The 2014 Rotation Puzzle

After a season in which we saw the Rangers send eleven different starting pitchers to the mound to start a game, Texas is looking for the rotation to have a healthy rebound in 2014. However, Derek Holland has already hurt himself at home, and isn’t expected to be back until midseason. How does the rest of the rotation shake out in his absence?
Last year was a disappointment when it came to starting pitching. Out of the starting five, only Derek Holland managed to stay off the DL, and two of the best starters on this team made a grand total of 2 starts (Matt Harrison 2, Colby Lewis 0). Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm tied for the fifth most starts made with 17 each. It’s safe to say that had their starting pitching held up, the Rangers would have visited the postseason for the fourth straight season. It didn’t, and the Rangers need a big year from their starters in a big way. Here’s the rotation depth chart according to

1. Yu Darvish
2. Derek Holland
3. Martin Perez
4. Alexi Ogando
5. Matt Harrison
6. Nick Tepesch

Now, I don’t think any of us take this as something that is set in stone, especially even before pitchers and catchers report in 4 days. We know that Holland is out for awhile, which creates a hole in the rotation that I think Matt Harrison must fill in a big way. Harrison, who missed almost the entire 2013 season, is coming off of a career year in 2012 that saw him get a contract extension of 5 years/$55 million. Texas is banking on the 28 year old to shake off any remaining rust in Spring Training, and to hit the ground running as the team’s number 2 starter behind Yu Darvish.

Darvish is the unquestionable ace of the staff. 2013 saw him break out for a 2.83 ERA over 209.2 IP while leading the league in strikeouts and holding hitters to a paltry .194 BA. He is one of the few aces in the American League, and the Rangers certainly expect him to improve on a season in which he finished second in the Cy Young award voting (behind Detroit’s Max Scherzer).

After Darvish and Harrison, the Rangers’ rotation picture starts to look a little murky. It seems that Martin Perez will break camp as the team’s number 3 starter after he racked up a solid season after he was called up from Round Rock on June 22. When doing my research, I was surprised to see some of Perez’s stats, and that they weren’t necessarily as good as I thought they would be. He posted a respectable 3.62 ERA over 124.1 IP, but also allowed 1.335 WHIP and .267 BA. Both of those numbers are definitely higher than you would like to see, but they should be viewed with the knowledge that he was a 22 year old rookie in 2013.  Having just signed a very team-friendly contract extension for 4 years/$12.5 million, Martin should be please a lot of people within the organization for years to come.

Some would make the case for Ogando to be the Rangers’ third starter when the team breaks camp in Surprise, but I’m not so sure he belongs in the rotation to begin with. My caution with him is his health. Ogando had three separate trips to the DL in 2013, and if my memory serves me well, at least two of them were due to shoulder problems. I am hesitant to trust that Ogando’s arm can hold up for a full season as a starting pitcher. He’s obviously talented, and with a crowded crew of right-handers in the bullpen, everyone would love to see him fill the need in the rotation. Below are his stats split up as a reliever and as a starter over the past four seasons (reliever in 2010 and 2012, starter in 2011 and 2013). I think Ogando starts the season as the fourth starter for the Rangers, mostly because while I consider him to be a more effective reliever, I also consider his value to be much higher as a starting pitcher on this team than in the bullpen.

2010 26 4 1 .800 1.30 44 41.2 16 39 348 1.128 6.7 0.4 3.5 8.4 2.44
2011 27 13 8 .619 3.51 31 169.0 43 126 126 1.136 7.9 0.9 2.3 6.7 2.93
2012 28 2 0 1.000 3.27 58 66.0 17 66 134 1.000 6.7 1.2 2.3 9.0 3.88
2013 29 7 4 .636 3.11 23 104.1 41 72 133 1.227 7.5 0.9 3.5 6.2 1.76
With Derek Holland going on the DL, there is a definite spot in the rotation that is up for grabs. As the Rangers normally do, this year they have signed some veteran pitchers that can be classified as “used goods” in hopes of discovering that spark once again. This year (so far at least), that list includes Armando Galarraga (the same one who came to Texas in 2007 in the Brad Wilkerson trade, and the same one that had his Perfect Game blown by umpire Jim Joyce in 2010), and Tommy Hanson. When it comes to names that Rangers fans are familiar with, we can expect Robbie Ross, Colby Lewis, Tanner Scheppers, Nick Tepesch, and Michael Kirkman to compete for the job.

Colby Lewis, who missed the entire 2013 season due to hip and elbow surgeries, enjoyed moderate success as a reclamation project for Texas from 2010-2012, and has been arguably their best player in the postseason during those years. In 2012, his last full season, while pitching through constant pain, Lewis put up some very respectable numbers: 3.43 ERA, 1.076 WHIP, 8.0 K/BB. Pitching Coach Mike Maddux has told reporters that Lewis finally looks healthy throwing off a mound, which is certainly encouraging. I think it is safe to say that should Colby Lewis prove to be healthy and effective in Spring Training, the 5th spot is his.

