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Spring cleaning: Left-handed relief

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- We continue our spring cleaning series by looking at a specific part of the relief corps and sizing things up with the season just a little more than two weeks away.

Spring cleaning: Left-handed bullpen piece

One of the key questions when camp began: Who will step up and be the left-handed bullpen piece for the Rangers? Of course, Texas doesn't have to have a left-handed reliever. The Rangers do have some right-handed pitchers who have a solid track record of getting left-handed hitters out, but they would prefer a lefty to have for those key hitters in critical situations. That's the role Mike Gonzalez had at the end of last year.

A handful of internal candidates are in camp. Let's take a look:

Joe Beimel: He dealt with some elbow tightness earlier in camp, but has made four appearances (four innings) and given up two runs on four hits with five strikeouts. He has had decent success against left-handed hitters.

Neal Cotts: Started in minor league camp and then switched over to the big league side after throwing well early in spring. But he's got a 7.11 ERA in 6 1/3 innings in Cactus League games.

Miguel De Los Santos: He finished last season in Double-A Frisco and is still working on his craft in the minors. He has allowed five runs in 5 2/3 innings in Cactus League games this spring and was optioned to Frisco on Monday.

Michael Kirkman: Was forced to pitch two innings Tuesday (instead of one) because of Neftali Feliz's shoulder stiffness that limited him to three innings instead of four. Kirkman has been inconsistent in Cactus League games but has pitched better of late. He pitched two scoreless innings against the Cubs on Tuesday and has allowed just one run and two hits in his last four innings.

Martin Perez: He was optioned to Triple-A Round Rock on Monday but impressed scouts this camp. He remains one of the club's top pitching prospects and could certainly help this team at some point this season.

Robbie Ross: Perhaps the big surprise of camp. He has not been optioned back to the minors because he's pitching so well. With the race wide open, Ross will continue to get consideration. He's starting against the Angels on Sunday in Tempe with Yu Darvish pitching in a minor league game in Surprise. Ross has pitched four scoreless Cactus League innings with six strikeouts and no walks.

Ben Snyder: Was in Double-A Frisco the whole 2011 season and is quietly performing well out here. He hasn't allowed a run in 5 1/3 innings and has no walks with three strikeouts. He doesn't have the stuff of Ross, but he's getting left-handed hitters out and working hard.

Mitch Stetter: Came in after pitching for the Brewers last season. The sidearmer has allowed two runs on four hits with four walks and two strikeouts in four appearances (3 1/3 innings).

So how does it shake out? We still don't know. But at this point, the most intriguing pitcher is Ross. He split last season between High Class A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Frisco and was a combined 10-5 with a 2.34 ERA and 134 strikeouts to 33 walks in 27 games (26 starts). He was named the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year. He was a second-round pick in the 2008 draft by the Rangers and he's shown an ability to command his pitches, throw strikes and avoid walks.

Part of the decision on Ross (if he is the best candidate by the end of spring) is whether the club wants to carry him as a left-handed reliever on the big league club as opposed to keeping him as a starter in the minors. The thinking remains that he can be a starter long-term. But we've seen in the past with this club that current starters begin their major league careers in the bullpen.

Ross' slider and cutter sure are looking good this spring and so far hitters (he's faced a mix of regulars and minor leaguers) haven't been able to get the barrel on the ball well against him.

So we'll see. There's still time for Kirkman and others to step up. But give Ross some credit: He isn't making the decision easy.