Rangers' arms to carry weight of expectations
Changes in lineup place emphasis on starting rotation
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Left-handers Matt Harrison and Derek Holland were the first two pitchers to throw off a mound on a cold Tuesday morning in Surprise. That seems appropriate.
Harrison was the Rangers Pitcher of the Year in 2012 and is the leading candidate to be the Opening Day starter this season. Holland is the guy that one person said really needs to step up for the Rangers and start pitching like he should this season.
The person who said it was Holland.
"Yeah, I think a lot of this falls on me," Holland said on Monday as Rangers pitchers and catchers officially reported to Spring Training. "I feel like this is a big year for me."
2012 American League rotations ranked by ERA
Actually it seems to fall on Holland, Harrison, Yu Darvish, Alexi Ogando and a fifth starter to be named. In an ironic and unexpected turn of events for the Rangers, they go into a season looking at their starting rotation as being the No. 1 asset on the team, something they haven't been able to claim since maybe the mid-1970s.
"It has a chance to be really good," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said of the rotation. "When we [the White Sox] faced those guys before, it wasn't fun, especially the left-handers Harrison and Holland. Darvish has the makings of a No. 1 starter. There is a lot of talent in the rotation. It has a chance to be something special."
The question is: Is this turn of events because the offense has fallen off, or have the Rangers finally achieved their goal of starting pitching being the strength of the team?
"It's hopefully the latter," general manager Jon Daniels said. "It's just been an organizational commitment that we've talked about for years but it is far from a finished product. We still have an opening for the fifth spot and the other four have room for improvement. But we're excited about what we have."
The Rangers' lineup over the past 25 years has been dominated by some of the best offensive players in the American League but they have also had some pretty good rotations in the past. They had a good one in 2011.
That was the year that Harrison, Holland, Ogando, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis stayed healthy the entire season. The Rangers won the division for the second straight year as the rotation went a combined record of 74-40 with a 3.65 ERA. The 74 wins were the 11th most by an American League rotation since the beginning of the 2000 season and the second most in club history.
Rangers starters won 72 games in 2012 but didn't have the same magical luck with injuries. In 2011, the top five starters were on the mound for 157 of 162 games. Last year, after Darvish and Neftali Feliz replaced Wilson and Ogando, the five starters out of Spring Training started just 111 games.
Lewis and Feliz were lost for the year with mid-season elbow surgeries while Holland missed a month because of the effects of a wicked stomach virus. After winning 16 games in 2011, Holland slipped to 12-7 with a 4.67 ERA during 2012.
"In a way, yeah it was frustrating, but in a way, no," Holland said. "To go through all the sickness and injury and be able to recover, I think I did a good job of that. But it's frustrating to miss a month and not have the year I thought I would have."
Ogando's season also got derailed by injury. He started the season in the bullpen but was given a chance to start against the Giants on June 10 when the rotation was getting clobbered by injuries. He pitched three shutout innings, then strained his right groin muscle beating out a bunt. He missed five weeks.
"Frustrating ... It was the adrenaline for the game," Ogando said.
The Rangers like their four starters because they're all still under 30, they are talented and they are under contract or control for the next 4-6 years. If the Rangers pick up everybody's various options, then Harrison and Holland will be in Texas through 2018 and Darvish through 2017. Ogando doesn't have a long-term contract yet but isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season.
The lineup, on the other hand, went through upheaval in the offseason and the end is not in sight. Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli left as free agents and Michael Young was traded to the Phillies. Outfielders David Murphy and Nelson Cruz can be free agents after this season, and Elvis Andrus can leave after 2014. With Pierzynski and designated hitter Lance Berkman working on one-year deals, there is a possibility that six of nine players in the projected Opening Day lineup could be gone after the 2014 season.
"We can't look at all of that as pitchers," Harrison said. "We just have to focus on getting outs. We still have a good lineup. I know we lost some talent but I still think we can hold our own offensively and be there at the end of the year."
The Rangers expect Harrison to maintain his steady improvement and they expect Darvish to be even better after going through a transitional first year in the United States. They know Holland has terrific talent but want him more focused in his job. Holland has responded, doing some work with team psychologist Don Kalkstein and vowing to cut down on his many radio and television gigs and other outside interests.
Said one member of the Rangers, "He needs to understand that David Price isn't out there on Twitter, he's out there trying to make his changeup better."
Ogando, who dominated as a reliever because of a 97-mph fastball, still has work to do as a starter. He was 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA as a starter in 2011 but went 4-5 with a 4.48 ERA after his appearance in the All-Star Game. Part of it was fatigue and part of it was the league catching up with a pitcher still developing his repertoire. He needs more than just a fastball away with the occasional slider.
"He needs to use more offspeed stuff and he needs to use both sides of the plate," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "I think his endurance was fine. He was dealing with a blister that usually kicked in at about 80 pitches. That went on for four or five starts but once we got through that, his endurance was fine."
The Rangers still need to find a fifth starter but they also know Lewis could return from flexor tendon surgery by June 1 or earlier. So far, his rehabilitation process has come off without a setback since the July 27 surgery.
The Rangers did try to upgrade their rotation this winter with their pursuit of Zack Greinke and James Shields. But after failing to acquire either pitcher, the Rangers backed off and were content to stay with what they have. Kyle Lohse, who won 16 games for the Cardinals in 2012, remains a free agent but the Rangers are passing on that one.
"We like the guys we have," manager Ron Washington said. "We just need for them to keep doing what they're doing and continue to improve. We like the arms we have in the rotation, we really do."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.