Burns stepping forward in Rangers' bullpen
Sidearming right-hander, acquired from Padres, positioning himself to win spot
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- In the cluttered field that is the Rangers' bullpen, right-hander Cory Burns has begun to stand out.
There is still a month to go before Opening Day, but this is the time of the spring when pitching-staff candidates jockey for position and time on the mound, and Burns is elbowing his way to the front of the line.
"It's early, but I like where I'm going right now," Burns said.
Right now, Burns has made three appearances and not allowed a run. He has allowed two hits and a walk while striking out two. Burns also had a scoreless inning with a strikeout during an intrasquad game.
"He's doing a good job," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He's got deception, changes speed and can move the ball in on left-handers. He can throw his fastball on both sides of the plate."
Burns uses a funky sidearm delivery and does not throw hard. His fastball averaged 89.1 mph during his 17 appearances with the Padres last year. But Burns has an outstanding changeup that had opponents swinging and missing 40 percent of the time.
"He's an interesting guy," bullpen coach Andy Hawkins said. "He throws a lot of strikes, he's got an 'out' pitch with the changeup, a Major League average breaking ball and his fastball command is pretty good. He's got a method, and he's got ability to get Major League hitters out."
This is a good time for a reliever to make a strong impression in camp, because the Rangers' bullpen is going to have a completely new look in 2013. Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Scott Feldman, Mark Lowe and Roy Oswalt are gone, Alexi Ogando is being moved to the rotation and Robbie Ross is in the middle of the fifth-starter competition.
Closer Joe Nathan and right-handed setup reliever Jason Frasor, who was signed as a free agent during the offseason, are the only two guaranteed spots in the bullpen. They are also taking it slow because of the long spring and have yet to pitch in Cactus League games.
Joakim Soria is expected to play a prominent role in the bullpen, but that won't happen until May, as he finishes off his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Josh Lindblom, acquired from the Phillies in the Michael Young trade, is another projected reliever, but he has allowed two runs on five hits and two walks in 2 1/3 innings and is still smoothing out some mechanical issues.
Right-handers Tanner Scheppers and Wilmer Font were in the bullpen at the end of last season, but both are sidelined for the moment. Scheppers is out with a strained left hamstring, although he threw in the bullpen on Wednesday, while Font is limited to flat-ground throwing while dealing with shoulder inflammation.
Evan Meek was an All-Star with the Pirates in 2010, but he has allowed six runs in two appearances. Kyle McClellan, another fifth-starter candidate, had a nice five-year run out of the Cardinals' bullpen, but he is currently sidelined with soreness in the back of his right shoulder.
There are plenty of other candidates, and right-handers Collin Balester, Johan Yan and Yoshinori Tateyama and left-handers Nate Robertson and Jeff Beliveau all threw a scoreless inning in their first Cactus League appearances.
But the Rangers have been intrigued by Burns since acquiring him from the Padres for Minor League pitcher Wilfredo Boscan on Nov. 28. When asked at the time why the Rangers liked Burns, general manager Jon Daniels pointed to some impressive Minor League numbers.
"He's always found a way to miss bats through the Minor Leagues," Daniels said.
Burns, after a four-year career as a reliever for the University of Arizona, was an eighth-round pick by the Indians in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft and then was traded to the Padres in 2011 for outfielder Aaron Cunningham. The Rangers signed Cunningham as a Minor League free agent this offseason and now the two pitchers' lockers are next to each other in the clubhouse.
In four Minor League seasons, Burns is 7-11 with a 2.36 ERA and 91 saves. He has twice led his league in saves. In 213 1/3 innings, Burns has averaged 6.6 hits, 2.2 walks and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Those are impressive ratios, especially for a pitcher who doesn't throw hard.
The Padres had Burns in their bullpen for much of the final two months of last season, but he did not impress quite as much. He had a 5.50 ERA in 17 appearances while allowing 26 hits and 10 walks in 18 innings. Burns still struck out 18.
"Last year was a little tough for me," Burns said. "I had a problem with my finger; I had a wart on my right index finger and that eliminated half of my arsenal. I had the fastball and changeup but couldn't throw my sinker or breaking ball. The first time being in the big leagues and not have half of my pitches was tough."
The Rangers have had success with soft-tossing sidearm relievers over the past few years. Most notable is Darren O'Day, who was 8-4 with a 2.41 ERA in 152 appearance for the Rangers from 2009-11.
They have different styles. O'Day has a lower "slot" and relies strictly on a fastball and slider. Burns has the terrific changeup in addition to the fastball and slider, and throws a little harder. But the bottom line is getting hitters out, and Burns has done that through the Minors.
"The thing was O'Day was a huge character guy," Hawkins said. "You could plug him in any situation. But we didn't know that until we got him. It could be the same way with Cory. He's an interesting guy."
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.