Texas Rangers: Which Starting Rotation Candidates Will Make the Cut?
The Texas Rangers were long-regarded as an offensive-minded ball-club, built upon the strength of their lineup, with pitching generally seeming like an afterthought.
Since Nolan Ryan took control of the franchise however, the emphasis on building a deep, talented pitching staff has become a priority.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Rangers have experienced more success in the last two seasons than they had throughout their entire history up to 2010. Beginning in 1961 as the Washington Senators, the franchise had only experienced three playoff series, losing in the first round in 1996, '98 and '99, before their two-consecutive AL pennants over the last two seasons.
Still an offensive powerhouse, Texas has taken a more balanced approach to building their roster, focusing as much on pitching and defense as on the strength of their lineup. There are few one-dimensional players on the squad these days, a welcome change from seasons past.
After two straight years of incredible success, the pitching staff finds itself in a state of transition, though many of the primary contributors remain the same.
They signed Joe Nathan to bolster the rear of their bullpen, in hope that one-time uber-prospect Neftali Feliz can become the ace they have long envisioned. Their ace of the last two years, reliever-turned-starter C.J. Wilson, has moved on to their fierce rivals in Anaheim, preferring to move home to Orange County once he became a free agent.
Texas will gamble again on transitioning a reliever to the starting rotation, something which they've had great success with over the last few years, first with Wilson, then with Alexi Ogando last season.
Also, their dramatic leap into the international player market was one of potential great reward, as they signed perhaps the most-touted Japanese pitcher ever in Yu Darvish. His professional resume in Japan is stellar and they're gambling big that he can replicate his success in Major League Baseball.
Alongside Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, the Rangers' principal owner, Texas has established a formidable brain trust with an intimate knowledge of pitching. Their pitching coach Mike Maddux is one of the more respected at his profession in the league, able to impart a vast array of knowledge and experience upon his staff.
His brother, future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, one of the greatest pitchers in recent decades, will now serve as a front office consultant to GM Jon Daniels.
With such an impressive group of pitching minds involved in the construction and management of their staff, the Texas Rangers are in good hands when it comes to matters of the mound.
As they prepare to decide upon their starting staff for the 2012 season, faced with an excess of talented arms, let's look at the primary contenders who will be vying for the five slots in their rotation.
As a veteran of 11 big league seasons, with 326 starts and 159 victories on his resume, Oswalt would clearly come to Texas assured of a starting job.
After spending 2001-10 with Houston, Oswalt was traded to the Phillies in July of 2010. He spent the remainder of that season in Philadelphia and made 23 starts for the Phillies in 2011 despite struggling with back issues for portions of the year.
Over those 23 starts, he went 9-10 with a 3.69 ERA and a 1.338 WHIP. Though he was solid when healthy, he posted the highest hit rate of his career, allowing 9.9 per nine innings. While he still displayed great command, evidenced by his 2.1 walks per nine innings, Oswalt struck out only six batter per nine, the lowest rate of his career.
Throughout his big league career, Oswalt is 159-93, with a 3.21 ERA, 1.194 WHIP and a 133 OPS+. He's been named an All-Star three different times and owns five top-five Cy Young finishes.
Though there is occasionally reluctance to import pitchers from the National League to the offensively-superior AL, the concern may not be as great for a hurler like Oswalt. During his 11 seasons in the NL, he has toiled in Enron Field/Minute Maid Park and Citizens' Bank Park, two stadiums known for witnessing significant offensive production.
While the need for Oswalt is not necessarily desperate, the Rangers remain curious and according to Peter Gammons, the interest is mutual.
We'll have to wait to determine how much truth resides within these rumors, but IF Oswalt were to join the Rangers, he would certainly displace one of the existing rotation hopefuls.
Yu Darvish, the pitching phenom hailed by many as the greatest pitcher to leave Japan in pursuit of success in American baseball, comes to Texas with a reputation for dominance.
While there is no guarantee that he slots immediately into the major league rotation, the fact is that they paid $112 million to secure his services, so the expectation is that he will be in their rotation as soon as possible. Though only $60 million of that is due to his contract, the $51.7 million posting fee adds to the heightened expectation.
Once he's deemed ready for big league action, the former Ham Fighters' ace will indeed make his way to Texas' starting staff.
The Rangers were clearly enamored with the 25-year-old Darvish, enough so that they preferred to spend big on his potential rather than spending far less to retain C.J. Wilson, with whom they are intimately familiar.
His Japanese career was highly successful, as he was the best pitcher in Japan throughout his career. In five seasons, he was 76-28, with a career ERA of 1.72 and a WHIP of 0.89. Darvish had impeccable command, walking only 1.9 batters per nine innings, while owning a strikeout rate of 9.5/nine. Amazingly, he allowed only 39 total home runs in 1024.1 innings, compared to the 35 Colby Lewis allowed just last season.
