Starting Five: Rangers Rotation Outlook for 2011
Editors Note: This is the first of a series of pre-Spring Training articles previewing the 2011 Rangers.
The Rangers offseason pursuit of an established ace for the top of the rotation ended up like their World Championship bid, just short of the goal.
They were closer than anyone thought on Matt Garza but refused to put 1st baseman Mitch Moreland in the deal and were never really close on Zack Greinke because the Royals wanted to trade him to the National League.
Then of course there was Cliff Lee.
Texas went hard after Cliff Lee and in the end offered the most money, outbidding the mighty Yankees in the process, only to have their prime target go back to Philadelphia because the traffic in Dallas was bad, or so his wife says anyway.
I'm not going to spend much time on the loss of Lee because I don't feel it is very important considering the Rangers have some pretty good pitching even with his departure.
It was Colby Lewis who turned the ALCS around with a huge Game 2 win and won it with an even better performance in Game 6.
Not to mention CJ Wilson had the best postseason of all the Rangers starters with outstanding performances in each round; especially in Game 2 of the World Series.
My point is this; the Rangers could have won the AL West without Lee last year and despite popular opinion could have advanced to the World Series without him as well.
That will be the end of any Lee talk coming from me, unless of course the Phillies want to trade him again, but now on to how the rotation shapes up in 2011.
There are a few question marks going into Spring Training but one thing I can say for certain is the rotation is better going into March than it was last year and we all know how that turned out.
First let's take a look at the locks for the rotation.
After a very successful transition from setup man to starting pitcher, CJ Wilson has an opportunity to establish himself as a true ace this season.
While that's good news for the Rangers in 2011, it could mean trouble at the end of the season with Wilson set to jump into free agency for the first time.
Wilson certainly made his presence known in the playoffs last season, but those following the Rangers saw something special back in Spring Training when he not only said he could start but was the talk of Surprise.
My only concern going into 2011 with Wilson is the innings jump he experienced joining the rotation last season going from 73 innings pitched in 2009 to 204 innings pitched in 2010.
In the past pitchers who have increased their innings so substantially have had arm problems or lost some of their effectiveness; look at Scott Feldman's performance last season.
Will this happen to Wilson?No one knows, but at 29 and a guy who takes very good care of his body, Wilson stands a better chance than most at overcoming the innings hike.
Was there a bigger signing last season than the Rangers bringing back former top pick Colby Lewis from Japan?
Lewis was the anchor of the staff all season long tossing 201 innings with an ERA of 3.72 and 196 strikeouts.
Not bad for a guy coming back to Major League Baseball from exile in Japan.
He outpitched established aces throughout the season, including a memorable game in Seattle where he was better than Cliff Lee with nine shutout innings.
He would have won more games during the season with a little run support, something the Rangers have addressed with the addition of Adrian Beltre to the middle of the order.
I fully expect Lewis to be the same reliable starter for the Rangers this season and possibly join Wilson in pursuit of 20 wins if he gets better run support.
Lewis and Wilson are interchangeable in the Rangers rotation and one of them will get the ball on April 1st against Boston at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Considering his postseason performance I'm giving Lewis a slight edge over Wilson, but either way the Rangers have a very good 1-2 punch leading the way.
Tommy Hunter is one of the young guys that must step up in 2011 if the Rangers want to get back to the playoffs and make another run at the World Series.
Hunter was a mixed bag in 2010 with a solid regular season that began with an injury in Spring Training costing the right-hander a month of starts.
He finished with a 3.73 ERA but averaged less than six innings per start; a number he has to improve on if he wants to stay in the rotation.
If he can't he could find himself pitching out of the bullpen in a long relief role.
No one doubts his stuff, he has four major league caliber pitches, but he has to put it together through seven innings consistently or the bullpen will be taxed in the Texas heat.
For now he is a lock, but April and May will be very important for Hunter.
There are a variety of pitchers battling for the last two spots in the rotation but I'm going to focus on the three favorites.
Brandon Webb only has to prove he is both healthy and effective in Spring Training to lock down his spot.
When pitching at 100%, Webb throws an incredibly heavy ball that leads to a very impressive ground ball to fly ball ratio; which of course makes him a perfect fit not only for Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, but also for the Rangers infield defense.
Make no mistake about it, the signing of Adrian Beltre was made for his defense, the power bat was just gravy.
The Rangers don't expect Webb to be as dominating as he was before hurting his shoulder when he won a CY Young award and finished second another season.
Webb was the definition of a workhorse pitching as many as 236 innings in a season, but the Rangers will gladly settle for 170 to 190 innings this season.
The real question is what kind of pitcher will Webb be coming off a devastating shoulder injury.
He could be Mark Prior and not be more than a mediocre reliever at best, or he could be the next Chris Carpenter and anchor a rotation looking to finish off a World Championship they fell just three wins away from in 2010.
It all depends on his shoulder.
To say this is an important year for Derek Holland would be an understatement of epic proportions.
Holland has shown flashes of brilliance in his brief career so far but has yet to put it together for a complete season.
He is one of the favorites for a roster spot but he will have to win the job in March and that begins with staying healthy.
Holland had a couple of injuries in 2010 which held the talented lefty back but he did finish the season as the fifth starter and pitched well in the American League playoffs out of the pen.
His World Series meltdown in Game 2 should serve as motivation for Holland to get back on the mound and finally live up to the expectations the Rangers have for him.
Michael Kirkman is the most intriguing pitcher heading into Spring Training this season as he can either be the fifth starter or another solid lefthander in the Rangers bullpen.
He could also find himself in the AAA rotation in Round Rock should the Rangers opt to stretch him out as a starter.
Kirkman pitched out of the bullpen last season and was surprisingly effective for a rookie with an ERA of 1.65 in 16 innings pitched.
For Kirkman to make the jump into the rotation he needs to have a little better command of his pitches after walking 10 in 16 innings pitched last season.
Kirkman will definitely get his chance in March to grab a spot in the Rangers rotation and it likely will come down to who has a better spring between him and Holland.
The Rangers will also take a look at some of their other bullpen pitchers from last season including Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando but neither are likely to be moved out of the Rangers bullpen; they're both too valuable in their current slots.
Not to mention Feliz must have better command of his secondary pitches before he will warrant significant consideration for the starting rotation.
1) Colby Lewis
2) CJ Wilson
3) Brandon Webb
4) Derek Holland
5) Tommy Hunter
Next up in the series LTR contributor Matthew Irby will take a look at the Rangers bullpen.