SURPRISE, Ariz. – Cactus League plays begins on Friday when the Rangers and the Royals square off at Surprise Stadium. As standard practice for the beginning of spring training, pitchers tend to not go any longer than an inning, giving the team a look at a number of players in camp. Only 13 of the 38 pitchers in camp will make the Rangers' Opening Day roster, so there's a wide range of competition from the get-go.
One intriguing pitcher who has a legitimate shot of earning one of the eight spots in the bullpen for Opening Day is Demarcus Evans. In my pre-spring training roster projections, I actually picked him to make the roster.
It's still February, so everyone invited to camp is still on the roster. For now, just like every other pitcher in camp, Evans is focusing on his bullpen sessions and getting himself ready to compete.
"Everything's going well right now. I feel great. I'm ready to get everything started," Evans said. "Right now, I'm working on not being such a predictable pitcher. I use fastballs a lot, but now I'm trying to work on being better with my offspeed pitches. That's my main focus right now – being able to flip the curveball in there for a strike any time I want to."
Evans is a formidable, physical presence on the mound, standing 6'4" and weighing 270 pounds. His stuff, along with other intangibles, are highly praised by Rangers manager Chris Woodward.
"What do you not like about that guy? The story, the background – he had a tough upbringing. He's a tough kid, man," Woodward said. "I got to see him last year, his stuff is off the charts. The characteristics of his pitches are elite. His fastball, his breaking ball, he throws them all for strikes, he pitches in the top of the zone. He's a newer-aged phenom. I think back in the day, they would have told him to throw the ball down and away. He just throws the ball in the top of the zone. I don't want to get too technical with it, but he's got elite stuff."
In terms of his "stuff," Evans throws a mid-90's fastball with a high spin rate, paired with a sharp curveball. Evans' fastball is his bread-and-butter, but he struggled with his curveball a couple of seasons ago. Now, he's confident in his pitches going into 2020.
"They're feeling great. They're feeling better," Evans said. "In 2018, I went to the Fall League and I was trying to make everything like a fastball and I lost the feel of it. Now, I've got it back to where I can flip it in there for a strike and get it back like I had it."
Evans definitely rebounded, establishing himself as a dominant reliever in the Minor League ranks. In 2019, he split time between Single-A Down East and Double-A Frisco. He pitched a total of 60 innings with a 0.90 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. His 5.9 walks-per-nine innings (BB/9) was a little alarming, but he only surrendered 23 hits throughout all of 2019, only two of which being home runs.
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Manager Chris Woodward has high praise not for just what he can do on the mound, but for coming out of his shell a little bit recently.
"He doesn't say much until you prod him a little bit. Then when you start to talk to him, he's a funny kid." Woodward said. "He brings a lot of energy. He's a big kid. To me, he's like a big teddy bear that brightens up the room every time he steps in there. I think he feels a little more comfortable to let his sense of humor come out at times. The first time I talked to him, he didn't say a word. Then I said, 'Hey man, I've heard you've got a pretty good personality.' He was like, 'Oh okay, you want me to talk? Alright.' Then he wouldn't stop."
"He makes everything easy," Evans said of his manager. "He'll tell you that anyone in the room has a shot to make it and that no one should feel like they're going to be left behind. Just do what you've got to do if you want to get there. I'm trying my best to do everything I can."
Even if Evans doesn't make the Opening Day roster, Chris Woodward is confident that he'll be in Arlington eventually in 2020. After all, no pitching staff ever stays entirely healthy throughout the course of a season.
"He's got elite stuff. I really hope he hangs around a lot of our older guys, talks about the process about being a bullpen guy," Woodward said. "He's going to help us at some point. It's just a matter of getting around those guys – Cody Allen, Jose [Leclerc], [Rafael] Montero, Chavy [Jesse Chavez] – and getting the mindset of a reliever in the big leagues. I want him to really learn as much as he can while he's in camp and obviously compete to win a spot."
For Evans, he obviously wants to make it to the show. He didn't have to say too much on how he can get there.
"I've just got to go out there and throw a lot of strikes," Evans said. "I've got to believe in myself and have a lot of confidence, and just go out there and do what I have to do."
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