The Rangers have wasted little time waxing nostalgic on the C.J. Wilson era, as they have topped the bidding for Yu Darvish with a reported record $51.7 million bid that could keep their rotation forever young.
We have killed a lot of fake internet trees on Mr. Darvish already this offseason. The half-Iranian, half-Japanese righty should be better than Daisuke Matsuzaka, and a good comp for him is Jordan Zimmermann. To be certain, there is room for a pitcher like this on the Rangers. If they so desire, Darvish could even start on Opening Day, though the depth in the rotation gives them the luxury of starting him anywhere from one through five. The question is, how do they make him fit?
The Rangers now boast an embarrassment of riches on their pitching staff. They already had five starters, plus Scott Feldman, as well as two prospects (Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez) who could be ready for primetime with good first halves. With Darvish, they now have a minimum of six Major League starters, which could lead to a few different scenarios:
– A starter is traded. This seems the most likely option on the board. Of the group, Colby Lewis would be the pitcher that would be most likely to be on the block. None of the other members in the Rangers’ quintet — Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando — are even arbitration eligible yet. Lewis is in the last year of his deal, and is priced at the modest sum of $3.25 million. That price tag, along with his durability — he is just one of 33 pitchers to accumulate at least 400 innings over the past two seasons — as well as the dearth of good starting pitching options left on the market would make him a desirable commodity. If they deal him, the oldest member of the Rangers rotation next year will be Ogando at 28, though since he has not pitched his whole life, his arm is just as fresh as the younger guns.
– Alexi Ogando moves back to the bullpen. Ogando was doing a great job in a relief role last postseason until the World Series started, and then he promptly erased all his positive work by posting negative WPA’s in four of his six Fall Classic appearances. Still, while Ogando succeeded as a starter this season, you could make the case for him moving back to a relief role, particularly because of his mainly two-pitch mix. Ogando would give the ‘pen a veritable hydra of power right-handed arms, lessening the need to rely on Joe Nathan.
– Neftali Feliz never becomes a starter. Of course, just as easily as it could be Ogando moving back to the ‘pen, it could be Feliz simply staying there. The Rangers might not be able to get a full 200 innings out of Feliz this year in a starting capacity, and with the Angels now pushing all in, the Rangers might not want to worry about Feliz wearing down in the second half.
– The Rangers keep them all. The Rangers don’t necessarily have to do anything. If they wanted to get creative, they could carry one less pitcher, making both Feldman and Lewis swingmen/long men that can soak up innings in front of Nathan, Mike Adams, Yoshinori Tateyama and Koji Uehara. In this way, they would be protected against Feliz wearing down in the second half but still have enough innings to squeeze value out of Lewis. Here again we come back to the point of having good depth. While it would make sense to trade Lewis if he can fetch a good return, it would also make sense to keep him in the bullpen. Last year, the Rangers needed 447 innings from their bullpen. Assuming the front four throw somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 innings a piece, there would be somewhere north of 200 innings of ball left to pitch. Now, depending on how Ron Washington manages the bullpen, Lewis and Feldman might not be able to soak up all of those innings, but they would get the majority of them. In addition, it keeps a solid backup plan in place in case Feliz needs his innings managed. It even gives them the option of running out a six-man rotation. After all, Darvish pitched frequently on five days rest instead of four in Japan.
If the Rangers do decide to trade Lewis, it essentially means that Darvish and Feliz will have replaced Wilson and Lewis. Does the Darvish/Feliz side of that equation have more potential? Absolutely. Darvish will be 25 this season, and Feliz will be just 24, which is a veritable fountain of youth compared to Wilson (31) and Lewis (32). But it also comes with a lot more risk. It’s not fair to just hand waive that and say that it should come out in the wash, because we haven’t seen either Darvish or Feliz throw a full season of Major League ball yet. That in and of itself is the best reason to keep Lewis in the fold.
Assuming the Rangers and Darvish agree on a deal, this night will go down as a landmark night for the franchise. While it’s a move that should bolster the Rangers rotation — a rotation that could see the same five guys locked in for the next three-four years — this is likely not the last move the Rangers will make this offseason. But if it all works out, the Rangers will have pulled off the rarest of feats — maintaining or improving the quality of their rotation while simultaneously getting younger. They will pay a steep price for the chance, and the moves are fraught with risk, but the Rangers have done their due diligence and have been more right than wrong the past few years, so it will be fascinating to see how this plays out.