Rangers in enviable position with left-handed relief
Southpaws are a precious commodity, and Texas has five to choose from in camp
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Many Spring Trainings ago, the Rangers had an unknown left-hander named Mike Venafro who was creating an early buzz in camp. Club president Tom Schieffer asked general manager Doug Melvin if Venafro could pitch in the big leagues.
"I don't know," Melvin said. "But he's left handed, so he has 20 years to find out."
Everybody loves those left-handed relievers, and Nate Robertson is thankful for that.
"You get a couple of more looks when you're left-handed," Robertson said. "Everybody is always looking for a left-hander to plug in there. If I was right-handed, I don't know if I'd get this look."
Robertson, who once pitched for the Tigers in the World Series, hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2010. Neal Cotts, who was on the White Sox team that won the World Series in 2005, hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2009. Since then, he has had one Tommy John surgery and four hip surgeries. But he is back in camp, trying to win a job in the bullpen. He almost secured a spot at the end of last year's Spring Training, but strained a ribcage muscle at the finish line.
"He certainly was in consideration," manager Ron Washington said. "He was certainly somebody we were going to keep around."
Clubs just do not carelessly throw away left-handers. They are a valuable commodity and in this camp the Rangers find themselves in the enviable position of having five to choose from. That's not counting Robbie Ross, who is pushing hard for a spot in the rotation. Robertson, Jeff Beliveau, Michael Kirkman and Joe Ortiz have combined to pitch 22 scoreless innings in the Cactus League. That includes two each by Beliveau and Kirkman in Friday's rainout against the Brewers.
Cotts has allowed four runs in 5 1/3 innings but pitched a scoreless inning on Saturday against the Padres by getting out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam. Last spring he had a 7.11 ERA on March 20 and then reeled off four straight scoreless appearances that had the Rangers excited.
"I think he's throwing better this spring, he's just not getting the results," Washington said. "He has more velocity, and his pitches are sharper."
Their collective performances give Washington confidence that he could have two left-handers in his bullpen on Opening Day even if Ross ends up in the rotation.
"One way or another," Washington said. "They're all pretty good. So far they have all pitched well."
In the Major Leagues last season, there were 96 right-handed relievers who made at least 50 appearances and just 38 left-handers. Of that group, 46 of the right-handers had an ERA below 3.00. There were just 15 left-handers with an ERA under 3.00.
"Usually, teams are scrambling for one left-hander, and we've got four or five who are throwing really well," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said.
Washington said having two in the bullpen allows him to use a left-hander early in the game to stop a potential big rally and still have one more for the late innings. But he wants his left-handers to be able to get both left- and right-handed hitters out, rather than being just one- or two-batter specialists.
"We're not going to carry a specialist," Washington said.
"You still have to get people out no matter how you do it," Cotts echoed.
Kirkman is easily the leading candidate out of the group. The Rangers love his stuff and the way he has attacked the strike zone this spring. He has yet to walk a batter and he is also out of options, meaning he would have to clear waivers before being sent to the Minors.
Cotts and Robertson are here on Minor League contracts. Beliveau and Ortiz are on the 40-man roster but have options. Both have pitched well, but Robertson is the one who really intrigues the Rangers.
"He's a competitor, man," Washington said. "He has had to change his style of pitching. He's adjusted to what he has and used it very well."
Robertson had a five-year run in the Tigers rotation from 2004-2008, then had his career derailed by a series of injuries that included two elbow operations. Over the past three years, he has pitched for the Tigers, Marlins and Phillies plus six Minor League teams and the independent Wichita Wingnuts. Robertson is part owner of that team.
Robertson used to throw overhand, but this winter he dropped down to a delivery that is between three-quarters and sidearm. So far it's working well for him, and the Rangers want to keep seeing it.
"I've been out in the baseball wilderness trying to find my place or if I still had a place," Robertson said. "I never tried this delivery, but once I started getting comfortable with it, I brought it into camp. I didn't know what would happen until I faced hitters, but the way the ball is coming off the bat and the way hitters are swinging, the ball is doing what I want it to do. As I get the results, I'm really starting to trust my stuff."
He is one of the bright spots of the camp. To this point, the Rangers really like what they're seeing from their left-handers, and not every team can say that.
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.