Injuries are a common occurrence in baseball. They get less common once the offseason rolls around, especially when the player isn’t training, but they still happen. A few years ago, Clint Barmes broke his collar bone by falling down the stairs while carrying groceries. This year, Derek Holland injured his knee while playing with his dog on the stairs. It seems stairs are a little-known occupational hazard.
It’s possible that Holland re-injured an existing problem that he never knew about—that’s what his surgeon said, anyway. But the bottom line is that he’s had surgery on his knee and is out until midseason. That’s a mighty blow to a top-heavy Rangers rotation that features Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Martin Perez, Alexi Ogando, and little else.
Since the Rangers spent so much money acquiring Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, any solution to the problem is likely to come from the bottom of the free agent market, internally, or via trade. In other words, Texas is resting its playoff hopes on fielding a very potent offense.
The Rangers probably will try to solve the problem by bringing in a couple of back-end starters to compete with their internal options. Those in-house candidates include Ogando, Colby Lewis, Nick Tepesch, Robbie Ross, and Tanner Scheppers. While that group shows that the Rangers have good depth, it’s not an ideal list of names to fill two spots in the rotation. Unfortunately, players from outside the organization will be of similar quality.
Speaking of external candidates, the Rangers reportedly have increased their pursuit of Jerome Williams, who fits as a decent back-of-the-rotation starter. Williams is deceptively old, he’s been bouncing around the majors since 2003, and is now entering his age-32 season.
Williams has shown a home run problem throughout his career, which is something that doesn’t fit well with the Rangers’ home park. However, Williams does generate enough ground balls to be thoroughly mediocre even with the long ball problem. He could keep the team in games, but he’s just a less-uncertain version of the internal candidates.
Some other pitchers that fit the low-cost, low-reward mold include Chris Capuano, Erik Bedard, Jake Westbrook, Barry Zito, and Scott Baker. Some of those guys are better fits than others, and the health status of Bedard, Westbrook, and Baker is uncertain. Capuano appears to be the best fit of that bunch, but he’s seeking a two-year contract, and it’s possible somebody will give it to him. The Rangers don’t seem eager to be that team.
One internal option that won’t be included in the competition is Neftali Feliz. He burst onto the scene as a 21-year-old flame-thrower back in 2009. After spending parts of three seasons in the Texas bullpen, the Rangers stretched him out for the rotation.
Unfortunately, Feliz made only seven starts in 2012 due to injury and hardly appeared last season. He recently has been quoted as saying, “I want to be a reliever the rest of my career.” So it seems he will challenge Joakim Soria for the role of closer rather than join the rotation battle.
At first glance, it would seem the club only needs a temporary fix until Holland rejoins the team. Since the injury only damaged cartilage and didn’t tear any ligaments or tendons, his prognosis for a clean recovery is good. That puts a return around June or July.
In the interim, the Rangers have an excellent opportunity to game test their depth pieces. Teams need six, seven, sometimes even ten adequate starters to reach the postseason. The Rangers will be working from a hole since Darvish is now their only reliably above-average arm. Harrison and Perez are good pitchers, but they aren’t guaranteed to have strong seasons. And injuries do happen, as we noted at the outset of the article. It’s just the nature of the 162-game season that a team will need to call on its depth at some point.
And that’s why this is an opportunity. If the Rangers can take the time between the start of spring training and Holland’s return to battle test options like Ross and Scheppers, the organization will be in a better position when Harrison, Darvish, or Perez need to spend time on the disabled list.
That’s the glass-half-full perspective. The more negative among you might note that if a replacement-level hurler is eating 20 percent of the starts in April and May, the club could be out of the playoff race by the time Holland returns. The Athletics, Angels, and Mariners are all competitive teams, and any one of them could build an early-season lead that’s too big to overcome.
The Rangers are in an unenviable position. They will have to trust their offense and some mediocre starters to keep them in ballgames early in the season. And it’s worth noting that adding Holland to a playoff race isn’t like adding Cliff Lee. The Rangers will need to remain right in the thick of things without Holland if they hope to reach the postseason. In the meantime, this should be one of the more interesting position battles to watch during spring training.