As recently as last July, The Derek Holland Era was in grave danger of being razed to the ground.
That’s a weird statement to make, really, because none of what we’d seen up to that point nor what we’ve seen in the eight months since – the 3.06 second half ERA, Game 4 of the World Series, the shiny new contract, his endearing yet exceptionally mediocre attempt at meteorology – represents anything beyond a preamble to The Derek Holland Era.
The Derek Holland Era, as prophesized, does not crest with one transcendent pitching performance, or a mere dozen starts of excellence. It spans scores of them, each season weaving another batch of threads into the tapestry of a genuine game-changing ace that becomes synonymous with the club itself. All-Star nods intertwine with Cy Young votes; complete game shutouts with playoff series-clinching starts. The Derek Holland Era is the bridge between the organization’s woeful past and its radiant future, hope and glory, World Series runners-up and World Series champions. Or at least it will if everything goes to plan.
Therein lies the rub.
As described, The Derek Holland Era may mean nothing to you. For as much acclaim as Holland earned in his trek from junior college nobody to top class pitching prospect, he has never been made out to be a savior on the level of a Stephen Strasburg or Matt Moore, an uberprospect nestled in an aura of infallibility. We don’t expect him to fail – largely because nobody ever anticipates their team’s prospects coming up short – but it’s always been within the realm of possibility.
Yet if you care about this baseball team, if you’re far more intimately acquainted with the scalding desert of its irrelevance than the new-found oasis of hope that is the past two years, you know the tale well by one name or another. You know it because the story is as old as the franchise itself – its own Christmas Past (The David Clyde Era), Present (The DVD Era), and Future (The Martin Perez Era).
The fraught, fruitless search for a homegrown star to perch atop the rotation is the defining motif of the Rangers’ existence, a struggle that is as much about trying to measure up to the franchises that have historically kicked them in the teeth as it is actually locating that tantalizing component.
Only Kevin Brown came close to realizing it in Texas; fittingly enough, The Kevin Brown Era never began in earnest until he joined one of baseball’s haves, the Dodgers.
Intrinsically, The Derek Holland Era doesn’t matter any more or less than its failed cousins and future heirs because, more than anything, it is an idea and a romantic one at that. Fact is, this team won consecutive pennants with a hired gun and a converted closer as the faces of its rotation and while that isn’t necessarily the most sustainable strategy out there, it got better results than anything else the Rangers tried.
Between its well of prospects, savvy front office, stellar pitching coach, and truckloads of revenue – both from a staggering TV deal as well as their moneybags owners – the Rangers have greater means than ever before to construct a rotation beyond the straight draft-and-develop track.
But, in the context of both the team on the field and the organization at large, there is an argument to be made that The Derek Holland Era carries an importance unlike any before it – which is a rather grandiose thing to say, of course, but no more grandiose than assigning a pitcher with a career 4.73 ERA his own epoch in history.
The difference? Moreso than was the case for any of Holland’s predecessors, expectations have coalesced with dependence. Make no mistake: if the Rangers have any hope of returning to, much less winning, the World Series, somebody in the rotation has to become an ace on the level of Cliff Lee or at least provide a reasonable facsimile on par with C.J. Wilson.
Realistically, Holland offers the best hope of becoming that guy this season. It isn’t just about what he does, with that easy velocity and a rediscovery of the outstanding command he flashed in the minor leagues – highlighted by a greater than 3-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio in that second half stretch – or his seemingly unflappable demeanor on the mound.
It’s also about what he has that his rotation-mates don’t – experience dealing both with major league hitters and the searing Texas heat (Yu Darvish), a propensity for keeping the ball in the park (Colby Lewis), efficiency (Neftali Feliz), and proven mettle in pressure situations (Matt Harrison).
Holland’s beast of burden is consistency; he’s tended to be awe-inspiring or atrocious, with scant in-between. His most recent stretch of baseball, though, doubles as his finest, the first in which he’s finally channeled his considerable talent on a consistent basis; given his talent and age (25), it’s much more indicative of the maturation of a young starter than any flash in the pan. If there’s a time to truly believe in the legitimacy of The Derek Holland Era, this is it.
