A week or so ago, this space looked at the open position spots for the 2012 Rangers, not that there was much to discuss: 5th outfielder and utility infielder. Today, it’s time to look at the pitching staff, where things are a lot more interesting.
Going into camp, the Rangers have seven potential pitchers for only five starters spots: Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando, Scott Feldman and Neftali Feliz.
It seems to be a foregone conclusion at this time that the Rangers starting five come Opening Day will be Lewis, Holland, Darvish, Harrison and Feliz, with Feldman being the long man/spot starter and Ogando moving back to a set-up role in the bullpen.
However, Rangers brass has also announced Ogando will continue to be stretched out as a starter in Spring Training. This could be meaningless, as it could only be Back-Up Plan A: Ogando as starter if one of the first five goes on the DL to start the season. Maybe so, but it could also mean something this space has opined on before: the thought that Ogando could start the season as a starter to give Neftali Feliz a chance to get his feet wet as a starter at AAA Round Rock. Most disagree with me on this assessment, but Feliz still has all three of his option years available. It just makes sense to me. Why not let Feliz get used to being a starter at AAA where he doesn’t have the added burden of getting consistency on his secondary pitches while pitching meaningful games for a pennant contender? Once the front office is convinced his secondary pitches are where they want them to be, bring him up. He’ll be ready.
Beyond that, the big battles in Spring Training will be for a precious few bullpen positions. With an expected pitching staff of 12 to start the season, that leaves seven relief openings. Feldman is pretty much set for the long role. Also guaranteed a spot on the roster are new closer Joe Nathan, set-up man Mike Adams and, since it looks like trade talks have broken down, set-up man Koji Uehara. That leaves only two openings if Ogando is in the pen come Opening Day, three if Texas lets Feliz start the year in AAA.
Candidates for those two openings include incumbents Mark Lowe and Yoshinori Tateyama, along with a number of pitchers who saw at least some time with the Rangers in 2011: Cody Eppley, Mark Hamburger and Michael Kirkman. Also in the mix are new 40-man roster additions Kelvin De La Cruz (acquired yesterday from Cleveland), Martin Perez (#36 on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 Prospects) and Neil Ramirez (#77 on the same list).
Of the newbies, the best bets to receive serious consideration are the lefties: De La Cruz, Perez and Kirkman. Of those three, Kirkman is at the most critical stage of his career. He only has one option remaining in 2012. Just two seasons ago, Kirkman’s change-up was rated among the best in the minors. He pitched critical innings down the stretch for the Rangers and made appearances in both the ALCS and World Series. 2011, however, was a disaster. Making the club out of Spring Training, the Angels torched him for six runs in 1 2/3 innings in his first appearance. After a month in AAA, Kirkman returned for a little over a month, still only managing a 5.82 ERA in ten appearances. Another trip to AAA, then back up for the September stretch run when he finally did a decent job. He struggled at Round Rock as well, compiling a 3-3 record and a 5.05 ERA.
Long story short: the Rangers would love to see the 2010 version of Michael Kirkman return and nail down the left-handed specialist role left open by the departure of Darren Oliver to Toronto. But he’s one of seven pitchers competing for at best three relief openings on this staff. This will be a fun battle to watch.