He's coming off his best season yet, as he went 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA, a 0.828 WHIP and struck out 276 in 232 innings. The time was right for him to test himself with a move to the US.
However, it's always difficult to know how dominance in Japan will translate to Major League Baseball.
With various factors aligning to impede a successful transition, including the potential difficulty of cultural assimilation, a bigger ball in MLB, smaller stadiums in the states, and five-man rotations rather than six, Japanese hurlers will always be a risky proposition for teams.
The Rangers are counting on Darvish to be the exception - the "chosen one" to buck a trend of underwhelming Japanese hurlers in Major League Baseball.
There have been some success stories, but mostly short-term flashes of brilliance before hitters across the league make the requisite adjustments.
Darvish comes with an impressive scouting report as well, with many experts convinced that he possesses, the size, talent and diverse arsenal to succeed where others have fallen short.
According to Jonah Keri at Grantland.com, Darvish owns a full array of quality pitches to draw from:
- 90-96 MPH 4-seam fastball
- 90-93 MPH 2-seam fastball which resembles a shuuto, a pitch thrown by some Japanese right-handed pitchers that tends to break down and in against right-handed batters
- 90-92 MPH cutter
- 85-ish MPH horizontally breaking slider
- Low 80s downward-breaking slider, which Newman says looks more like a power curve
- 65-70 MPH curveball
Texas obviously expects Darvish to slot into their rotation immediately, considering the massive commitment made to the heretofore mysterious hurler. If he can even remotely approach the level of success he had in Japan, Yu Darvish will quickly establish himself as a household name among baseball fans on this side of the world as well.
Colby Lewis took the long road to establishing himself as a regular major league hurler, but he has made his mark upon the Rangers over his few seasons in Texas.
Once a first-round draft-pick, taken by the Rangers 38th in the 1999 draft, Lewis endured injury struggles, bounced between organizations, and spent two seasons pitching for the Hiroshima Carp of Japan's Central League.
Since returning to the franchise that initially drafted him, Lewis has fulfilled some of the promise that eluded him early in his career.
The 2010 season was a rousing success, as he was a vital cog in the Rangers' march toward their first-ever World Series appearance. That year, his first full season in the big leagues, Lewis went 12-13 with a 121 ERA+ and a 1.189 WHIP, while finishing seventh in the AL with 196 strikeouts. His 201 innings pitched were a stabilizing influence on a young, inexperienced Texas rotation.
He followed up 2010 with a solid performance in 2011, although he took a step backward in many respects. Lewis was more successful according to his 14-10 record, but his ERA rose from 3.72 to 4.40. He again reached the 200 inning plateau, but gave up more hits (7.6 per nine innings in 2010 to 8.4 in '11) and led the AL with 35 home runs allowed.
Lewis has built a somewhat surprising reputation as a playoff ace over two consecutive successful postseasons as a Ranger. In eight playoff starts over 2010-11, he has gone 4-1 with a 2.34 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP and has allowed only 5.8 hits per nine innings.
I would think he has a leg up on the competition due to his nature as an innings-eater, his stellar playoff resume and the fact that his trade value is likely less than the younger, left-handed arms Texas possesses.
Holland had hinted at a breakout season in 2010, but took a further step forward in 2011.
Though inconsistency plagued him for much of the year, he turned in several fantastic performances throughout the season and was a valuable contributor to the Rangers' AL championship.
In 32 starts, he pitched 198 innings, while going 16-5. His 1.354 WHIP was solid if unspectacular, but it was inflated due to 9.1 hits allowed per nine innings, rather than excessive walks. He displayed solid command, walking 3.0 per nine innings, while posting a K rate of 7.4 per nine.
While his 3.94 ERA and 113 ERA+ could definitely improve, he did hurl four complete games and tied James Shields for the AL lead with four shutouts.
He enhanced his standing further with a dominant World Series performance, hurling 8.1 innings of two-hit, shutout ball, earning the victory over the Cardinals in Game 4.
Like Harrison, the fact that Holland is left-handed has to appeal to the Rangers at the Ballpark in Arlington. Though there aren't many top left-handed hitters in the AL West, potential playoff opponents like New York and Boston are loaded with them. He allowed only three home runs to lefties all year and they posted an OPS of .601 against him.
In light of C.J. Wilson's defection to the rival Angels, Holland and Harrison likely both have a spot in the Texas rotation for 2012 and beyond.
The 25-year-old Holland won't even be arbitration eligible until 2013 or a free agent until after 2015, so he offers the Rangers valuable left-handed talent at a bargain rate, at least for now.
Matt Harrison is already hearing his name whispered in trade rumors. Media speculation has named him as the most likely to be traded elsewhere if the Rangers were to make a move for a veteran arm like Oswalt.
