said. "You can still have a leg up and not get a job. You still got to get outs. You've still got to go out and compete, no matter what anybody says."

McCarthy knows the feeling. He came to camp in each of the past three years as a leading candidate for the rotation and twice went into the season as a part of the rotation. But injuries have kept him from securing a permanent spot and now he has an uphill battle to regain that spot after being limited to 46 starts over the past three years.

"It has been kind of annoying," McCarthy said. "My hope is everything that's happened the last couple of years will make me stronger. It hasn't been an easy ride but not many guys get blessed with an easy ride."

Harrison and Holland know the feeling. Harrison had a four-game winning streak going in May until he came down with the shoulder problems that required surgery on July 29. He is 13-8 with a 5.76 ERA in 26 starts for the Rangers over the past two years but could end up in the bullpen as easily as the rotation.

"From what I've heard, they have nine or 10 guys going for those two spots," Harrison said. "It's all about who does the best but I'm here with the mind-set of making the fourth or fifth spot."

Holland ended the season in the Rangers' rotation. He was 6-12 with a 6.23 ERA in 21 starts and 2-1 with a 5.48 ERA in relief after being called up from Double-A Frisco in April. He could be in the rotation, he could end up in the bullpen or he could end up in Triple-A. He is no longer viewed as the incumbent.

"I'm not going to let that take me down," Holland said. "I've still got to fight for a position. I feel better, I'm a lot stronger and my pitches are coming around a little more with every bullpen [throwing session]. This is a big year for me."

Much will depend on how serious the Rangers are about giving Wilson and Feliz a chance to make the rotation. Clearly, they have the talent to pitch in the rotation. The Rangers also know Wilson and Feliz were valuable members of a bullpen that had the second fewest saves in the American League last year.

"It all comes down to need," pitching coach Mike Maddux said.

The competition extends to the bullpen. Certainly the Rangers should find a spot for right-hander Chris Ray, who was acquired from the Orioles for Kevin Millwood, and manager Ron Washington said the bullpen should also include O'Day, who had a 1.94 ERA in 64 games.

But nothing is guaranteed. Remember Dustin Nippert had a 1.86 ERA in 10 relief appearances last year, Doug Mathis had a 2.14 ERA in 22 appearances and veteran Willie Eyre had a 4.50 ERA in 17 games after missing the previous season because of Tommy John surgery. Guillermo Moscoso is viewed more as a starter, but he had a 3.21 ERA in ten relief appearances.

The Rangers also have right-handers Warner Madrigal, Luis Mendoza and Pedro Strop, who struggled last year at the big league level but have been held in high esteem in the past. The Rangers also added left-hander Clay Rapada (4.94 ERA in 33 big league appearances) and right-hander Geoff Geary (3.92 ERA in 287 career games) in the offseason.

Geary gets overlooked because he had an 8.10 ERA in 16 games for the Astros last year while dealing with biceps tendinitis. But from 2005-08, he pitched in 233 games for the Phillies and Astros and was 14-7 with a 3.37 ERA. He was 7-1 with a 2.96 ERA in 81 games for the Phillies in 2006 and 2-3 with a 2.53 ERA in 55 games for the Astros in 2008.

"There is going to be a lot of slots that need to be filled," Maddux said. "Inner competition is good. It's healthy. It pushes guys and it might pull guys. In the past we had some guys who may have been rushed to the big leagues because of a lack of competition. Now we have competition"

That was understood on reporting day.

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