Lefty bullpen race wide open for Rangers

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington would be OK if the club breaks camp without a left-handed pitcher in the bullpen.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want at least one of the candidates to emerge with a strong spring training. Texas is searching for a left-hander in the bullpen after losing veteran free-agents Darren Oliver and Michael Gonzalez in the offseason.

“They will get the opportunity to go out there and pitch and show what they can do in competition,” Washington said. “I would like to have one, but if all of them struggle, I wouldn’t go against having an all right-handed bullpen.”

The odds are that the Rangers will find at least one just based on the sheer number of candidates. Michael Kirkman, Joe Beimel, Mitch Stetter, Martin Perez, Robbie Ross, Ben Snyder, Kelvin De La Cruz and Miguel De Los Santos each could play themselves into a relief role with strong springs.

Kirkman, Beimel and Stetter may have the edge based on their experience at the big-league level.

Kirkman, who came up through the minors as a starter, started making the conversion to reliever last season. He opened the year in Round Rock as a starter but by May was working out of the bullpen. He was called up to the Rangers on three occasions and pitched 15 times in relief with a 6.59 ERA.

This is Kirkman’s third spring training with Texas but the first time he’s come to camp knowing his role will be a reliever. That’s making the adjustment easier for him.

“I’m kind of grasping the whole concept,” Kirkman said. “I’ve just got to get in there and throw quality pitches. I can’t go out there and nibble around and get 2-0 on a hitter. The mindset is totally different than when I was a starter.”

Washington said Kirkman, Beimel and Stetter all bring different things to the mound. Kirkman has a solid fastball to go along with a good breaking ball. Beimel changes speeds and Stetter gets out with deception from his sidearm delivery.

Kirkman certainly has the edge on health alone as both Beimel and Stetter missed time in 2011 because of injuries.

Things haven’t gotten much better for Beimel this spring as he’s already been slowed down because of left elbow inflammation. He said he could be pitching if he had to but at age 34 he’s trying to take better care of his arm.

It was inflammation that limited him to 35 games with Pittsburgh last year and sent him to a lengthy stint on the disabled list. That was quite a change for Beimel, who made nearly 400 appearances over a six-year span from 2006-2011.

Now the non-roster invitee is trying to show he’s healthy and can get outs.

“It’s definitely an opportunity,” said Beimel. “After last year and the year I had, all I really wanted was an opportunity. This is a great situation and a team that’s going to win a lot of ballgames. Hopefully I can be a part of that. Last year was just one of those freak years. I’ve never had arm problems in my whole life.”

The bad news for Beimel is that his arm flared up on him after throwing back-to-back days.  He had swelling in the elbow twice last spring and two more issues during the regular season. He had a cortisone injection last year and tried to rehab the arm.

Rehab is also nothing new to Stetter.
 
He tore the labrum in his left hip and also had bone calcification last year while pitching for Milwaukee. When Stetter had surgery last spring he also had his femur and hip bone shaved down. That led to a six-month rehab that included six weeks on crutches. He made just 16 appearances last year before the season-ending surgery. He did try to pitch through the pain for two weeks.

Now, Stetter, 31, is hoping to flash the same form that allowed left-handers to hit just .194 (33 for 170) off him in his career.

“We’ll see how it goes,” said Stetter, who got to work with Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux when he was in Milwaukee in 2007 and 2008. “There are a lot of good lefties here. It’s one of those things where left on left I’ve done pretty good in my career. I want to overcome the surgery, show them I can be healthy and get outs in spring training.”

Of the rest of the candidates, Perez could be the most intriguing. The top pitching prospect in the organization, Perez has pitched in just two games in relief as a professional. He’ll be stretched out with the starters this spring but could transition to the bullpen if the club feels he fills the need.

He’s already drawn compliments from Washington for his performance this spring, but the club will be careful how it uses Perez, 20. He has pitched just 10 games in Triple-A.

“That would be a huge discussion to determine whether or not it’s best for him to continue to grow or he’s ready,” Washington said. “That’s a discussion I think all of us are going to have to partake in. I don’t want to sit here today and say if he does that, it’s going to happen. This kid is still growing. If the consensus agrees that his best fit is in the bullpen right now, that’s what it’s going to be.”