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09/10/08 6:00 PM ET

Young starters continue auditions

It's time for strong finish to give team something to ponder

OAKLAND -- The Rangers open a four-game series with the Athletics on Thursday with a parade of candidates for their 2009 rotation on display.

Right-hander Dustin Nippert opens the series on Thursday, followed by left-hander Matt Harrison and right-handers Brandon McCarthy and Scott Feldman. All go into Spring Training with a shot at the back three spots in the rotation, but none have a spot locked up.

This would be a good time for all or any one of the four to finish strong.

"We probably have six or eight guys that are candidates for those spots," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "A couple of guys are showing signs of getting over the hump, Feldman and Harrison in particular. We have reason to feel good about them going forward.

"I think over the last month we've seen good things from Nippert and encouraging signs from Brandon McCarthy. We'd like to see that continue."

Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla are locked into the rotation, leaving three spots left. Much depends on what the Rangers do as far as trades and free agency. They will look at both in the offseason. They know who the big-name free agents are, a list that could include CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Derek Lowe, A.J. Burnett and Ryan Dempster.

The Rangers have scouted them all. They also have been crunching the financial numbers. They just may not be in position to plunge into the free-agent market at this point, although Daniels has not met with owner Tom Hicks and club president Nolan Ryan to shape their final offseason strategy.

"The first priority in the offseason is to identify pitchers who can head up the top of a rotation," Daniels said. "We'll look at free agents, but our expectations on the economics are extremely high. We'll explore the trade market as well.

"We've scouted extensively the free agents. We know that if it weren't for the contracts, it would be an easier answer. It's a risky proposition."

If the Rangers stay inside the organization, here are the candidates:

Kevin Millwood: He'll be entering the fourth year of a five-year, $60 million deal. But if he doesn't pitch 180 innings, the Rangers have the option of voiding the fifth year of the deal. That's $12 million riding on next season for both Millwood and the Rangers.

Vicente Padilla: He is signed for next year at $12 million. The Rangers have an option for 2010 at $12 million with a $1.75 million option. Padilla had a chance to be a free agent after the 2006 season and won 15 games. The Rangers hope he is similarly motivated in 2009.

Brandon McCarthy: The Rangers gave up John Danks to get him, but injuries have limited McCarthy to 26 starts over two seasons. The Rangers are impatient, but the price to acquire him was too high not to give him every chance.

Matt Harrison: The best so far of the rookie pitchers. Plus he's left-handed. That counts for much.

Scott Feldman: He's going to win the bronze medal for innings pitched on the Rangers this season. Nobody expected that when the Rangers decided in Spring Training to make him a starter. Truth be told, nobody expected very much. He has exceeded all expectations, and his lack of history as a starter makes it difficult to figure where this great experiment is headed.

Dustin Nippert: He just joined the derby after his 1-0 victory over the Mariners last week. If Padilla had not been hurt, Nippert would still be laboring in obscurity as a long reliever. Now he has four starts to advance his candidacy, and the Rangers are intrigued.

Eric Hurley: He was 1-2 with a 5.47 ERA in five starts before going down with shoulder inflammation. He was once the jewel of the farm system. The Rangers still have a high regard for him, but he'll have an uphill fight to win a job in Spring Training. An extra spot could open if they trade either Millwood or Padilla. It's a possibility the Rangers will consider if other teams are interested.

Kason Gabbard: He's recovering from elbow surgery and has slipped on the depth chart. He may be better suited to left-handed setup relief.

Luis Mendoza: He has a 9.40 ERA as a starter and a 3.00 ERA as a reliever. Signs point toward him being of better use in the bullpen, just like Kameron Loe.

Tommy Hunter: He'll be with the Rangers in Spring Training, but the team would like for him to get more time in the Minors. His promotion this year was a bit premature.

Doug Mathis: He had surgery on his right shoulder on Tuesday to remove an inflamed bursa sac. He is out 6-8 weeks and will be starting from scratch in Spring Training.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.