Like I referenced in yesterday’s Martin Perez profile, I do not expect LHP Robbie Ross to begin the 2013 season in the Rangers rotation. But for argument’s sake, and the fact that as of now Texas does not have a clear-cut #5 starter, Robbie Ross seems like as strong a candidate as anyone.
After being selected in the 2nd round of the 2008 amateur draft, Robbie Ross spent very little time in the Minor Leagues. He threw an abbreviated 74.0 innings in 2009, 148.2 IP spanning two levels in 2010, and scattering another 161.1 over two levels in 2011. That’s it. In the entirety of his professional career before pitching out of the Rangers’ pen in 2012, Ross hurled a total of 38.0 innings in AA or above. That’s kind of, sort of, unheard of. But without any obviously viable alternatives (Neal Cotts, really?), last season the Rangers brain trust decided to take a chance on the 23 year-old left-hander.
The results were fantastic.
Though he missed a little time in the 2nd half (due to arm fatigue, I believe), he still compiled an impressive 2.22 ERA over 65.0 innings (despite an xFIP of 3.64), slowly transitioning from a low- to mid-leverage arm at the beginning of the season, into a borderline high-leverage asset as the season met its dying days. His K rate of 6.51/9 IP and BB rate of 3.18/9 IP didn’t exactly scream “bullpen stopper,” but for a rookie pitcher getting his first taste of Major League action, I’m not sure anyone expected, or could disagree, with those outcomes.
When I handicapped the odds of Martin Perez opening 2013 as the club’s 5th starter, I posited 20% — which is the exact percentile I bestowed upon Robbie Ross. The figures were mainly arbitrary, but it was a fair distinction to issue the two, young left-handers, because reports have mentioned it’s an open competition between each of them, and RHP Justin Grimm. (For the record, I believe our 5th starter is not in the organization as per 28 January, 2013.)
You might wonder (or you might not) why I think Ross is better suited for the bullpen next year. The answer is simple: he only has two effective pitches. A lot like Alexi Ogando, Ross possesses an above average- to plus 4-seam fastball. It’s heavy, and though it doesn’t miss a ton of bats, it does induce a lot of weak contact. His 2nd offering, his “out” pitch, as it were, is his slider. That’s the pitch that, if worst comes to worst, will keep him in some team’s bullpen until he’s as old as John Franco.
The problem with having only two pitches, whether they are considered plus, or not, is that it’s extremely difficult to sustain success with them over 30+ starts and 180.0+ innings. Eventually, the 2nd and 3rd time through the order will burn him. That’s historically how the story goes. Ogando experienced this from a starting role in the 2nd half of 2011, and Ross, to an extent, witnessed the same out of the bullpen in 2013. To develop into a back-end #4 starter, or perhaps reach a #3 ceiling, Ross will have to convert his 4-seam/slider/cutter mix into a 4-pitch collection involving some form of a change up.
Remember, if it’s a LHP producing high strikeout totals, it means the pitcher probably has a good fastball. If a LHP can effectively retire right-handed hitters, it means they probably have a respectable change up. That will be the difference between Ross maintaining a longterm role out of the bullpen, or one day blossoming into a starter. Right now, he is a relief pitcher. Plainly. And simply.
For what it’s worth, neither Bill James nor FanGraphs has a projection for Ross in 2013. So, um, I don’t really know what you’re supposed to do with that.
If you’re asking me, which I don’t know why you would, I’m going to expect Ross to begin the season in the bullpen, and stay there for the entirety of the regular season. Unless a couple (or few) of Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland or Alexi Ogando, go down with injuries at the same time, I don’t see Ross as a starting pitcher. All of Martin Perez, Justin Grimm and even Cody Buckel, would be better alternatives if that was the case. If you start the season with Ross as a starter, keep him there the entire year. The same goes for if he starts in the bullpen. There’s no need to give a young kid like Robbie Ross the Scott Feldman treatment of last year, morphing from reliever to starter to reliever to starter.
Anyway, 2013 is about Robbie Ross developing a third pitch. If for some reason he proves he can be a plausible rotation candidate, and perhaps a more projectable one than either of Texas’ #3 or #4 options, then who knows? Maybe Derek Holland and/or Alexi Ogando become trade chips after this year. Right now, I’m not buying it.