2015 Preview: The Rotation

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The abomination that was the 2014 Texas Rangers rotation was born around this time last year. Derek Holland had an accident. Whatever you want to believe happened – pick-up basketball/hockey game, tripping over his dog, Wrigley – Holland started the season on the disabled list, and stayed there for a long time. From there, the hits kept on coming and spread to every part of the roster. I won’t bore you with the numbers, as they’re now a well-known part of Rangers lore. The bottom line is that the Rangers rotation was doomed from the start, and it’s time to settle things down. This week, let’s look at the Starting Five.

In 2014: As mentioned above, the problems started with Holland’s knee injury. As spring training progressed, Yu Darvish developed a shoulder strain and his eventual Opening Day assignment, which would have been the first of his career, went to bullpen-ace-turned-starter Tanner Scheppers.

When you start the season with the guy that bridged the 8th inning for you last year in a completely foreign position, it’s probably an ominous sign.

“Oh well,” everyone said. Matt Harrison and Martin Perez would be around. Nick Martinez won’t need to be used for more than two starts. Derek Holland will be back in June, because he said he would be and he works his tail off. Colby Lewis would come back eventually, and Darvish would only be delayed by a start.

Of those three sentences, only one was correct. Darvish came back the next week and Colby made his return the week after. Harrison only made four starts before being shelved with a potentially career threatening back injury. Perez succumbed to the Tommy John epidemic after three straight games of less than five innings pitched, and more than 5 runs surrendered (those were preceded by two straight complete game shutouts, though). Holland’s return date kept getting pushed farther and farther back as it became more evident that there was no need to rush the lefty’s ‘14 debut for a postseason run. Martinez became a centerpiece in the rotation, filling in as admirably as he could for 24 starts at 140.1 innings. Martinez, however, was definitely thrust into the fire, as were many ‘14 Rangers, a year or two earlier than he should have been. Even Darvish’s year was bookended by injuries, and the only starter to “anchor” the rotation was Colby Lewis at 29 starts and 170.1 innings pitched.

As for the other starters that made up the rotation throughout the season? Nick Tepesch, Robbie Ross, Miles Mikolas, Scott Baker, Joe Saunders (OOPS), Jerome Williams (OOPS), Lisalverto Bonilla, and Phil Irwin. While it was nice to see the continued development of Tepesch, the debut of Mikolas, and Michael Young continuing to help the Rangers win games (through Bonilla), there’s no doubt few expected to see as much of these three as we did.

Tepesch was the guy that many believed needed to use the ‘14 season as a way of proving that he can be a reliable middle-to-back-end rotation piece. He made some strides towards that as he was one of the more reliable starters from August through the end of the year. It’s still a known problem that he has troubles getting through a lineup the third time around.

Martinez yielded a decent month of September, never giving up more than 2 runs in a start, but he only pitched into the 7th inning once. Scott Baker was a bullpen savior on more than one occasion in the second half of the season, even making three consecutive starts at one point.

The return of Holland in September was the biggest sign of hope for 2015. Even though there was nothing on the line, Holland pitched with a proverbial chip on his shoulder, throwing to a 1.46 ERA over his five starts and one relief appearance. His fastball was electric, his breaking balls definitive, and his demeanor was that of an ace on a team without a number one. It was the Derek Holland we wanted to see all year, and the one we hope to see return in 2015, right behind Yu Darvish.

In 2015: At the beginning of the ‘14, it looked like the Rangers rotation was going to be set in stone for the next three years. Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Martin Perez, Matt Harrison, and maybe Colby Lewis thrown in to break up the lefties. Barring injuries, only 3/5 of that combination will make it into 2015.

Darvish has been in Arlington since November, having had an MRI on his elbow come back clean. He has been on a throwing program, and looks to be on track to be the Rangers’ Opening Day starter in Oakland on April 6th. With two more years left on his contract (three more if Darvish decides to exercise his option to remain with the club after 2016), Darvish still struggles a little with pitching more efficiently. He made huge strides towards this in ‘14, continuing to be a strikeout pitcher, but learning to attack more with his fastball instead of nibbling at the corners and being “cute” with his pitches. His health and continued dominance are a definitive factor in the Rangers not needing to go after an available front-line starter like Cole Hamels, Max Scherzer or Jon Lester. He is the ace of this staff and will need to perform as such this year for the Rangers to be contenders.