But it’s bigger than just this year’s Texas Rangers and that very concept – belief – is why. Because for all the considerable good this front office has accomplished since Jon Daniels’ installation as general manager, the one thing they’ve failed at time and again is the same thing every other group in charge of this franchise has failed at: grooming that ace-caliber starter from within.
There is no denying that this group has done more to augment the rotation than its predecessors, ranging from plucking bullpen arms (like Wilson and Alexi Ogando) to acquiring other teams' prospects (like Harrison) and even to the unprecedented boomeranging of its own failed top prospect back from Japan (The Colby Lewis Era, anyone?).
Developing its own prospects from start to finish, however, has been a disaster. Its first generation of blue chip arms, John Danks, Edinson Volquez, and Thomas Diamond (also known as DVD), never made a dent in Texas for reasons good (trading Volquez for Josh Hamilton), bad (flipping Danks, a ground-ball inducing lefty perfectly suited for Arlington, for McCarthy, a fly-ball righty that predictably got destroyed in the Ballpark’s cramped dimensions) and ugly (Thomas Diamond’s career-derailing spate of injuries).
The second generation – the alliterative trio of Kasey Kiker, Blake Beavan, and Michael Main – fared even worse, with Beavan clinging to the majors as a back-end arm in Seattle while Kiker and Main have yet to crack Triple-A in multiple organizations and are all but finished as prospects.
Holland and Feliz – acquired in the Mark Teixeira trade but in the Rangers system since A-ball – represent the third generation and, frankly, another test case in questionable development. That’s appropriate terminology for the team’s perpetual back and forth over whether Feliz is a starter or closer.
This creates issues even before delving into the imbroglio of whether his annual spring training yo-yoing between the two was behind his DL stint last season, or if it will be a problem going forward. Still noticeably devoid of a dependable secondary offering or command, he’s very much a work in progress as anything beyond a late-inning fireballer.
As for Holland, we’re hardly eight months removed from the Rangers' July near-razing of its best bet in years of actually becoming that fabled homegrown ace. The club alternately floated Holland in trade rumors and toyed with throwing him back in the bullpen to give more opportunities to glorified fifth starter Tommy Hunter. Only when Holland forced their hand by tossing back-to-back complete game shutouts did they back off, inadvertently kick-starting the drive that led to the recent five-year commitment that cements him as a franchise cornerstone.
Certainly, an element of blame falls on the Dutch Oven’s shoulders for not performing at a high enough level to stave off such deliberations in the first place, but it nevertheless raises an eyebrow that the club was willing to write off, either on a temporary or permanent basis, the development of such a valued asset after around a season and a half of major league starts.
In that vein, the success or failure of The Derek Holland Era will be referendum on the legacy of the front office as much as his own career. This is the last hurdle the organization has to overcome from a development standpoint, the one parcel of terrain they haven’t been able to conquer as they transform the Rangers from the have nots they’ve always been to the haves they so desperately want to be.
If they fail with him, why should anyone continue to expect they can achieve it after botching three consecutive generations of pitching prospects? Why should we believe in The Martin Perez Era or The Neftali Feliz Era or the Neil Ramirez Era or any Era at all if they can’t succeed with a pitcher more polished than all of them, and one with comparably fearsome stuff?
The common denominator among every perennial contender – not the ones with a great two-year stretch, but the ones who have their division on lockdown for presidential terms at a time – is frontline starting pitching, and the most efficient way to acquire it is by cultivating your own; if the Rangers can’t do that, how seriously can we really take the cachet they’ve earned from pundits galore as baseball’s model franchise?
As with any prospect, promise at some point must blossom into performance. In both the near term and the long haul, then, the Rangers’ viability depends on The Derek Holland Era becoming something more than just an idea in abstraction like all its antecedents.
If it doesn’t, there may be a ways yet before this team ultimately becomes the darling so many think they already are.