The 26-year-old left-hander had a fantastic breakout season in 2011, his first full year in Texas' rotation.
In 31 appearances, 30 of them starts, Harrison was 14-9, hurled 185.2 innings with a 3.39 ERA and a 1.276 WHIP. He struggled in five postseason appearances, but that is hardly unique for a pitcher who had already surpassed his previous career-high in innings pitched.
To a team like Texas, which plays in a stadium renowned for allowing home runs to right-center field, Harrison offers tremendous value as a left-handed starter capable of keeping the ball in the ballpark. Over the course of 2011, he allowed only 13 home runs, the lowest total on the Rangers' starting staff.
Harrison is under team control through the 2014 season, offering more value to the Rangers as an inexpensive, left-handed arm, who appears to be in his ascendancy. That however, does raise his trade value to other teams as well.
Along with Derek Holland, Harrison could give the Rangers a talented left-handed duo who could thrive in Texas for the next several years.
If I were running the team, there is no way I'd trade him away in favor of signing a more expensive pitcher like Oswalt who has experienced back issues over the last few seasons. I may consider it if the Rangers had a glaring need to address, but with the current roster assembly, there are few concerns that would be worth trading away a young hurler like Harrison.
Considered by Baseball America to be the Rangers' top prospect in both 2009 and '10, Neftali Feliz has spent the last two seasons as Texas' closer.
Following a late-season cameo late in 2009, Feliz emerged as one of the premier closers in the AL over the two subsequent years.
During Texas' 2010 run to their first-ever World Series appearance, Feliz was utterly dominant, using his extreme heat and wicked slider to shut down opposing offenses at the end of games.
He won the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year after converting 40-of-43 save opportunities. Feliz posted a 2.73 ERA, struck out 71 in 69.1 innings and allowed only 0.888 hits or walks per inning.
Though the level of his pure dominance regressed in 2011, he was still an effective closer, converting 32 of the 38 save opportunities that he was presented with. His command was an issue, as his walks per nine innings jumped from 2.3 in 2010 to 4.3 last season. Also, Feliz's strikeout rate continued to decline from 11.3 to 9.2 to only 7.8 in 2011.
Despite his success as a closer, Feliz was primarily a starter throughout his minor league career. The Rangers would like to find out now if he can be an ace, contributing 200 innings per season of top-shelf starting pitching, something that would be infinitely more valuable than 70 innings as a reliever.
Like Ogando, Feliz has been primarily a fastball, slider pitcher, but that is rather characteristic of a closer. He reportedly has a developing change-up that could eventually become a valuable pitch for him. With the potential to throw near 100 mph, a change of speeds is always vital to keeping hitters from timing your heat.
Once Texas signed former All-Star closer Joe Nathan, it appeared quite evident that it may spell the end of Feliz's relief career.
If he is able to successfully return to the starting pitcher he once was, the Rangers will gladly take potential ace-like production while taking their chances with Nathan and possibly Ogando at the rear-end of their bullpen.
Alexi Ogando was a revelation for Ron Washington and the Rangers last season, his first year as a starting pitcher.
After successfully converting from the bullpen to the rotation, and winning a starting slot in spring, Ogando was one of the best starters in the AL over the first half of 2011.
At the All-Star break, he was 9-3 with a 2.92 ERA and a 1.013 WHIP, earning a berth on the AL squad for the mid-summer classic in Phoenix. In 104.2 innings, he allowed only 83 hits while striking out 78.
Unfortunately, his lack of experience as a starting pitcher caught up with him over the second half, as he appeared to tire considerably after the All-Star break. In 14 appearances down the stretch, 12 of them starts, he went 4-5 with a 4.48 ERA. He maintained his rate of 6.7 Ks per nine innings, but in 64.1 innings, allowed 66 hits. Gone was the un-hittable hurler from the first half.
Though he was fantastic for the first few months of the season, he faded drastically and was left out of the postseason rotation, pitching out of the bullpen instead.
Whether it was merely a result of fatigue after surpassing his prior career-high in innings pitched or the fact that he was no longer an unknown quantity able to surprise hitters, 2011 was certainly a tale of two halves for Ogando.
The second half decline led many to question whether he truly possessed the tools for a long-term future as a starter.
As primarily a fastball/slider pitcher, who only uses his change-up occasionally, he would appear to be best-suited for work out of the bullpen. With a 95 mph average fastball and a biting slider, late-inning relief is calling his name.
If Neftali Feliz is to make his planned transition from closer to starter, it would seem that Texas has a need for an arm at the back end of their bullpen. Ogando could call upon his relief experience to team with new recruit Joe Nathan to close out games for the Rangers.
Barring a trade of one of the other arms competing for a starting slot, I would expect Ogando to return to the bullpen for the 2012 season.