It started with Chi Chi and continues with Gobbles.
Just a few days ago, the Texas Rangers decided Phil Klein wasn’t the answer for the fifth spot in the Texas rotation. With the Rangers suddenly going from afterthought to Wild Card contender, they also decided Ross Detwiler wouldn’t reclaim the slot when he returns from the disabled list.
Instead they went with Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez, one of the Rangers’ top prospects. The Rangers really wanted Gonzalez to stay in AAA for all of 2015, with the only possible major league service coming with September call-ups. But the Rangers started winning. And winning some more. Before anyone realized, a 7-14 April record had become a 24-24 record. The offense came alive, hitting home runs with abandon. Suddenly national writers started noticing the Rangers and proclaiming they could be contenders (some of us had a feeling they could be long before this but we’re just homers).
With the Rangers surging, the decision came down. Instead of a consistently inconsistent #5 starter like Detwiler, a pitcher with more upside was essential. Gonzalez, it was felt, might take some lumps but he’ll learn from it. And when he’s good, he’ll be better than Detwiler at his best.
Gonzalez proved that his first time out. Facing the Red Sox, all he did was spin 5 1/3 hitless innings before David Ortiz laced a double to left center. Ortiz applauded the rookie after he reached second. General Manager Jon Daniels says Gonzalez is not just a couple of starts pitcher. The rotation spot is his to lose, which will make for some interesting times when one of Matt Harrison, Derek Holland or Martin Perez is ready to go. Harrison begins a rehab assignment this week.
Meanwhile, Sunday’s breathtaking walk-off win against the Sox got tempered by the loss of Adrian Beltre for 2-3 weeks with a sprained left thumb. Pulling another surprise out of his hat, Daniels announced #1 prospect Joey “Gobbles” Gallo would replace Beltre at third. Unlike Gonzalez, Gallo will stay with the Rangers only as long as Beltre is out, then he’ll go to AAA Round Rock.
Gallo hits home runs. Lots of them. Majestic shots you won’t forget. I saw him hit one in Corpus Christi a year ago and it was a sight to behold. Gallo has 9 homers this season after hitting 40 each of the past two seasons. He also strikes out a lot and his defense will never be compared to Beltre’s. He does, however, get the chance to experience big league pitching for the next 14 to 21 days. If he hits .400 with 8 home runs in that time span, maybe he won’t go back down. If he does that, it’ll be interesting to see who the odd man out will be.
If I had my druthers, I’d put as little pressure on Gallo as possible and bat him 7th in the order, maybe even 8th. Hitting him higher gives manager Jeff Bannister a conundrum. With Beltre gone, Texas could go with 5 lefthanded hitters in a row: Shin-Soo Choo, Prince Fielder, Josh Hamilton, Mitch Moreland and Gallo. Despite the potential power there, it also makes it easier for opposing managers to use their bullpens against the Rangers. No situational lefties here. Get one southpaw and he could go for almost two innings. Put Gallo 7th or 8th and you can split it up just a little.
Another fresh face arrived on the scene last week in Hanser Alberto. Alberto is one of the best defensive infielders in the minors of any club but lately, he’s also been hitting a ton for Round Rock. Along with some guy named Josh Hamilton, Alberto’s impact on Texas was immediate, hitting .364 in his first three games with a triple and 3 RBI.
The new generation of Rangers is coming and there are more on the way. This team may be getting ready for another good 3-4 year run.
By now, even the average baseball fan is aware that Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish is, at minimum, out for at least half the season with a strained ulnar collateral ligament and more likely gone for the season and headed for Tommy John surgery.
The response was immediate and expected from the Rangers faithful: already the 2015 season is gone. Kaput. Doomed. A 67-95 team already down its best pitcher? How could the response be any different?
How about this for a response: Losing Darvish most certainly DOES hurt but it doesn’t mean the Rangers should automatically be picked to occupy the AL West cellar for the second consecutive year.
All one has to do is compare this year’s Rangers pitching staff to the one that began the 2014 season to feel just a little bit better about things. Remember, a year, the Rangers already knew Derek Holland was already out until after the All-Star break at the earliest. Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison weren’t penciled into the rotation until the end of April at the earliest. Then Darvish himself came down with a stiff neck and got scratched from the Opening Day start as a precaution. Thus, we had a Rangers starting rotation of Tanner Scheppers, Martin Perez, Robbie Ross, Joe Saunders and Nick Martinez. Perez was beginning just his second major league season, Ross and Scheppers were transitioning from the bullpen and Martinez had never pitched above the AA level before. The rotation member with the most major league service was Saunders and everyone knew he was a #5 starter at best.
