With just a little over three weeks to go until Opening Day against the Phillies, the starting rotation appears an even murkier picture than even at the start of Spring Training.
For starters, back stiffness set Matt Harrison back for a short time. Although he's been fully cleared, the time missed will likely require another pitcher to make two starts at the beginning of the season while Harrison plays catch-up.
Furthermore, the signing of Joe Saunders gives the Rangers yet another option from which to choose in order to fill two spots until both Harrison and then later, Derek Holland, are able to return to action.
Understandably, there is much concern over the current state of the rotation, with some reactions from fans and media types being more extreme than others. However, almost universally, the sentiment remains that, at the very least, the rotation may be a problem during the 2014 season.
The signing of Joe Saunders has raised many eyebrows, and while it isn't a flashy signing, many have viewed it as a sign that the organization is concerned. There is surely a certain level of concern over the rotation, but I think more than anything, in order to avoid a repeat of 2013, the front office is making sure there are plenty of options ready to be called upon. Besides, should Saunders fill a role at the back end of the rotation for awhile, there are certainly worse options.
Saunders posted a 5.26 ERA in 2013 with the Mariners in 32 starts. His 4.23 xFIP certainly presents him in a better light. For comparison, Alexi Ogando posted a 4.64 xFIP in 2013. In other words, as a 4th or 5th starter, and only for a short time, Saunders is more than capable of filling in. Also, he provides a certain level of durability that should be very comforting after the last 12 months have seen Rangers pitchers deal with a rash of injuries.
Derek Holland has been saying that he plans to be back by June 1, while the Rangers have been projecting, at least publicly, a bit more conservatively in saying that he will return after the All-Star break. Mac Engel doesn't believe Holland will pitch at all in 2014. It's not a statement I agree with, but given the what-will-happen-next nature of pitching injuries within the organization, I don't necessarily disagree with a thought process that runs along the lines of saying, "Until he actually comes back, we're not counting on him."
More than anything, I believe that scheduling and the presence of Yu Darvish will allow the Rangers to succeed despite some holes in the rotation at the beginning of the season.
For starters, this Rangers lineup should be better than the lineup in 2013. I'm inclined to believe that the club will score closer to the 808 runs it scored in 2012 than the 730 it scored in 2013. That alone will likely help in respects to providing run support for Darvish, something that was severely lacking in 2013. For some reason, the Rangers just couldn't put runs on the board when the ace of the staff took the mound, and I have a tough time buying the idea that we'll see the same disturbing trend in 2014.
In Darvish, the Rangers are the favorite to win every fifth day. While we all know that doesn't directly translate to wins -- just ask Seattle how that translates with Felix Hernandez -- having an anchor at the front of the rotation is something every team in Major League Baseball wants.
After opening the season with a 3-game series at home against Philadelphia, the Rangers go on the road for 6 games against the Rays and Red Sox. Those games figure to be tougher, but following that, the Rangers will have a 10-game homestand in which they will host the Astros, Mariners, and White Sox. Those should all be winnable games no matter who is on the mound for Texas. By that point, it's expected that Matt Harrison will be ready to go, at which point the club will need to choose between Colby Lewis, Joe Saunders, Tommy Hanson, Nick Tepesch, Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers, Michael Kirkman, and Jose Contreras -- all to fill one spot in the rotation.
Jon Daniels and the front office realize that no one guy provides great odds at being a hit. However, I'd imagine they realize that there is a certain power in numbers, and with the names I just rattled off, there are most certainly numbers.
Beyond that, there's a though that Alexi Ogando is better-suited for a bullpen role. Since he'll be likely opening the season in the rotation, the Rangers will also have options should fatigue or injury hit Ogando again in 2014.
Since I definitely believe that Derek Holland will pitch for the Rangers in 2014, the optimistic side of me wants to believe that a fresh Holland around midseason will be less likely to succumb to late-season fatigue. If that turns out to be the case, the Texas Rangers may just count themselves fortunate to have stockpiled pitchers to fill the void until then.
The current situation certainly isn't ideal. With that said, I don't think the situation is dire. This ball club will score more runs in 2014, and if a few guys can step up and provide even moderate contributions until some injuries are rehabbed, this whole thing could blow over and be an afterthought by midseason. Or it could go downhill. I'm just not ready to give up hope.