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Michael Matuella, John King Intrigue At Rangers Camp

SURPRISE, Ariz. — It's easy to associate Michael Matuella with injuries. He had Tommy John surgery and a chronic back issue during his time at Duke, and he threw just three innings over his first two pro seasons thanks to recurring pain in his back and elbow.

His single-season career high in innings, including three years at Duke, is just 75, which he achieved in 2017. This year was no exception. The big righthander, whom the Rangers selected in the third round in 2015, missed time with injuries to both his elbow and shoulder. 

As a result, the Rangers decided to pump the brakes just a little and use Matuella, who still has excellent stuff, in shorter bursts. After a five-inning outing on May 17, Matuella never appeared for more than three innings at a time. 

"Once he went into the relief role ... we went on basically a timed setting — outings will go two to three innings every three days — it allowed him to go one time through the order," Rangers minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark said. "Obviously he's a very explosive guy who's got a high-velocity fastball. He's a high-leverage type of guy, so we felt we were a little bit more on the conservative side with him."

On Wednesday, though, in an instructional league game against the Reds, Matuella was the only pitcher who went more than one inning. He went two, while seven other arms pitched a frame apiece.

During his time on the mound, Matuella's fastball sat between 95-96 mph with one that touched 97 mph. He also mixed in a slider in the mid-80s and a couple of upper-80s changeups—an excellent sign in his fourth of six scheduled appearances before the Rangers break camp for the winter. 

From there, the Rangers will make the determination about whether Matuella will continue in the multi-inning reliever's role or attempt to stick as a starter for another season. 

"We still haven't made that decision yet," Clark said. "We're still trying to get him healthy and get him into next spring. He's going to build this offseason as a starter and then we'll make that decision once we get to spring training."

As would be expected, being used out of the bullpen allowed Matuella to become more aggressive with his arsenal. He shelved a curveball, used his changeup as a third pitch and went primarily with the combination of fastball and slider. 

In this role, Matuella was also primarily used for one turn through the order.

"We saw him not have to think about being able to save certain pitches or save energy to go through the order that third and fourth time," Clark said. "It was the sixth or seventh inning, so he really just got to go out there and use his explosive athletic ability."

The Rangers are also working on increasing the extension Matuella gets when he throws his fastball. At 6-foot-6, there's plenty of length to work with, which will only help his pitches play up even further.

"Every outing he's gone out there, he's been more impressive," Clark said. "The repeatability of his delivery, the length of his delivery, I thought his extension today was really good on his fastball. He's still at times trying to muscle his slider and not allowing his extension to play."

Matuella is healthy now. Whether he stays that way will determine whether his future is at the beginning of games or in the middle.

King Moves Past Tommy John

But Matuella wasn't the only intriguing arm the Rangers trotted out on Wednesday. Their starter, lefthander John King, showed in a one-inning stint why Texas gambled on drafting him knowing he might need Tommy John surgery. 

King started his collegiate career at Angelina (Texas) JC before transferring to Houston for his junior and senior seasons. The Rangers drafted him with their 10th-round pick in 2017, and then he got Tommy John surgery and didn't make his pro debut until this past August in the Rookie-level Arizona League.

"Obviously it was a good job by our scouting department," Clark said. "We drafted him and he had Tommy John about a month after the draft from the University of Houston. ... To me, I think there's a very high ceiling on John King."

The optimism comes from King's arsenal, which is started by a mid-90s fastball (and touched 96 mph on Wednesday) with power sink. He backs it up with a low-80s curveball with 1-to-7 break.

"To me, I think there's a very high ceiling on John King," Clark said. "I love the competitiveness of him. He's going to get a lot of balls on the ground. He's got a really good two-seamer. He's just really working on his curveball in the early counts."

King pitched just 4.2 innings this year in two starts between the AZL and short-season Spokane, but he's worth keeping an eye on for next season.


Baseball America Q&A: Cody Atkinson (Part 2)

We sent Atkinson video of three Rangers prospects -- Bubba Thompson, Sam Huff, Sherten Apostel -- and asked for his analysis.

Another name to know out of Rangers camp is third baseman Sherten Apostel. He's one of the newest Rangers prospects, acquired as part of the package received from Pittsburgh in exchange for reliever Keone Kela.

Apostel, who is 19 years old and stands at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, has a reputation as a big boy with big power. He lived up to that billing early on Wednesday, when he crushed a home run deep over the wall and into the net just to the left of center field.

More than the power, though, the Rangers like the way Apostel goes about his at-bats. He works deep counts and gets on base—he struck out and walked at 22.3 and 18.3 percent clips, respectively—in addition to crushing balls. He's got some work to do defensively, but there's plenty to like at the plate. 

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