What to watch for in Spring Training – Pitchers
Here’s what Rangers fans should keep an eye on this spring as the Rangers solidify their pitching staff for the 2017 season:
The World Baseball Classic
If you are a fan of baseball you should watch the World Baseball Classic because it’s awesome. If you are a fan of the Rangers you should pay extra close attention to it and pray for no injuries. There are seven Texas Rangers participating in this year’s tournament and three of those are pitchers; Martin Perez will be representing team Venezuela, Sam Dyson will be representing Team USA and Alex Claudio will represent team Puerto Rico.
Some believe that the Classic presents an unnecessary injury risk to star players while others believe that it can be a litmus test for how a player may perform in the regular season. No matter what camp you are in, it’s extremely important that these three pitchers come out of the World Baseball Classic both injury free and with positive momentum on their side. Sam Dyson is the closer and needs to be healthy and strong for an entire 162 game season. Alex Claudio carved out an important role for the Rangers at the end of the 2016 season; with the loss of Jake Diekman for the seasons first half, he will be relied on even more.
Out of the three however, none are more important than the enigmatic Martin Perez.
2016 was Perez’s first full year coming off Tommy John surgery and everyone had high hopes for the young left-hander. While Perez showed flashes of brilliance in 2016, his overall performance did not match expectations. Perez struggled to a 10-11 record with an ERA of 4.39 and a below-average WHIP of 1.414.
In addition to those numbers Perez struck out fewer per 9 innings (4.7) than any other year of his career while also allowing more walks per 9 innings (3.4) since his 5-game rookie stint in 2012. Rangers fans need to see a healthy, sharp, and mentally strong Martin Perez at the World Baseball Classic. If they do, it bodes well for them in 2017.
Typically you would not put much stock into the spring training performance of a veteran pitcher like Cole Hamels. Veterans have a specific routine they follow as they gear up for the season. This means they use their spring training starts to work on specific pitches that they feel need work rather than always trying to dominate the game. Therefore it’s difficult to assess spring training performance and how it will translate into the regular season. However, I am looking for the Cole Hamels of last April-August to show up in spring training.
At the end of August last year, Cole Hamels was one of the front runners for the Cy Young Award in the American League. Hamels carried a record of 14-4 with an ERA of 2.86 and a WHIP of 1.27 into September and seemed poised to not only win the Cy Young but lead the Rangers on a long playoff run.
Hamels instead had a month and a half he would like to forget.
In September and October, Hamels went just 1-1 with an ERA of 5.86 and a WHIP of 1.59. Behind some of his struggles was his lack of control. Hamels would start fine in a game and then seem to lose control; when he did, he could not regain it. As fans, we had become used to Hamels figuring things out in the middle of the game and going on to dominate despite an off inning or two. This did not happen at the end of the regular season and into his one start in the playoffs. His control was especially problematic. His walks per 9 innings went from 3.4 (April-August) to 3.97 (September/October). This lead to shorter outings – by almost an inning per start.
Obviously every pitcher is going to struggle – even the best ones – but what you don’t expect is for a seasoned veteran to struggle over an extended period of time. That is why I think Ranger fans need to see glimpses of the Cole Hamels we are used to this spring. Will he have better control? Can he return to his ways of figuring out things on the fly? Does he still have the stuff to miss bats like his normal self? These are all questions that need to get answered this spring.
Who will be the unexpected star?
In 2015, Keone Kela was the darling of spring training; he parlayed that into an impressive 2015 campaign. In 60.1 innings pitched, Kela had an ERA of 2.39 and WHIP of 1.16, while striking out just over 10 batters per 9 innings while walking just 2.7. Kela’s experience unexpected and necessary success, becoming a key late inning reliever on a division winner.
In 2016, Matt Bush was the talk of spring training. Who was the guy who got out of prison, worked at Golden Corral and was discovered while pitching in a parking lot? They wondered about the player who was a former #1 overall draft pick as a shortstop. It was clear that he had an electric arm, but that was really the extent of what anyone knew about him.
Well, Bush pitched great in spring training, started the year in Frisco and by the middle of May he was a Texas Ranger. Bush went on to dazzle Rangers fans with his power and composure. He pitched 61.2 innings with a 2.48 ERA and a WHIP of .941. Bush became a necessary piece of the Rangers bullpen and was the brightest spot in a year in which the bullpen struggled.
In a Division series full of heartbreak, his yeoman relief work in Game 3 at Toronto (albeit in a losing effort) opened national eyes to what Ranger fans had seen all season.
Who will be the next Matt Bush or Keone Kela? Let’s take a look at some of the candidates:
Mendez is a 22-year-old starting pitching prospect who had a meteoric rise through the Rangers farm system in 2016. He started the year in High Desert, before moving on to Frisco and then Round Rock. In Round Rock, Mendez was lights out, posting an 0.57 ERA in 31 innings with a WHIP of 0.894. That success led to a September call up for Mendez who struggled but gained some valuable Big League experience. While many in the Rangers organization believe that Mendez is still a year or so away, do not be surprised if he challenges that time line.
It’s easy to forget just how good Tanner Scheppers was in 2013. In 76.2 innings, he posted a stellar 1.88 ERA with an above-average WHIP of 1.070. Scheppers was on his way to becoming a staple in the bullpen when he became the latest victim of a failed bid to turn a reliever into a starter. Since the Rangers experiment of trying Scheppers a starter, he has been little more than an afterthought. It wasn’t until late last year – when Scheppers had worked his way all the way back – that he showed that maybe, just maybe, there is still something there. It would not be a surprise if Scheppers builds upon his late 2016 success and earns himself a spot in the Rangers pen.
Leclerc spent most of 2016 in Triple-A Round Rock and pitched well enough to earn call ups in both July and September. He struggled at times with his control, but also showed the ability to strike hitters out. Leclerc also averaged a strike out an inning during his time at the Major League level. If he can show the ability to limit the free pass, he could find himself with a role in the Rangers bullpen.
Mike Hauschild is the second player in three years taken in the Rule 5 draft from the Astros. Delino Deshields became the ultimate Rule 5 surprise for the Rangers in 2015, and they hope Hauschild can have the same type impact. Hauschild’s stats don’t leap off the page, but he has been remarkably consistent in his last two years pitching at the Triple-A level in the Astros organization. In his past two seasons Hauschild recorded an ERA under 3.5 and a WHIP under 1.3. Again, while he doesn’t leap off the page, the Rangers don’t need that from their 5th starter. They need someone who can give them a consistent effort and eat up innings. Hauschild has his chance with the Rangers; here’s hoping he takes it and runs with it.
Who takes spots 4 and 5 in the rotation?
The top three starters in the Rangers rotation appear to be set with Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Martin Perez. Starters 4 and 5 are not settled, and that makes it a storyline in Surprise.
Andrew Cashner signed a 1-year, $10-million “pillow” contract. Because of that, he needs to perform for both his and the Rangers sake. The Rangers hope he becomes another Ian Desmond-type find; as the projected 4th starter, he needs to be just that.
A.J. Griffin showed flashes of his old self last season. His greatest struggle was controlling his pitches; that extra effort meant he didn’t pitch late into games. If he can correct those issues, he stands a good chance to take the final spot in the rotation. If Griffin can hold down the fort until Tyson Ross returns, that would be ideal for the Rangers. It would give them flexibility to give younger pitchers time to develop in the minor leagues. However, if Griffin falters this spring, look for players like Hauschild or Mendez to compete for that final spot.
Every spring training brings with it long-awaited answers to an off-season full of questions. After an historic 2016 regular season—and a crushing October—answers from atop the mound could mean everything for 2017.