The Texas Rangers’ hopes for contention in the strong AL West depends on whether their starting pitching can take a step forward. The club enters the year with more uncertainty at the position than they’ve experienced in recent seasons. In the past, the team had enough depth at the position to survive a let-down or injury. With Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz out until at least mid-season, the club could be in trouble if any of their top-five options falter.
Following an uneven debut season, Yu Darvish assumes the role of the team’s “ace” this year. Darvish showed the ability to become one of the game’s most dominant pitchers in April and September, but was a bit uneven the other four months of the season. The most promising aspect of Darvish’s game was that his ability to strike out hitters translated to the majors. His 27.1% strikeout rate was the second highest among all qualified pitchers. The only thing holding him back was a 10.9% walk rate, which ranked as the fourth worst among qualified starters. Darvish was able to improve on his control during the final month of the year, but it’s unclear if that’s a sign he’s adapting to pitching in the U.S., or a result of facing lesser competition once rosters expanded. If it’s a matter of Darvish trusting his stuff and getting used to the strike zone here, he should be in for some improvement this season. If he’s the type of pitcher who will always struggle to throw strikes, he likely won’t get much better than last year. Still, what he did last season was pretty darn impressive.
The second spot in the rotation will likely go to Matt Harrison, based on his performance and consistency over the last two years. Harrison doesn’t have the ideal skill set for pitching in Texas, and walks a tightrope, but has enough control, and gets enough ground balls to make it work. Since he’s not a big strikeout pitcher, his main draw in fantasy leagues is going to be his ability to post an ERA in the low-threes. Owners expecting a repeat might be disappointed, as Harrison has outperformed both his FIP and SIERA in each of the past two years. As long as he stays in Texas, that’s going to be a major concern.
The team’s rotation will look a lot better if Derek Holland can regain his form. In both 2010 and 2011, Holland showed a lot of promise, leading him to be a strong fantasy sleeper over the past two seasons. He went backwards last year, dealing with an illness that sapped his strength and velocity, and eventually landed him on the disabled list. Assuming Holland is over those issues, he should return to his 2010 and 2011 form. But even if that happens, he might struggle to post an above-average ERA. If Holland has a glaring weakness, it’s his propensity to give up a ton of home runs. That’s really hurt him in Texas, where he’s given up 48 home runs in 284.2 innings with a 5.34 ERA and a 4.76 FIP. Until he shows improvement at home, or gets traded, Holland should probably only be started when he pitches on the road.
Alexi Ogando returns to the rotation after a year in the bullpen. Ogando has performed well in both roles, but will have much more value out of the rotation. As expected, Ogando will lose some velocity in the rotation, though it should be noted that he averaged 95 mph with the pitch in 2011. That figure would have tied David Price as the best among starting pitchers last season. With the velocity loss, and the fact that he’ll be facing opponents multiple times, Ogando shouldn’t be expected to strike out a batter per innings again. He’s still a valuable fantasy starter, and may have a shot at out-producing both Harrison and Holland by the end of the year.
Martin Perez has been around forever, but he’s entering his age-22 season, and should win the fifth starter’s spot during the spring. Perez’s numbers haven’t been all that impressive over the past two years, but prospect analysts have pointed to his age as a reason to be patient. At the same time, the team seems ready to see what Perez can do now. Based on his recent years, there’s no real reason to expect him to excel immediately. He’s the type of player that should be scooped up on the waiver wire at the first sign of success, but carries too much risk to be selected on draft day.
The Rangers could look to move one of those players once Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz are healthy. Lewis has a big problem with home runs, but has been good enough to get by despite pitching in Texas. Based on Lewis’ previous performance with the team, he’ll likely push someone out of the rotation once he’s ready to return. It’s not clear what role Feliz will play when he comes back. The team could once again shift him to the bullpen if that’s where he’s needed. Unless the Rangers desperately need him to be a starter on the big-league club, they could always let him build up some stamina in the minors before promoting him to the rotation. He still has incredible potential as a starter, but he’s been so successful in the pen that there’s some concern the team will just stick him there and leave him alone.
If one of their starting five falters or succumbs to injury before Lewis or Feliz are ready, the team could turn to Justin Grimm. Grimm made two starts with the club last season, and is considered one of the team’s top-10 prospects. Our own Marc Hulet has said Grimm could eventually turn into a three-or-four starter once he hits his prime.
The Rangers have ability, but won’t have their usual depth in the rotation until mid-season. If all goes right, they could stand out as one of the more solid rotations in the game. But if things go poorly, the team could easily fall behind both the Angels and the Athletics in the AL West.
Early Depth Chart
1. Yu Darvish
2. Matt Harrison
3. Derek Holland
4. Alexi Ogando
5. Martin Perez
6. Colby Lewis
7. Neftali Feliz
8. Justin Grimm
9. Robbie Ross