Filling fifth-slot opening no easy decision

PEORIA, Ariz. -- This weekend offered a chance for a little more clarity regarding the competition for the Texas Rangers’ open fifth slot in the starting rotation with many candidates taking the mound. Not only did that not happen, the picture may have become even more cloudy.

The most unexpected news came on Saturday, when the team announced an injury to Kyle McClellan. This setback took another candidate out of the running, as McClellan joins Martin Perez, who was pitching very well this spring, on the sidelines until May at the earliest.

McClellan had been sidelined for all of camp after returning from midseason shoulder surgery while a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. He threw two shutout innings in his spring debut on Tuesday and seemed to position himself as an additional contender for the job. He then experienced muscle soreness on Friday, leading to the discovery of the strained lat muscle.

LHP Robbie Ross was coming off his worst outing of the spring when he took the mound in Las Vegas on Sunday. He wasn't at his sharpest after allowing four hits and walking three in three innings. However, he didn't allow a run and struck out four, as he showed the ability to pitch out of jams in the second and third innings. Ross, who is looking to make the move from the bullpen to the rotation, became the unofficial leader for the fifth starter spot when Perez was injured. But Ross has struggled in his two starts since then.

Justin Grimm was shelled in his first two starts, but he cited a recent change to his mental approach for his much improved outing on March 10 when he allowed one run in three innings. He followed that up by throwing two scoreless innings on Sunday. Grimm walked two in his first inning of work, but set the side down in order during his second inning.

The rookie has a successful track record as a starter in the minors. If Grimm’s newfound success this spring continues, the 24-year-old right-hander may find himself in the rotation.

Randy Wells brings the most major league experience to the competition. But he has battled consistency issues during his starts. Wells is regularly allowing multiple base runners but figures a way to pitch out of jams. He also struggled with walks in his last start, which is another trend to watch. If Wells can reduce the number of base runners, then he could emerge the victor. Otherwise, the potential threat of a big inning once he is facing a lineup of all major league hitters may not be a risk the Rangers are willing to take.

There also are two dark horses to be added to the chatter:

One is rookie Nick Tepesch, who pitched well in his first three appearances but allowed three runs in five innings in his start on Saturday. He wasn't as sharp as previous spring outings but probably didn't pitch himself out of the conversation, even if it's as a longshot.

Another long shot could be reliever Michael Kirkman, who pitched three perfect innings in his start on Sunday in place of the injured McClellan. Kirkman has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen in the majors over parts of the past three seasons, but he has been used as a starter in the minors. With improved control and a high strikeout rate, Kirkman may be a guy the Rangers' staff continues to stretch during the spring just to have another arm to consider.

Colby Lewis was pitching well as a starter for Texas in 2012, but he isn't expected to return to the Rangers until June 1 following elbow surgery last July. Team president of baseball operations/general manager Jon Daniels recently said Lewis was progressing slightly ahead of schedule but that the Rangers are taking a cautious approach with his pitching program.

Rangers management has said the preference is to stay in house to fill the fifth starter role. However, they may have reached the point -- due to injuries and with no clear leader currently on the roster -- that an outside acquisition may be necessary.

Kyle Lohse's name continues to swirl around as Texas and Milwaukee have been identified as the most likely landing spots for the free agent. Lohse comes with a hefty price though, as the team that signs him will have to give up its first-round pick as compensation. Also, Lohse's agent Scott Boras is reportedly seeking a high-priced three-year deal for his client.

If Texas does decide to go outside the organization, perhaps the Los Angeles Dodgers should be in their sights. The Dodgers are rich with starting pitching and ESPN's Buster Olney said in his Sunday column that Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano are available. This also would enable the Rangers to move Ross back to the bullpen, where he excelled last season.

The question is whether the Rangers are so anxious to add another piece, especially for a back-end rotation spot, which they would do so via trade. If so, Texas appears to be deep in the outfield and could possibly draw from that pool to make a move. Otherwise, they may have to pull from their system.

The silver lining in Texas trying to find a fifth starter is the team won't need to use someone in that slot until the second week of April, thanks to two off days during the first five days of the regular season.

With two weeks remaining in spring training, there is still time to let the competition play out, but time is starting to run out and a decision may need to come sooner than later.