Rangers fans aren’t used to feeling good about their team’s pitchers.
The franchise has always had issues acquiring quality starters, much less building quality rotations. By Baseball-Reference’s count, only fourteen pitchers have compiled more than 10 Wins Above Replacement with the franchise – and that’s after including the team’s days in Washington. For comparison’s sake, the Astros boast 24 in one less year of existence. The Rangers’ greatest mound icon, Nolan Ryan, got to Arlington at the twilight of his career – he was 42 years old before donning a Rangers game uniform.
But a new regime, fresh perspectives and an unprecedented commitment to acquiring talented arms has changed everything.
It’s not just about right-handed phenom Yu Darvish, who put up the sort of absurd numbers in Japan that few could replicate in video games. The man the Rangers paid 9 figures to acquire bears high expectations, but he won’t carry the load alone. Fangraphs.com, which accounts for the difficulty of pitching 81 games in Arlington and facing (mostly) the superior hitters of the American League, valued 2011 Rangers’ pitching staff as being the 5th best in all of baseball. That ranked them above such teams as the Braves, Tigers, and yes —the Angels. After eliminating the relief corps, the Rangers ranked even higher – 3rd, behind only the White Sox and Phillies. The staff was carried by several things -- a huge season from CJ Wilson, a startling track record of health, and major steps forward from the organization’s promising young arms.
Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando had long been talked about as potential impact players. But Ogando spent years trying to gain entry to the country, while Holland and Harrison frustrated far more than they dazzled. Everything came together for the trio last year, and they combined to throw 548 innings, putting up 11.3 combined wins above replacement. What does this mean? In many cases, Rangers staffs of years past would boast several starters who any team could pick off the scrap heap for the league minimum. The difference between committing innings to such players and giving them to the Rangers’ 2011 #2-4 starters was 11 wins. That’s the difference between being excellent (96 wins, their eventual total – the highest in franchise history) and being average.
Wilson’s departure leaves a sizable void, but the Rangers now have the internal options to rebound. Darvish is a wildcard, but one who most experts to be at least a good #2 starter – and maybe a #1. One NL scout said there “might not be another pitcher on the planet who can manipulate a baseball like he does." Statistical wizard Dan Szymborski projected Darvish to post an ERA around 3.5 throughout his tenure in Texas, valuing his impact at $112 Million dollars over five years (Unless Darvish wins one Cy Young award and is a top contender for an additional Cy Young, he will be with the team for six years – at between $108 and $121 Million after factoring in the posting fee paid to his former team).
The team is also committed to Neftali Feliz as a rotation piece, a role he was trained for throughout his minor-league career. It’s uncertain whether he will stick in the rotation, as his secondary pitches and overall command lag far behind what his dominant fastball can do. But Feliz was almost universally regarded as one of baseball’s 10 best prospects, and plenty of experts believe he can make the transition.
It’s clear the Rangers had a direction in mind when they let C.J. Wilson walk across the AL West to the rival Angels. Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels have spoken publicly about the dangers of committing to older pitchers, and their short-term offer to Wilson demonstrates that. Darvish is six years younger than the Rangers’ last ace and has what is seen as considerably better stuff. The Rangers are thinking beyond 2012 – the Texas front office is intent on building a dynasty. Suppose that this is the 2012 rotation:
- Colby Lewis
- Derek Holland
- Yu Darvish
- Matt Harrison
- Neftali Feliz
Only one member of the projected staff is older than 26 – workhorse and playoff hero Colby Lewis, whose contract expires after this season. Meanwhile, top prospects Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez are knocking on the proverbial door and should be ready to contribute in the second half. Scott Feldman is a strong option as a long man and spot starter. And that does not even account for Alexi Ogando, who made the all-star game as a rookie starter before stumbling in the second half.
None of the newcomers need to replace Wilson, per se. But it’s very possible the group as a whole could be even better in 2012. Matt Harrison put together a stupendous 2011 second half, as I detailed in September (4.2 WAR, 24th among all pitchers). Derek Holland flashed a huge fastball, strong work ethic and an awful mustache on his route to occasional brilliance and increasing stability (3.6 WAR, 31st among pitchers). Colby Lewis ate up innings despite playing through a hip injury for most of the season, keeping his strikeout and walk rates solid but being victimized by a barrage of home runs. If the inflated longball rate returns to earth, he could regain his excellent 2010 form (formerly 4.6 WAR, 18th among pitchers). For some perspective, if any of these three strung together three seasons at that level, they would already rank within the Rangers’ top 10 all time pitchers. Yes. Just three seasons.
Forecasting performance at this stage is tough. But it’s clear that the Rangers have as much pure talent in their pitching staff as any team south of Philadelphia. They can hold on to that talent for some time – everyone but Lewis is under control until 2014 (at the earliest). And they continue to develop pitchers, whether they are featured in trades for big-league help (Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland for Mike Adams, Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke for Cliff Lee) or stand ready to contribute when called upon just as Feliz, Holland, Harrison and Ogando have done. That’s what sets these Rangers apart. While the position players are as strong as they ever have been, the Rangers now have balance.
There’s no longer any reason to complain about a lack of pitching. And based on how things look right now, those complaints will have to aim for the distant future.