Evaluating The Texas Rangers’ Starting Rotation

The two-time defending American League pennant-winning Texas Rangers will be in ESPN’s spotlight on Easter night, and TheSportsNotebook will take a closer look at the key to this Rangers’ season and that’s the starting pitching rotation.

In Texas’ team preview done here in March the basic themes of what we’re about to dive into were covered in conjunction with the rest of the lineup. You can read the abridged version of the starting rotation here. This article will go a little deeper. Let’s start by running down the five pitchers who lead the depth chart…

Colby Lewis (32): Lewis found himself relatively late in his career. He was in and out of the big leagues since 2002, including a disastrous year as a starter in ’03 when 26 starts produced an ERA of 7.30—it’s a sign of how bad Texas pitching was in those days that he actually got the ball 26 times. After spending 2008-09 in Japan something clicked, because he’s been a horse the last two years. Not coincidentally, his emergence has matched up with that of his team. Lewis was at his best in the 2010 American League Championship Series when he pitched two gems, including the Game 6 clincher against the Yankees.

The area of concern with Lewis is that his ERA rose from 3.72 to 4.40. Per se, that’s not a huge deal—The Ballpark in Arlington is a hitters’ haven, and as long as the ERA stays in the lower part of the 4s, it’s manageable. Furthermore, when you tack on the 200 IP he’s thrown each season, the ERA becomes easier to live with. So perhaps the concern with Lewis is not so much his performance, but whether the Rangers want too much of them as slotting him as their #1. I think that’s the case, so that means someone further down has to step up.

Derek Holland (25): He was one of several pitchers who first started to get work in 2009, the year the team made its first move as a contender (they stayed in the wild-card race with Boston into September and would have made it under the new two-wild card format coming this year). Holland struggled that first year in the majors, posting a 6.12 ERA in 21 starts. He wasn’t a big part of the 2010 pennant drive, working only 57 innings, but the ERA did get down to 4.08. Last year Ron Washington made him a starter, and Holland won 16 games with a 3.95 ERA. To top it off, he flashed some broadcasting skills during the World Series last year, during a dugout interview with Fox’s Joe Buck. Holland, like Lewis, uses all his breaking pitches in more of less equal support of the fastball.

Matt Harrison (25): In a lot of ways he’s a microcosm of the team. Harrison had a good year in 2011, making 30 starts with a 3.39 ERA. It was his first year of logging serious innings, as he spent 2008-10 throwing less than 100 IP per year, but saw his gradually go down each season. Where his analogy to the team overall comes in, is that on paper everything looks good, but how much will the postseason fallout from the crushing way they lost the World Series come into play? Harrison was the one who had to pick the team up in Game 7 against St. Louis and was badly overmatched by Chris Carpenter from the outset. This was on top of a poor outing in Game 3. Conversely, Harrison was solid in his two playoff starts during the AL playoff run against Tampa Bay and Detroit. The Rangers—and Harrison—just need to get the World Series cleansed from their mind and remember how much they’ve owned the rest of the AL the past two seasons.

Yu Darvish (25): Not since Daisake Matsuzaka went to Boston for the 2007 season has a Japanese pitcher attracted as much hype as Darvish. Like Dice-K before him, Darvish has a wide array of pitches to choose from, and hits 96 mph on the gun with his fastball, and can drop that by a third when he goes offspeed, creating a lot of contrast for hitters. Also, while the Matsuzaka comparison looks unfavorable right now, it’s important to note that the Boston pitcher had a good year in ’07, including winning Game 7 of the ALCS, followed by winning a World Series start, followed by a 2008 season that saw him go 18-2 with a sub-3.00 ERA. Injuries then caught up to him. If Darvish can match those first two seasons, he’ll be well worth the $51 million posting fee Texas paid for the rights to negotiate a contract with him.

Neftali Feliz (23): A rotation already filled with interesting storylines gets a bigger one here. Feliz was becoming one of the game’s top closers. In 2010 he closed 40/43 chances with a 2.73 ERA. The blown saves did double last year, though he still nailed down 38 games with a 2.74 ERA and has gotten the biggest outs of the season in the American League Championship Series. Like any closer, he’ll have to drastically change his approach. Feliz threw over 80 percent fastballs and now that he has to stretch himself out we’ll see if he can lower that number into the 65 percent range or so, and get outs with his breaking stuff.

That’s the core five that Ron Washington is going with. Another option that’s available to him is Alexi Ogando. The 28-year-old was in the rotation last year with 29 starts resulting in a good 3.51 ERA. Although he did tail off a bit after a monster April and May. He’s clearly a two-pitch pitcher, with the fastball and slider. The ESPN scouting report says he goes to the slider, his secondary pitch 29 percent of the time. By comparison, Lewis, Harrison and Holland (the three we have starting pitching data on) use their fastballs a comparable amount, but spread the breaking pitches around more evenly. Hence, Ogando would fit the scouting profile of a reliever, although it has to be nice for Ron Washington to know he has a proven option to start as the season develops.

Texas has good depth here. They were confident enough to deal 25-year-old Tommy Hunter at the trade deadline last year to Baltimore for bullpen help in 37-year-old Koji Uehara. Hunter had pitched well as part of the 2010 rotation, winning 13 games in 22 starts with a 3.73 ERA, part of a steady improvement. He did not start for Texas last year, but was pitching well in relief before a shoulder injury, and then the trade sent him to Baltimore. I bring this up, because this season is when I think Texas will regret this deal. If Feliz doesn’t pan out as a starter, it would be nice to have Hunter on hand as a fallback and allow Ogando to stay in the bullpen. Or even better, just open the season with Hunter as the fifth starter and let Feliz-Ogando be part of a dynamic bullpen. Either way, a pitcher with promise—question marks to be sure, given the condition of his shoulder—was let loose for an aging reliever.

Overall though, this is a good starting rotation and one reason I think Texas is going to win 90-95 games this season. The problem is the lack of a true #1 starter—with C.J. Wilson having gone to rival Los Angeles, in the Angels’ “other” big free-agent signing—puts them a step behind the Angels in the division, and that means going into a one-game wild-card shootout with a team lacking the same kind of rotational depth, but more likely to have an ace ideally suited for such a game.