Compare that to the expected rotation without Darvish to start 2015- Derek Holland, Yovani Gallardo, Colby Lewis, Ross Detwiler and one of Martinez, Nick Tepesch and Anthony Ranaudo, obtained from the Red Sox for Robbie Ross. Or none of those three could be #5, replaced by Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez, the Rangers’ #3 prospect behind Joey Gallo and Jorge Alfaro. Gonzalez threw three shutout innings against the A’s just today (3/9) in an exhibition game.
When the news on Darvish came down, a lot of doom and gloom came down from fans, particularly on Twitter. Sure, it was understandable but those fans didn’t expect this: Derek Holland replied to some of them. Dutch basically said, “Oh, so the other 24 members of the team don’t matter?” “You think the rest of us should just give up?” It was a great response, especially from Holland.
Dutch has always had a label: good stuff, inconsistent and he’s a goof. Anyone who’s paid attention to Holland since he came back from knee microsurgery in September last year should note the difference in the public Derek Holland. He still likes to have fun but he’s also let everyone know how he isn’t satisfied how his career has gone so far (51-38 with a 4.38 ERA). Dutch was often scolded by former manager Ron Washington when he let his focus slide. Now you hear him talking about stepping up and being the ace if he has to, how he’s striving for more consistency. If Holland’s performance changes and matches the new intensity he’s showing, Rangers fans could be in for a very big surprise this season.
Add to Dutch the newly acquired Yovani Gallardo. He’s an innings eater, a former ace and someone whose new focus on getting groundouts instead of strikeouts plays right into Globe Life Park. Colby Lewis showed in the season’s second half he’ll be the same reliable starter he was in 2010 and 2011. Detwiler was a decent 9-8, 3.58 as a starter for the Nationals in 2012.
Without Darvish, the Rangers rotation will never be confused as one of the best in the American League. It won’t even be the best in the AL West. It is, however, still better than the rotation the Rangers threw out there most of the 2014 season.
There is nothing harder in baseball than putting together a good bullpen. No matter what team you’re a fan of, you’re sure to remember the year the lights-out bullpen that ended up being one of the league’s worse. Conversely, many a team has gone to the playoffs when a little-regarded bullpen suddenly became dominant.
Unless your name is Rivera, closers can go from 45 saves one year to 15 the next with said closer replaced by another 100-mph fireballing phenom in mid-season.
Look at the Texas Rangers. In their World Series years of 2010-2011, the bullpen was one of the team’s strengths. Neftali Feliz replaced Frank Francisco just a week into the 2010 campaign as closer and rode that train for two years. Darren O’Day was a waiver claim who had an incredible 2010. On the other hand, Koji Uehara should have been the final bullpen piece when the Rangers acquired him at the deadline in 2011. He pitched so poorly for Texas he was left off the World Series roster. A year later he was dominant again and now he’s the closer for the Red Sox.
Year to year consistency in the bullpen is the toughest thing to acquire. Among the many ills for the Rangers in 2014, the bullpen was one of them.
Under the circumstances, one could make a case that the Rangers relief corps kept the team from finishing worse than 67-95. While not as formidable as earlier years, they were overall middle of the pack in the American League in contributing a 4.0 WAR. Much of that came early in the season, when the pen consisted of veterans like Jason Frasor and Joakim Soria, both of whom got sent packing at the trade deadline to pennant contenders. And, while the WAR was decent, the Rangers were a piddling 13th in Saves and 11th in Holds.
General Manager Jon Daniels has a philosophy when it comes to bullpens. The main mantra is “Save your money”. Outside of closer, you’ll seldom see Texas spend any substantial dollars on relievers. The aforementioned Frasor pitched two years in Texas, both times on 1-year contracts. Same with recently departed Neal Cotts. Occasionally Daniels will spring for a 2-year deal. Outside of O’Day, those get reserved for proven closers (Joe Nathan, Soria).
Daniels does like to gamble a little with the bullpen. He’s constantly acquiring relievers with big league experience but got released by other clubs due to injury. Success stories include Cotts and Soria, but there have also been busts, such as Nate Adcock and Kyle McLellan. But what the heck, they didn’t cost much money so do real harm there. Daniels mixes these low risk, high reward veterans with young bucks from the farm system whose contracts are under club control for the foreseeable future. It’s worked pretty well during the Daniels regime and it’s what the Rangers once again looking at in 2015.
