In yesterdays installment of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I found yet another reason to love the Rays – RHP, and amateur thespian, Chris Archer. From Tampa Bay’s seemingly endless stream of above average hurlers then, to a club in dire need of some additional pitching depth; less than a week into Spring Training, the Texas Rangers are already beset by injuries to their projected starting rotation. They’ve a lot to figure out in the coming few weeks before Opening Day…
When the calendar flipped to 2014, it looked as if the Texas Rangers were ready to reclaim their throne atop the AL West from this pesky Athletics. Having lost the second AL Wild Card spot in a tie-breaking Game 163 with the Rays, Texas first traded for Prince Fielder’s left handed power bat, parting with longtime franchise keystone Ian Kinsler in the process. Then, looking for an outfield boost and leadoff hitter, they inked Shin-Soo Choo – he of the .423 OBP in 2013. With an upgraded lineup to backup a rotation that last season cumulatively accrued a 114 ERA+, the Rangers were looking well stocked. At least until the injury bug bit two surefire starters.
First it was Derek Holland on crutches and out until midseason – after a curiously unlucky incident involving his dog, the Rangers were without a man who provided 213 innings and 3.3 WAR last season, as well as some of the iffiest facial hair in the game. Then it was 2012 All-Star Matt Harrison, who after undergoing three surgeries last year, two of which were to alleviate a herniated disc, reporting lower back pain in the same area as the previous procedures. Throw in the loss of Matt Garza and Justin Grimm over the winter, and the Rangers officially moved in scramble mode barely a week into Spring Training. Fortunately for Texas, they have plenty of internal options to fill in the gaps; whether the replacements are up to scratch however, is another matter entirely.
At the top of their starting five, the Rangers appear to be pretty well set; AL strikeout king and primary subject of the GIF of the year Yu Darvish would be the bona fide ace of the staff even before the injury bug bit Texas, while Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando would also doubtlessly have been carried over from their respective 2013 rotation roles. Both however, in an ideal situation would have remained at the back end of the staff, Ogando having bounced between the rotation and long relief before making 30 starts last year (and falling off badly down the stretch), and Perez entering only his second full season in the majors, despite posting a more than respectable 3.62 ERA as a rookie. Instead, the pair are slotted in as no. 2 and 3 behind Darvish.
Tommy Hanson meanwhile, was brought to camp as a lottery ticket after suffering through a terrible 2013 with the Angels (going 3-4 with a 5.42 ERA, in just 15 games), but is now projected to be the no. 4 member of the rotation – this despite a history of shoulder problems and a worrying loss of fastball velocity last year (a potentially huge problem given the launching pad Globe Life Park provides for opposing hitters). Behind Hanson in the five spot? It could be any number of candidates, all with significant question marks aside their names.
As the top pitcher on the consecutive World Series teams fielded by Texas in 2010 and 2011, Colby Lewis and his veteran experience would appear to have the inside track on the job, but at 34 years old, is coming off a lost 2013 in which he underwent a hip surgery that no other pitcher has ever had before. Nick Tepesch, while not a hard thrower, gained some starting experience last year, compiling a 4.84 ERA in his 17 games, but barring improvement, is simply a replacement level option. Last year’s Spring Training darling, Michael Kirkman, too is in the mix, even after a 8.18 ERA and a 2.318 WHIP as a reliever in 2013. Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers will also both be given the chance to start in the Cactus League, but their removal from the bullpen would leave Texas dangerously thin on the back end; with Joe Nathan gone to Detroit and Neftali Feliz only just returning from injury himself, both will presumably be needed for depth purposes. Scheppers in particular, who posted a 1.07 WHIP and a 1.88 ERA in 76 relief appearances last year, appears to be too valuable a commodity for Texas to significantly alter his role, whereas Ross struggled with reverse-splits to such an extent last year that a promotion to starting seems far off.
Questioned about the problematic final starting spot, manager Ron Washington voiced humorous unease: “You’re never comfortable, but someone will emerge… There’s no doubt about it. All of those guys can’t be horses—.” In a tough AL West, the vacancy certainly represents Texas’ biggest weakness as Opening Day approaches, with no apparent savior on the horizon either; Having spent big already this offseason to bring in the aforementioned Choo and Fielder, it seems GM Jon Daniels has closed the checkbook on Ervin Santana (probably a wise move given his less than ideal fit for the park), meaning there’s no one else really to sign. Help will have to come from within, and perform admirably until the wounded return. If they’re to live up to their lofty winter expectations, Texas might just have to get by being lucky for a while. They’re due at least.