Zack Greinke figures to be the top starting pitcher available in free agency this offseason.
There's Greinke and then there's everyone else on the open market. Any team looking for an ace to fill the top of its rotation will likely make him a top target.
The Texas Rangers are one such club that need a No. 1 starter.
The Rangers led the AL West and held the top record in the league through most of the season. Yet they lost their division lead on the final day of the season, relegating them to a wild-card playoff bid. Subsequently, Texas was eliminated from the postseason after losing the one-game, wild-card playoff to the Baltimore Orioles.
Such a finish for a team that was expected to return to the World Series for the third consecutive season was terribly disappointing.
But the Rangers may have lost the AL West and a chance to advance far in the postseason at the July 31 trade deadline by failing to acquire the top-of-the-rotation starter the team needed.
Among the AL's five playoff teams, the Rangers finished fifth with a 3.99 Team ERA. Their starting pitchers compiled a 4.30 ERA, ranking eighth in the league.
Colby Lewis was the closest thing the Rangers had to a No. 1 starter, but he tore the flexor tendon in his right elbow in late July.
Rookie Yu Darvish developed into an ace-caliber pitcher, finishing with a 16-9 record and 3.90 ERA. He also struck out 221 batters in 191.1 innings, good for a rate of 10.4 Ks per game. But asking a rookie to be the ace and lead the staff of a playoff contender might have been too much.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels did acquire a starting pitcher before the July 31 trade deadilne, getting Ryan Dempster from the Chicago Cubs. But while Dempster may have looked like an ace in the National League, he pitched like a second-tier starter in the AL.
Dempster finished with a 7-5 record and 5.09 ERA in 12 starts for the Rangers. Perhaps worst of all, he was awful on the final day of the season with the AL West title on the line. Dempster lasted only three innings, giving up five runs and six hits in an eventual 12-5 loss to the A's.
Would it have made a difference if Daniels had gotten a better starting pitcher at the trade deadline?
We don't know for certain, of course, but chances are that the Rangers would have won their division and thus wouldn't have played in the one-game wild-card playoff. With a stronger rotation, Texas likely would have competed for the AL pennant.
In fairness to Daniels, his options were limited at the trade deadline.
Cole Hamels signed a contract extension with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Tampa Bay Rays weren't going to trade James Shields while they were still contending for the AL East and a wild-card bid. The Miami Marlins reportedly asked for too much in return for Josh Johnson.
Greinke was the guy to get.
Unfortunately, the Rangers weren't willing to surrender the top prospects necessary to get him—especially when Greinke could leave as a free agent at the end of the season. But the failure to get Greinke was compounded when the Milwaukee Brewers dealt him to one of Texas' division rivals, the Los Angeles Angels.
Greinke wasn't the difference in the AL West race as far as boosting the Angels to a division title. In 13 starts for the Halos, he went 6-2 with a 3.53 ERA while striking out 7.9 batters per nine innings.
But not getting Greinke was arguably a key factor in the Rangers not winning the AL West and an opportunity to advance deep into the AL playoffs.
However, the Rangers now have another chance to get Greinke through free agency.
Signing him would give Texas the ace it didn't have last season. He would automatically become the Rangers' top starter. His combined 15-5 record and 3.48 ERA would have been the best in the Texas rotation. His strikeout rate of 8.5 per nine innings is better than all Rangers starters except for Darvish.
Greinke might not necessarily be the staff's best pitcher. That might end up being Darvish in his second season as a major leaguer. He has the stuff—the velocity and the four- to five-pitch arsenal—to be an ace in the AL.
But with Greinke on the team, Darvish wouldn't have to deal with the burden of being the No. 1 starter. Greinke is accustomed to the role—having been the ace for the Brewers and Kansas City Royals—and has thrived with that responsibility.
Yet if he signed with the Rangers, Greinke wouldn't have the pressure of carrying the rotation by himself. As with the Brewers and Angels, he would join at least two other top starters in Darvish and Lewis. The Rangers also have depth at the back-end of the starting staff with Matt Harrison and Derek Holland.
Beating out the Angels in a bidding war won't be easy. But if Josh Hamilton leaves the Rangers as a free agent, Texas will be able to use those resources for Greinke. While Rangers Ballpark in Arlington isn't as friendly to pitchers as Angels Stadium, he'll arguably receive more run support and still have a good defense playing behind him.
Signing Greinke will return the Rangers to elite team status in the American League. Texas will be a playoff contender regardless. But with a No. 1 starter, the Rangers should again be considered a favorite to return to the World Series. He should be Daniels' top priority this offseason.
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