What is certain for the Rangers is the closer will be Neftali Feliz, back in the role of his greatest success during the World Series years. Feliz missed most of 2013 to Tommy John surgery and moved back to closer in 2014 after Soria got traded to the Tigers. His velocity isn’t what it once was but he says he finally has most of the zip back.
Texas hopes the 8th inning set-up man will be last year’s Opening Day starter, Tanner Scheppers. Feliz, Scheppers and the departed Robbie Ross were the final nails in the coffin that was Texas trying to convert relievers into starters. It worked once with CJ Wilson but failed miserably with the other three. Scheppers and Feliz are now okay with their roles. Scheppers was the best set-up man in the AL in 2013 and the Rangers are hoping he’ll return to form.
Shawn Tolleson was one of Daniels’ low risk, high reward signings a year ago. Coming back from Tommy John, Tolleson was a respectable 2.76 ERA in 64 appearances and 71.2 innings pitched with 69 K’s. He was a little homer prone, giving up 10 dingers. Tolleson will be the 7th inning reliever. Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux is already saying Tolleson looks better in the early going of camp than he did all of last season.
Four more spots are open in the bullpen and be assured whoever starts the season is in no way guaranteed of being there in September. Among the farmhands, the hopefuls include Alex Claudio, Phil Klein, Spencer Patton and Jon Edwards, who all got a taste of the bigs with the Rangers in the last month of the 2014 season.
A young heat thrower who hasn’t reached the major league level yet is Keone Kela, but he isn’t considered a factor in Arlington until later in the season at the earliest.
Joining the competition are those LRHR players Daniels loves, including Kyuji Fujikawa, Japan’s all-time saves leader whose move to America and the Cubs resulted in yet another Tommy John surgery; Juan Carlos Oviedo who, when pitching as Leo Nunez, saved 113 games from 2009-2011 with the Florida Marlins; and ageless veteran Jamey Wright, back with the Rangers for the second time in a career that has spanned 19 years and 10 different teams.
The most thankless job in the bullpen is long reliever. A pitcher in that role might go two weeks between appearances, then be asked to make a spot start two days after throwing 2 1/3 innings in a game. Veteran Scott Baker admirably filled that role for the Rangers last year and it’s a darn shame nobody has signed him for 2015.
For the Rangers, the likely long man is whoever the last man out is in the competition for the #5 starter. At this writing, the prediction would be for either Ross Detwiler, Nick Tepesch or Nick Martinez to fill that role.
Bullpens are more works in progress than any other part of a ball club. No matter the predictions here, out of the seven member relief corps that starts the season, odds are good three of them will be gone by season’s end. If Texas can improve on last year’s 4.0 WAR pen, they’ll be a playoff contender.
That’s right, 15 different pitchers got at least one start for the Rangers in 2014. If a member of the rotation never misses a start, he’s on track to make 32 or 33 starts. For Texas, not a single starter managed even 30 starts and the pitcher who had the most starts, 29, didn’t even play in 2013, was coming back from hip replacement surgery and posted a 6.54 ERA after his first 16 starts.
Yes, 2014 was a disaster from the get go for the Rangers pitching staff. It began before Spring Training even arrived, with Derek Holland messing up his knee in a home accident involving a flight of stairs and his dog. Thanks to a stiff neck, ace Yu Darvish got scratched from the Opening Day assignment and replaced by Tanner Scheppers, making his first ever major league start. Among the names getting a start in 2014 were Robbie Ross (12), Miles Mikolas (10), Scott Baker (8), Joe Saunders (8), Lisalverto Bonilla (3), Jerome Williams (2) and Phil Irvin (1).
More well-known names started but fell by the wayside. Second-year Martin Perez threw back to back complete game shutouts in April, then went down for the dreaded Tommy John surgery in May. Matt Harrison appeared on the comeback trail from back issues and thoracic outlet surgery, but lasted only four starts before back issues resurfaced. His career is in jeopardy. Lastly, Darvish began experiencing elbow discomfort and wound up making only 22 starts before calling it a season.
