Is Waiting For Health The Right Strategy?

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After an exhilarating, commanding, and all-around-good-baseball sweep of the Red Sox this weekend, the Rangers are tied for the best record in all of baseball. Unlike prior versions of Texas teams, it is not the offense that is carrying the club, but the pitching. The Rangers have the best team ERA in baseball (2nd-best starting pitching ERA, 6th-best relief pitching ERA), are tied for the most shutouts, and are the only squad without a blown save on the year. You might say things are going well.
You might say it’s impossible to imagine things going better when you include the not-insignificant note that the Rangers are missing Colby Lewis, Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria, Martin Perez, and for all intents and purposes Matt Harrison from that group of pitchers allowing fewer earned runs than any other unit.

While we can appreciate what the pitching staff has done to this point in the year, the more pressing issue is whether that can be sustained for the rest of the season. Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm have come up huge, providing #3 starter type results from the #7 and #8 starters on the team, but as the league learns them and the hot summer months roll around, can they sustain their success?

Can a bullpen that has Jason Frasor and Michael Kirkman pitching high-leverage innings, and that has relied heavily on the unproven Joseph Ortiz continue to hold leads into the late innings? Bullpens are year-to-year propositions, but that saying works on a month-to-month level too.

Even after the hot start, if you still have your doubts about the sustainability of this success, there is still the fallback of all the pitching the Rangers will be getting off the disabled list during the season to give the club a shot in the arm. Many will say this has the same effect of a trade, except without the other side of the equation that requires giving up something in the deal.

If that last part of that paragraph sounds familiar, it’s because you heard the same thing with regularity during the 2012 season.

Instead of continuing what had seemed to be an annual tradition of making significant trades that filled noteworthy holes on the Rangers pitching staff, last year the Rangers took a wait-for-health approach. On July 1, Jon Daniels said, “if we get healthy on the pitching side and stay healthy with the hitters, that’s going to be our biggest room for improvement. I don’t anticipate, necessarily, being real active. But we’ll see what happens.”

The Rangers did trade for Ryan Dempster, but that wasn’t the kind of splash that was on the same level as acquiring Cliff Lee, or snagging Mike Adams and Koji Uehara as in years past. Instead, the Rangers game plan included waiting for Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, and Uehara to return from the disabled list as that mid-season pitching staff boost.

Instead, the way it played out, Uehara (1.23 ERA post-injury) was the only one of those four where that plan worked. Feliz underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery, and Holland (4.40 ERA post-injury) and Ogando (4.60 ERA post-injury) returned, but were not very effective. On top of that, Colby Lewis threw what would be his last pitch of the 2012 season on July 18th. After the trade deadline, Robbie Ross missed time due to injury, Mike Adams had to fight through thoracic outlet syndrome, and Roy Oswalt (for whatever he was worth) dealt with back and elbow issues. The Rangers pitching staff never got healthy.

It’s not just the sting of this plan not working out in 2012 that gives me pause about the Rangers following a similar path in 2013. Pitchers getting hurt is always a risk that should be planned for. I think the Rangers did the best they could last year, and got a little unlucky. If they do the same this year, their fortunes could reverse.

My main concern about the Rangers simply waiting to get healthy this year is that the effectiveness of Lewis, Soria, and Feliz in 2013 is not guaranteed. All three of these pitchers had major elbow surgery in 2012. Soria and Feliz underwent Tommy John surgery (Soria’s second), and Lewis had a torn flexor tendon repaired.

Recent history shows that while pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery usually follow a 12-month timetable to make their return, it’s typically 18 or 24 months before they are back to their “usual” selves (see Joe Nathan), if they make it back at all.

Soria’s surgery was on April 1, 2012. Lewis went under the knife on July 25, 2012. Feliz had his surgery on August 1, 2012.

I’m not a buff on injuries, rehabilitation, or the latest updates in medicine, but looking at it being Soria’s second TJ surgery, Lewis’ age, and Feliz’s surgery date, I would speculate it is a high probability that not all three of these pitchers return this year, and that instead we may only see one of them give the club the shot in the arm it may need. This doesn’t include Harrison, who could suffer if his back issues continue to nag him this season, or Perez, who we still don’t know for sure if he can produce at the big league level, even when fully healthy.

This isn’t a problem right now. There isn’t a pitching issue to fix; no trades that need to be made and no one that needs to be hurried back from injury. At some point this season, however, you have to plan for exactly that situation. You can hope that Grimm, Tepesch, and even Ogando and Holland keep producing as they have so far, or you can hope that Soria/Lewis/Feliz bounce back from injury just fine, but hope isn’t much of a plan.

The Rangers are in a season of pitching abundance. There is no better time to prepare for the season of pitching famine, for it is most certainly going to come, and if you aren’t prepared for its arrival, it only makes its effects feel that much stronger.  

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM

Peter Ellwood

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