RP Robbie Ross.
Huh? That doesn't sound right.
After going 6-0 with a 2.22 ERA in 65 innings in 2012, Ross definitely didn't sail through the 2013 season smoothly. His numbers in several categories took noticeable plunges, namely ERA, WHIP and opponents' batting average.
One could argue that Ross, 24, was simply a bit too phenomenal in his rookie campaign. He pitched very well but was no doubt helped by the fact that he was unknown to the rest of the league. Looking back at 2013, it's easy to say he was maybe overworked early in the year, perhaps became a bit fatigued and just lost some of his rookie magic.
But now the kid from Lexington, Ky., who blasted himself out of High A Myrtle Beach two offseasons ago and turned heads in spring training, is fighting for a spot in the Rangers' rotation.
And if he doesn't clearly separate himself from among a crowded field of competition, he's just going to return to the minors?
Well, yes. Possibly. But don't be too alarmed.
Grant believes that Ross would return the minors to continue his transition into a starting role and workload. This might suggest that even if he doesn't win a starting role this spring training, he could begin to make spot starts in the middle or latter part of the season.
The No. 1 priority for him is to increase his stamina and endurance. He needs to improve his arm strength to a point where he could start 140 to 150 innings in the rotation.
But Ross is all too aware of this, and he started to prepare himself by pitching in the Dominican Republic for the first part of the winter. He made four starts for Los Toros del Este and went 0-1 with a 4.05 ERA.
He struggled in his first start but settled down over his next three, allowing just eight hits and two runs in a total of 13 innings. He also had 11 strikeouts to just three walks in his final three starts.
Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News reported that Ross' focus in the Dominican was refining his off-speed pitches to mold himself into a better potential starter.
What's comforting is that Ross does have starting experience and has impressed in that role.
He came up through the Rangers' system as a starter, and in 26 career minor league starts between High A Myrtle Beach and AA Frisco, Ross went 10-5 with a 2.34 ERA. He was tough to hit and was also very controlled, striking out 134 batters and only walking 33 in 161.1 innings started.
Even as he transitioned levels, he remained under a hit per inning in both High A and AA.
Obviously, High A and AA batters are much easier pickings. But I believe Ross could succeed as a major league starter. He proved that he has the stuff and the right mentality in 2012. He regressed in 2013 but was still solid overall, with a .344 opponent batting average against lefties as the one black mark.
Ross probably needs to add a sinker or a circle changeup to his repertoire—a pitch that will tail into left-handed batters and keep them honest on the inside part of the plate.
His fastball, cutter and slider trio is money against righties because he can spot all three of those pitches, change speeds effectively and jam or tie up hitters with all three.
But he tends to either leave his pitches hanging over the plate against lefties, or he spots them too far outside to chase. Owning the inside part of the plate against lefties will help him become a much better starter.
This is something Ross hopefully worked on in the Dominican. But he can also improve in the minors if the Rangers are truly committed to making him a starter this season. Perhaps this explains why the Rangers signed lefty reliever Rafael Perez a couple of weeks ago.
Ross needs to get a starter's innings in order to effectively develop as a starter. Sharpening his mechanics and potentially learning a new pitch is a much steeper learning curve if he's confined to the bullpen.
At the end of the day, Ross is too talented to be left in middle relief. Just like Neftali Feliz, he has the ability that at least earns him a starting chance.
The Rangers should give him every opportunity this spring.