So why is there so much hope in Arlington this year? Believe it or not, it starts with starting pitching. A year ago, the lack of depth in the minors contributed to the poor performance of the pitching staff. This year, two guys who made over 20 starts for Texas a year ago aren’t even sure if they’ll make the team for the Season Opener. Here’s the rotation as we know it:
There’s no question Darvish is the ace of the staff. On any given night, there’s the potential for greatness. Darvish has the biggest arsenal of pitches most anyone has seen. At any given time, a hitter can expect one of 8 to 10 different types of pitches. Yu is temperamental and will often shelve a pitch for good in the first inning if he feels it isn’t working that day. Still, he’s good for 15 wins or more for the season.
It was Dutch who suffered the first injury going into 2014. If the results he showed upon his return in September continue in 2015, this could be a special year for the lefthander. Holland made five starts down the stretch in 2014 and posted a 2-0 record with a 1.46 ERA, going seven innings in four of the five starts and giving up two earned runs or less in all of them. Holland has been inconsistent throughout his big league career but his 4-0 win over the Cardinals in Game 4 of the 2011 World Series ranks as one of the best performances in Rangers history. He’s got the stuff. By all accounts, last year’s injury has upped his desire. If Derek gets consistency, he could easily add another 15 wins to the Rangers total.
Gallardo is the new kid in town, a guy who lives in Fort Worth in the off-season and now truly gets to plays his home games at home. Gallardo is an innings eater and, as he’s gotten older, has become more of a ground ball pitcher than a strikeout machine. Ask Matt Harrison and CJ Wilson how that ground ball thing works out in Arlington. There’s reason for excitement about having at least a year of Gallardo (he becomes a free agent at season’s end). He was once the ace of the Milwaukee Brewers staff. Now he’s a #3. That’s something to feel good about.
It’s incredible to believe that Colby Lewis led the Rangers staff in starts with 29 in 2014. As mentioned above, this is a guy who didn’t even play a game in 2013. After blowing out an elbow near the end of the 2012 season, Lewis’ arthritic hip added to his woes, finally getting to the point where his career was in jeopardy. After getting his hip shaved, Lewis began a long rehab process. As much as a thank you for his contributions during the World Series years as anything, Lewis got the chance to rehab in the minors. Who knew the injuries on the big league club would bring him back to Texas in mid-April. The results weren’t good the first half of the season. Just looking at box scores and statistics, one might think Lewis merely suffered from bad luck from the BABIP gods but those of us actually watching the games knew differently. Colby got shelled often. His pitches weren’t fooling anyone and he wasn’t hitting his spots. Remember, though, this is a guy who was still getting used to pitching without pain when putting pressure on the hip. Once he started getting used to it, the results were outstanding. From July 19 on, Lewis was only 4-8 but his ERA was 3.86. The BABIP through July 18 was .410. The rest of the way it was .267. Now Texas has the fully rehabbed Lewis for a full season and as their #4 starter instead of #2.
#5: Up For Grabs
This is the reason for optimism about the Rangers. A former #1 is now a #3, the former #2 is now the #4 and two of the guys fighting for the last spot were the #3 and #4 pitchers a year ago. This bodes well for the Rangers. It certainly gives them more depth than they had a year ago. Nick Tepesch (5-11, 4.36) and Nick Martinez (5-12, 4.55) are the incumbents. Martinez was here by necessity a year ago after never having pitched above AA all year. Despite staying all year, he’d surely benefit by at least beginning the year at AAA. For Tepesch, this is his third year with the Rangers. He needs to show improvement, particularly in facing the opposition batting order the second and third time. He still has at least one option so he could also go to AAA for a while. Martinez and Tepesch will compete with Lisalverto Bonilla, who pitched decently in three starts, newcomers Ross Detwiler (Nationals) and Anthony Ranaudo (Red Sox) and possibly top prospect Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez. Some have Gonzalez pegged as a possible surprise winner, but GM Jon Daniels would like to get him some more seasoning and not rush him. Before the first exhibition game is in the books, Detwiler and Tepesch are the likely front-runners.
In The Wings
He isn’t available until after the All-Star break at the earliest but Martin Perez will be ready to pitch again this season. Meanwhile, there’s no telling what will happen with Matt Harrison. Nobody has ever attempted to return from the type of back surgery he had. Harrison could come back or his career could be over. If it’s the latter, he can retire knowing he was a vital part of two World Series teams.
No matter how you slice it, this is a much deeper starting rotation than the Rangers had a year ago. It may not stack up in quality to the Mariners rotation or even the A’s but it has the potential of being a very good staff, not to mention one able to withstand an injury or two.