Kiker Conditioned For Major Leagues

FRISCO, Texas—Not everything has gone easily for Frisco lefthander Kasey Kiker.

But Kiker's first Double-A Texas League all-star game was, by all accounts, a breeze.

Kiker, the Rangers' No. 19 prospect entering the season, got to sleep in his own bed, pitch before a partisan crowd at Frisco's Dr Pepper Ballpark and play for his own manager, Mike Micucci.

Kiker started and threw a scoreless inning, and his stint just happened to fall on his bullpen day, which kept Kiker right on his weekly schedule.

For a guy who has scuffled with injuries and conditioning issues, it was an alarmingly enjoyable experience.

"It was kind of funny in that it did fall on my bullpen day," Kiker said. "But it was a lot more people watching my bullpen."

An announced 10,314 saw Kiker's all-star start. But if things keep looking up for Kiker, 21, he will find himself playing before even larger crowds at, say, The Ballpark at Arlington.

"I'll do whatever (Rangers general manager) John Daniels and those guys want me to do," Kiker said. "If they want me to come in and face one lefthanded batter I'll come and do that, too. As long as I can get there I don't care what I'm doing. If I'm just being a cheerleader, it will be fine."

Shaping His Future

The Rangers took Kiker out of Seale (Ala.) High in the first round of the 2006 draft and dropped him into a pitching-rich organization. There are 20 pitchers among the Rangers' top 30 prospects, and 13 are in the top 20.

"The Rangers were mostly hitting in the past and now it's like pitching is up there," Kiker said. "And it makes us feel really important, the pitchers in the minor leagues."

Kiker followed up his all-star start with six shutout innings at Arkansas, leaving having allowed just one hit. That start dropped Kiker's ERA to 2.79 in 84 innings with 77 strikeouts and 40 walks.

"You know Kasey's a high school kid," Micucci said. "And if you look at it right now, where his age is and where he's at, he's age appropriate, if not ahead, for being where he's at."

Kiker is on schedule despite a spate of shoulder trouble that caused him to start last season in extended spring training. Soreness and inflammation later in the year cost him three weeks and a midseason promotion from high Class A Bakersfield.

But it was a healthy Kiker who finally broke camp with Frisco this year.

"It feels like you're just rotting away in extended," he said. "And actually going straight to an affiliate, it was huge this year. There's no substitute for that and being with your friends on a team and pitching."

Part of the concern over Kiker's health centered around his conditioning, which he reportedly let slip during the season. But when a certain Hall of Famer sat down with Kiker to dispense some advice, Kiker listened.

If there were anyone in the Rangers organization who would be a pitching authority, after all, it would be club president Nolan Ryan.

"It was great. It was really a one-sided conversation," Kiker said. "You just nod your head yes and say 'Yes sir, I'll do exactly what you say.'"

Kiker said he wasn't being singled out, that Ryan stressed conditioning to the entire organization, but he did speak to Kiker alone. The lessons stuck.

"We stepped it up a lot because when Nolan Ryan comes in everybody seems to work a lot harder," Kiker said. "There wasn't really any fingers pointed at me but I guess I was the scapegoat for everybody. I talked to him one on one, I talked to him a couple times and he just told me to keep it up and that I was a piece of the puzzle in the future."

Fittingly, Kiker was found for a recent interview diligently working on his strength training between starts.

"You kind of want to take it to the next level," Kiker said. "Instead of doing 10 you're maybe doing 12 or 14 reps of the normal stuff you're doing. It's mainly seeing that goal in front of you and just pushing yourself a little bit harder."

Micucci said the Rangers under Ryan aren't quite as strict with their pitch counts as other organizations. That means managers like Micucci aren't going to face as much scrutiny if they let a guy reach 125 pitches, as long as he proves he can handle it.

This year, Kiker has.

"Just the other day, in 100-degree weather, he went seven innings without a problem," Micucci said. "To do that you have to be in shape."

Evolve And Develop

Kiker's fastball has dropped from the high 90s he touched during the Midwest League playoffs at low Class A Clinton in 2007. But, while he now throws more in the 88-92 mph range, his command has gotten better, his changeup is above-average and he has an improved curveball that he says is morphing into a slider.

"His command is much better, he's much more effective, his changeup is coming along and with that fastball command that he has, it makes his secondary pitches better," Micucci said.

That's important in Double-A, where pitchers' mistakes get punished more regularly.

"They know the zone and umpires know the zone too," Kiker said. "And you don't get away with a lot of up and away fastballs you might get hitters to swing at. Now they're just spitting on those balls and they're really good in hitters' counts too. And they don't mess with those pitches too much."

Kiker doesn't worry about getting lost in the shuffle of talented Rangers pitching prospects. As a lefty, if he can stay healthy and keep developing, Kiker figures there will be a place for him somewhere, someday.

"There's a five-man rotation and however many guys in the pen," Kiker said. "As long as you do your thing there'll be room for you."

Todd Traub is a freelance writer based in Little Rock, Ark.