Last year, Nick Tepesch was ushered into the rotation and enjoyed early success and was awarded the Rookie of the Month award for April while posting a 2.53 ERA and a 1.078 WHIP. But the rest of the league quickly figured him out, and his ERA and WHIP both rose dramatically in May and June to the tune of 4.94 and 1.463, and 5.97 and 1.389, respectively. Most of the damage against him came after the batters had gotten a look at him. Check out these eye-popping splits:

1st time through lineup: .158/.220/.252

2nd time: .270/.336/.405

3rd time: .451/.478/.720

It should be noted that 2013 was only his third year of professional baseball and that he’s only 25, but I think that he fits the bill as a long-man/spot starter out of the bullpen for this team. Based on his success in facing batters only once, I could also see him being utilized as a 7th inning man if the Rangers need one or have a better candidate for the long-man role.

Robbie Ross was arguably the team’s biggest surprise in 2012, when he came into 58 games and managed to earn himself an ERA of only 2.22. The lefty fell back to Earth a bit in 2013 with a 3.03 ERA, and allowing left-handed batters to post a massive .344 BA against him, a full 145 points higher than righties managed. He will only be 24 years old at the start of the season, so it’s conceivable that he could switch to the rotation at this stage in his career (although, in 3 minor league seasons, he was exclusively used as a starter and had considerable success, including a 2.34 ERA and a 1.041 WHIP over 161.1 IP in 2011, the year before the Rangers made him into a reliever on the big club). His splits against righties/lefties make me hesitant to commit to him facing 20 batters per game. I also find his value as one of the few lefties we have available to come out of the bullpen to be crucial. Then again, he could surprise everyone in Spring Training like he did in 2012, and force himself into the rotation.I am very interested in seeing how Ross does in Surprise this year.

Michael Kirkman has been mentioned as a candidate to break camp as the team’s 5th starter, but I cannot see that happening unless he absolutely tears up the Cactus League this spring. In fact, I would venture to say that his odds of making the team are less than 50/50. Kirkman, who has never started at the major league level, posted an 8.18 ERA over 25 games in 2012 before his season was cut short by a bout with skin cancer. Now cancer-free, Kirkman is looking to earn a spot on the 25-man roster, but I’m not sure that there’s a spot for him on the team right now. He has made plenty of starts in the minors, and had an impressive 2.97 ERA as a starter for AAA Oklahoma City in 2010. He is a left hander, which may factor into Washington & Co.’s decision, but Kirkman would need a stellar spring to force himself into that conversation.

When it comes to Tanner Scheppers, all I can say is no. I think he’s more important in the back of our bullpen than as a 5th starter. He has only started 12 games in the minors, none in the majors, and none since April 2011, where he went 2.2 innings for AAA Round Rock. He is a lethal weapon for this team as a set-up man, and much like with Neftali Feliz, I don’t think the Rangers should mess with what works. Who knows, he could even break camp with his job description being to end games rather than start them.

You may remember Tommy Hanson as a young stud for the Braves, and then a flop for the LA Angles, and now you can think of him as a Texas Ranger. Texas just inked him to a $2 million contract plus incentives, clearly as a reclamation project to see if they can put some life back into that arm of his (not unlike the Colby Lewis signing four years ago). Hanson finished 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting in 2009 when he put up a 2.89 ERA as a 22 year old, but has slipped as far as having a 5.42 ERA last year with the Angles. The Rangers scouting team must see something in him though, and that is reason enough for me to keep tabs on him this spring. Besides, when did pitching depth ever hurt anybody? Let’s hope he ends up more like Colby Lewis than Brandon Webb or Rich Harden.

I don’t really have much to say about Armando Galarraga, other than he pitched in 3 games for Texas in 2007, and almost spun a perfect game in 2010 while with Detroit. He got 5 starts last season with the Astros and managed a bloated 7.50 ERA with a WHIP of almost 2. I would say that he has a worse chance than Hanson to break camp with the team, and that is not particularly a good thing. He has old ties to this organization, so it will be interesting to see what this coaching staff can get out of him.

There’s talk that the Rangers could be in on Suk-min Yoon, a right-hander out of Korea, but he is expected to sign with Baltimore soon, and is coming off of recent shoulder surgery.

So there it is, the 2014 starting rotation puzzle for your Texas Rangers. Who do you think is in? Who do you think is the dark-horse candidate? Should the Rangers add another arm to the roster to bolster the staff? Leave your comments below.

Hayden Smith
Hayden was born and raised in the Metroplex, and is a senior at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is on a mission to visit all of the Major League parks in the nation, and is only 10% there. He would bring back Josh Lewin, like any real fan would.

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