We’ve already talked about Holland. Pitching with something to prove, not just to himself, but to the club, certainly worked out well for him. That’s the Derek Holland the Rangers signed to a multi-year extension after 2011 and the one they’re going to need to form a lethal one-two punch at the top of the rotation in ‘15.

The newest Ranger pitcher, Yovani Gallardo, is going to garner most of the media attention. He’s no Cole Hamels, but the Rangers honestly didn’t need a Cole Hamels. They needed a supporting cast to Darvish and Holland. Gallardo fits that profile. He was the ace on the Brewers staff, but only by default. He doesn’t have to be a number one starter down here in Texas, and for a guy that never pitched less than 180 innings per season in his career, that’s huge for a number three starter. The hometown Gallardo has also made at least 30 starts each of the past 6 seasons. It’s been known that his 6.8 K/9 ratio last season was the lowest of his career, but the ground ball to fly ball ratio has increased gradually over his career (a couple of negligible dips), which means his style fits well to the infield of Beltre, Andrus and Odor. Also, pitching in a contract year and making just under what the qualifying offer would have been for him, had the Brewers not exercised their option, figures to be a great motivator for his next big contract. Could that come in Texas? That would also be a motivating factor being from Fort Worth, and having a son that goes to school in the North Texas area. A productive season with the Rangers could equal a nice permanent spot for Gallardo in the middle of the Texas rotation.

Lewis is technically considered a free agent signing, but there were no thoughts from anybody, Colby included, that he was going to ever be on another team. Given his preference to stay in Texas, along with his ground-breaking, remarkable performance as the ‘14 year went on, Lewis was going to be a Ranger. Were his initial starts coming back from hip resurfacing and flexor tendon surgery rough? Absolutely. Did he improve as the season wore on and proved to be the workhorse we’ve always known? Definitely. Colby threw less than 6 innings only twice in the last two months (ten starts) of the season and he ended up with two complete games and one shutout in August. Completely pain-free and on a rehab-less throwing program for ‘15, it’s not inconceivable that Colby could eat up a majority of innings again and be effective while doing it.

That leaves the fifth spot. Does that go to trade acquisition Ross Detwiler, who hasn’t started regularly in two years, but proved that he can do it at the major league level with a 10-8, 3.40 ERA 2012 season with 27 starts? Does it go to Nick Martinez, who came out of nowhere last year and showed that the unexpected rocket of a major league season he was strapped to wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, but still needs development? Do the Rangers go with Lisalverto Bonilla, who, over his only three starts with Texas gave up just four runs against two of three teams still in a competitive pennant race? Or is it Nick Tepesch, who now has the equivalent of a full major league season under his belt, has the repertoire to be a back-end starter, but still has trouble making in-game adjustments? Or could the Rangers go with someone else? Spring Training is a short month away, and the Rangers look far better equipped to handle starting pitching injuries this year than they did last season.

Don’t forget about Martin Perez. While he may not figure to be anywhere near the major league club until July at the earliest, he could still prove to be a shot in the arm for the club down the stretch. He’s also in the club’s long-term plans, so getting looks at him this year will be vital to how the team shapes up after ‘15.

Hot Stove: If you ask me, the Rangers are done with rotation moves for this winter. There are other areas of need that should be addressed on the other side of the ball. The acquisitions of Gallardo and Detwiler will force competition for that final rotation spot and for who gets recalled first if the need arises. All along, Jon Daniels was saying that the rotation was going to be the focus for this Hot Stove season…but perhaps the biggest play he wants to make isn’t going to be in the starting five at all.

How do you feel about the 2015 rotation? Who would you slot in for the fifth starter? Do you still want to see the Rangers go after someone like James Shields or Cole Hamels? Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts. Next week, we’ll go from pitchers to catchers, as we take a look at who controls the game from behind the plate for the Rangers.

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Matt Fisher
Matt Fisher is an Editor/Staff Writer for ShutdownInning. He is a baseball lifer, preferring to use the eye test and rely on the knowledge and analysis of baseball minds greater than his, while using relevant stats to encourage situational discussions. He is also co-host of The Most Valuable Podcast on the NextWave Radio Network, talking sports, entertainment, and sports entertainment.

While Matt's favorite team will always be his hometown Texas Rangers, he knows the ongoing story lines of every team in Major League Baseball. If you sit next to him at a game, be prepared to hear him try and do play-by-play. If you're famous and reading this, just know that he's not afraid to drop names.

Matt Fisher. ShutdownInning Editor/Staff Writer

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