Rangers abuzz as Feliz set for first start
Holland, Hurley, Scheppers also slated for action on Thursday
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Eric Hurley is actually scheduled to pitch for the Rangers on Thursday. His name is on the list of pitchers for their split-squad scrimmage against the Indians and Cubs."Can you believe that?" Hurley joked Wednesday morning. Derek Holland saw his name on the list for Thursday and announced: "Tomorrow is the big day." The amazing thing to believe is Holland is probably right. Thursday does appear to be a big day in Rangers camp and for a variety of reasons. Holland and Hurley are two. Tanner Scheppers is another.
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Then there is Neftali Feliz. The possibility of him being moved to the rotation remains the biggest anticipated story in camp, and on Thursday he will be pitching against the Indians in Surprise.Feliz, in his first Cactus League game this spring, will start one game of the Rangers' split-squad doubleheader on Thursday. He will pitch in Surprise while Holland will start against the Cubs in Mesa. Hurley will follow Feliz while, on the other side of the Valley, Scheppers will follow Holland. Feliz, the American League's Rookie of the Year as a closer, remains the pivotal pitcher in all of this as the Rangers debate the possibility of moving him from the bullpen to the rotation. Much of what will ultimately transpire with the rotation revolves around what will happen with Feliz, and that's why there might be a buzz in the air when he takes the mound on Thursday. "It should create a buzz," manager Ron Washington said. "We know what this kid is capable of doing and what he has shown this spring. Everybody just wants to see him throw all his pitches and be successful. In the end, he's going to be the one who tells us [by his performance] what he's going to do." The decision will be a big one, both for Feliz and for other pitchers in camp. C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis have two spots in the rotation locked down. Brandon Webb will have a third spot if he is ready for Opening Day. That leaves as many as nine pitchers competing for two spots in some of the fiercest pitching competitions ever seen in Rangers camp. There are two distinct points of view in camp. On one side are those who believe Feliz has the talent to be the kind of No. 1 starter that would cost either huge amounts of money to sign as a free agent or a significant number of prospects to acquire in a trade. That side believes that it will be better to get 200 innings from Feliz as a starter than 70 as a reliever. The other point of view states that the Rangers have plenty of rotation candidates but only one who can lock down the closer's job. They want to see Feliz in the bullpen. "I'm not worried about that," Feliz said. "Tomorrow I have to work on my pitches and get out of the inning as quick as possible. I've got to go out and do my job and not think if I'm going to be a starter or a reliever." The Rangers continue to insist they'll do what's best for the team. Need could decide much. One club official said Tommy Hunter and Holland are crucial. They finished 2010 as the Rangers' fourth and fifth starters. If they can reclaim those spots with strong springs, it could ease the necessity of moving Feliz to the rotation. Hunter started his spring with two scoreless innings in a start against the Angels on Wednesday. Now it's Holland's turn. "My goal is to get a starting spot, and I feel I'm going to get it," Holland said. "I'm working hard every day and feeling good. I want to do everything I can to get that spot. I'm very confident." Holland has spent the past two years bouncing from the bullpen to the rotation with occasional side trips to Triple-A Oklahoma City and the disabled list. He is 9-16 with a 5.72 ERA in 31 career starts and 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in 16 relief appearances. He had a two-month stretch from July 1 to Aug. 20, 2009, when he was 6-2 with a 3.35 ERA in eight starts and three relief appearances. That has been the high-water mark of his brief Major League career. He needs to sustain that over a full season. He hasn't yet, which is why the Rangers consider the possibility of moving Feliz to the rotation. Holland knows it is time to show something. Not only does he have Feliz to deal with but Matt Harrison, Michael Kirkman and others as well. "So far everything has been going good," Holland said. "I came in in good shape and I'm feeling strong. All my pitches have been working. I've talked to some hitters and they seem impressed. I have a good feel for my changeup and my slider is good ... I'm feeling confident." There is a reason why Hurley and Scheppers are pitching after Feliz and Holland. Technically, they are among the 12 identified candidates for the rotation, but the reality is they are almost certainly headed for Triple-A Round Rock by the time Spring Training ends. Hurley, a former first-round pick from 2004, has missed two complete seasons with a torn right rotator cuff and a broken left wrist. He hasn't pitched in a Major League game since July 27, 2008. Just being healthy again is a huge step for him. He was once the Rangers' top pitching prospect and eagerly awaits the opportunity to regain that stature. "I feel like everything that has happened in the past is in the past," Hurley said. "I just need to get through this season healthy. If I can do that, the sky is the limit." Scheppers has not pitched in the Major Leagues at all. Last season was really his first as a professional. He was the 44th overall pick of the 2009 Draft but signed late and did not join the Rangers until instructional league. Last season started off great. He made eight appearances at Double-A Frisco and allowed one run on three hits in 11 innings while striking out 19. The Rangers got giddy and promoted him to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where the results weren't quite as overwhelming. He was 1-3 with a 5.48 ERA in 23 relief appearances and seven starts. He has spent this spring trying to smooth out his mechanics. Scheppers was still ranked 43rd on MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects list, but predictions of him being on the fast-track to the big leagues have subsided. "I don't pay any attention to that because it doesn't mean anything," Scheppers said. "Just because you are a top prospect doesn't mean your chances are better. You still have to perform. I was personally disappointed with last season. But I got through the first full season healthy. I can build off that and have a better year this season." If so, he could be the talk of Spring Training in 2012. Right now, though, Feliz is just that and both he and Holland will be center stage on Thursday in Surprise.
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.