Prior to the 2011 season, there was much debate over the specific roles of a few talented arms on the Texas Rangers pitching staff.
With the departure of Cliff Lee over the offseason, there were opportunities for Ranger hurlers to step up in order to follow C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis in the starting rotation.
Incumbent Tommy Hunter, while he experienced success as a starter last year, found himself having to prove his worth in spring training in order to earn a rotation spot. When he pulled his groin during the spring, his progress was impeded and his opportunity to claim a job was put on hold.
Long looks were given to a talented crop of Texas left-handers, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Michael Kirkman, with Holland and Harrison eventually emerging victorious from the spring competition.
Former NL CyYoung award winner Brandon Webb was signed as an injury-reclamation project, hoping that he could contribute eventually after two years out of the game. Webb, a highly-talented sinker-specialist, would seem tailor-made for the Ballpark in Arlington, but his arm issues have required a lengthy recovery period and he is currently pitching in extended spring training games in Arizona to build his arm strength.
Texas' needs in the starting rotation prompted significant debate over the future of pitching phenom Neftali Feliz, winner of the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year award. As a closer last season, Feliz dominated the league, successfully converting 40 of his 43 save opportunities. His conversion rate, 0.88 WHIP and 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings, indicated that he had already ascended to elite status among closers in baseball.
However, Feliz had progressed through the Texas farm system as a starting pitcher, and most will agree that a hurler with potential as a top of the rotation starter offers significantly more value to his team than even an elite closer. The potential of 200 ace-like innings usually trumps the possibility of 70 shutdown frames out of the bullpen.
This decision went differently, however. While the Rangers seriously contemplated transitioning Feliz to the rotation in order to maximize his immense talents, Ron Washington was reluctant to remove his dominant closer in the absence of an obvious replacement. If he were to move Feliz, he would want an experienced reliever brought in to solidify the back of the bullpen, an area of strength in 2010.
With no clear-cut in-house candidates to assume the closer's role, and no veteran, top-flight relievers available late in spring training, the Rangers opted to stick with Feliz and to not fix what wasn't broken.
The decision to leave Feliz in the role in which he had thrived last season meant that there was still opportunity for a Texas hurler to step up and win a spot in the starting rotation.
Eventually winning the competition was 27-year-old right-hander Alexi Ogando. He had originally been one of the hurlers considered for the closer role if it had been vacated due to Feliz's move to the rotation. Ogando was also considered one of the leading candidates to serve in a setup role, following his brilliant late-season cameo in 2010. His blazing fastball and biting slider appeared to make him perfectly-equipped for a late-inning role in the Texas bullpen.
Texas had long believed that they possessed an ultra-talented hurler in Ogando, but his anticipated ascension through their system was delayed significantly by legal troubles and a ban preventing him from entering the US to pitch due to his involvement in a human-trafficking scam. His punishment limited him to pitching for the Rangers' affiliate in the Dominican Summer League.
Finally afforded a work Visa necessary for him to pitch on US soil, Ogando dominated double and triple-A in 2010, earning himself a mid-June call-up to the big leagues. He quickly proved that he belonged, displaying the powerful arm that had enticed the Rangers into selecting him from the A's organization in the 2004 Rule Five Draft. In 44 appearances out of the Rangers pen, he posted a 1.30 ERA, a 1.128 WHIP, and struck out 39 in 41.2 innings.
Though obviously blessed with tantalizing talents, Ogando had only made three starts in his 59 appearances in the Ranger farm system, and his apparent reliance on two pitches made him more likely to thrive in the bullpen than in the rotation.
However, Ogando has proved that assessment incorrect, seizing his opportunity to start and excelling in the role immediately.
While Neftali Feliz is once again performing in the closer role after early season injury concerns, Ogando is starring in the Texas rotation, making the Ranger brass appear shrewd in their assessment of the two talented Dominican hurlers.
Ogando has quickly transitioned from talented, yet unknown prospect into an elite starter in the American League. Of course, it's still early in the season, and the nine starts in clearly a small sample size, but Ogando's results have been staggering thus far.
In his nine starts in 2011, Ogando has gone 5-0, posting a quality start in eight of his nine outings. He has completed at least six innings every time out, allowing more than two runs only once, in an April 17 no-decision to the Yankees.
Over those nine outings, he has thrown 59.2 innings, allowing only 38 hits with 14 walks. His 43 strikeouts might be considered lower than expected, but his 1.81 ERA and 0.872 WHIP highlight his abilities to keep runners off base. Ogando's stellar rate of only 5.7 hits per nine innings currently leads the league, something that will surely please Texas president Nolan Ryan, MLB's all-time leader in that particular statistical category.
Alexi's most recent outing was his first-ever complete game and shutout, as he blanked the White Sox on five singles and three walks in a 4-0 Texas victory. Ogando's performance came in the highly-anticipated return of both Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz from the disabled list.
Quickly settling into a starting role and thriving immediately, Ogando has for now quieted the debate over whether to move Feliz into the rotation. Though the Rangers stated objective is to ride out this year with Feliz as the closer, while planning to transition him next year after finding a suitable replacement, Ogando has eliminated any dire need to make a move imminently.
Texas brass couldn't be happier with the way the scenario has played out, making their decision appear more brilliant with each successive start by Ogando.