Spring training preview: Middle/long relief

Note: Spring training will arrive before you know it. To get you ready, we'll take a look at every position between now and February, when pitchers and catchers report to Surprise, Ariz.

Today's position: Middle and long relief

As pitching coach Mike Maddux put it last week, the club will take the best "staff," not the best "relievers" or the best "starters." The mission is about putting together the 12 pitchers who can most help the team. That means figuring out the group they want and how best to align them.

There are a host of candidates for a job in the starting rotation. That's a pressing issue now that Derek Holland's recovery from knee surgery will probably keep him out until midseason. But even as those players compete for that job, they could also be competing for a spot as a long reliever. The pitcher who doesn't go into the rotation could slide in as a long man and spot starter.

The list of internal candidates for the rotation spot include Michael Kirkman, Colby Lewis, Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers and Nick Tepesch. There will be more, you can be sure. And there will be external candidates that will get a look as well.

If Ross doesn't earn the job, the lefty could be a critical middle reliever for this team. While he didn't have as strong a 2013 as he did 2012, Ross was still 4-2 with a 3.03 ERA in 65 games. He pitched in a variety of situations. But what was odd about Ross' season was his inability to get left-handed batters out consistently. They hit .341 against him in 91 at-bats. It's something Ross is working on this offseason and into 2014.

Kirkman and Tepesch could be viable long men and spot starters should they not end up in the rotation. Kirkman is motivated after a poor 2013 and believes that the pitcher that showed up for spring training and pitched so well last year can do the same in the regular season. Tepesch got some big league experience last year, stepping into the rotation because of injuries. He was 4-6 with a 4.84 ERA in 19 appearances (17 starts) and is working on a changeup with the hopes of that helping make him more effective.

If Scheppers doesn't start, he's a late-inning reliever and someone who has the experience of getting big outs late in close games. We'll talk more about him tomorrow.

The Rangers also have veteran Jason Frasor for middle relief. He was actually the first player the club signed this offseason. Neal Cotts burst onto the scene last year and returns after a terrific 2013. Cotts had a 1.11 ERA in 57 innings pitched, and opponents hit just .180 off him. Others such as Shawn Tolleson and Ben Rowen will try to impress coaches this spring and see if they can get into that mix.

OUTLOOK: The Rangers have plenty of internal options for the middle and long relief roles, but it may take some time to sort them out. It's a good mix of veterans and young players in the bullpen. We'll talk more about the later innings and the closer in the next few days.