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Rangers’ Robbie Ross Vying for Bullpen Role

As spring training winds down, the Texas Rangers bullpen is still in flux. In particular, Robbie Ross is chasing a left-handed reliever role that current Toronto Blue Jay — and one of the game’s better relievers — Darren Oliver once had. At present, Ross is competing with Michael Kirkman for the job, which is of interest because Texas might employ only one lefty in its bullpen.  While neither Ross nor Kirkman can be expected to be as consistent Oliver, it’s Ross who has the command and the arsenal to adjust quickly to the major leagues.

My first look at Ross was in 2010 when he was with the Hickory Crawdads of the South Atlantic League. With Hickory boasting what can be described as a loaded pitching staff, Ross looked at home among the likes of Robert Erlin, Joe Wieland and Neil Ramirez — among others.

In the outing that I saw, Ross struggled to command an 89-90 mph fastball. He touched 91 mph  at times, allowing seven hits in just five innings of work. When he went down in the zone, his pitch featured impressive drop, but he worked up far too often for a pitcher without top-flight velocity. Ross left his slider in his back pocket through most of the start, opting instead for a 79-82 mph changeup that had drop and a touch of late fade to the arm side. He effectively peppered the outside corner versus right-handed hitters, but Ross let up in his delivery and was tipping the pitch at times. In July of 2010, I summed him up this way:

Ross will never be a dominant pitcher, but he’s a high-floor prospect who has three pitches which grade out as average or better, which leaves him far ahead of other Sally pitchers. Of course Ross has received a promotion recently and may wind up being the rare pitcher whose numbers don’t take much of a hit due to his ground-ball tendencies and the abundance of “fence swingers” the CAL has become known for.

Fast forward to spring 2012 and Ross has added polish to his rough edges. Not only did he maintain his peripherals in the upper minor leagues, but Ross improved greatly and his pitch arsenal added more bite across the board.

This spring, Ross’ fastball was fairly consistent at 91 mph and included heavy sink. Ross’ slider, too, was on full display and flashed plus potential in the 83-84 mph range. Of the Rangers pitching prospects who took the mound, Ross seemed the sharpest and the most major-league ready.

When comparing Ross to Kirkman, it’s hard not to notice the fact both have fastball-slider-heavy repertoires. But the results are different. On paper, Kirkman — with his fly ball tendencies and high walk totals — appears to be a poor fit for the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Kirkman, though,  is on the 40-man roster — which means the Rangers wouldn’t have to clear a spot as they would have to for Ross.

Armed with more sink than a jon boat in a tsunami, Ross should post high ground ball rates, along with walk rates that are low enough to keep him out of consistent trouble. If his team is faced with first and second, with one out and a left-handed hitter stepping to the plate, I’d have little hesitation putting Ross into the game with the idea of inducing a double play.  For the Rangers and their plus-defense infield, Ross is a perfect fit.