Yu Darvish has been on a throwing program since the middle of August, and if trickling information from the local beats is accurate, he should be returning to action in May or June of 2016.
As is, the Rangers rotation figures to look something like this on Opening Day* (including raw Steamer Projections):
1. Cole Hamels (209 IP, 3.72 ERA, +3.6 WAR) 2. Derek Holland (171 IP, 4.01 ERA, +2.3 WAR) 3. Martín Perez (168 IP, 4.03 ERA, +2.3 WAR) 4. Colby Lewis (29 IP, 4.63 ERA) 5. Chi-Chi Gonzalez (59 IP, 4.69 ERA)
*This is, of course, operating within the assumption that the Rangers re-sign Colby Lewis, and there aren't any significant injuries between now and then.
Whenever Yu Darvish returns, Texas's rotation should immediately ascend to a top-3 unit in the American League, depending on where Zack Greinke, David Price and Jordan Zimmerman eventually land this winter. (Hint: probably the NL.)
It's a sin that Yu has been on the shelf for so long, as August 9th, 2014 is still the last pitch he threw in a meaningful baseball game. By the time he makes his next appearance it will have been nearly two full calendar years, which sounds kind of dramatic now that it's written in front of my face.
So yeah, a lot has changed. But not in the Josh Hamilton Is Back or The Rangers Are Good Again type of way; it's more the realization that Darvish's three years in Texas have felt so brief up to this point, and yet he is still only two seasons and maybe 55-60 starts from becoming a free agent. (Technically if Yu wins the Cy Young Award in 2016 he can opt out of the 6th year of his contract. But because he will likely miss 8-12 starts to begin the year, it almost certainly eliminates him from consideration.)
When he is on the mound, there isn't much questioning what Darvish is capable of. He's arguably one of the five-best pitchers in the game, or better. Between 2012-'14 he generated an insane 30.1% strikeout rate in route to registering +12.9 fWAR, in 545.1 IP. Perhaps more promising: his walk rate progressively dropped from 10.9% to 9.5% to 8.1% -- each worse than league average, but improvement is improvement -- leading many admirers to believe the best of Yu Darvish is still to come.
Top K%, MLB (2012-2015) 1. Yu Darvish: 30.1% 2. Max Scherzer: 29.2% 3. Clayton Kershaw: 29% 4. Chris Sale: 28.3% 4. Stephen Strasberg: 28.3%
The Hardball Times published an article in March studying the historical success rates of pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery, noting:
When assessing by the number of games entered post-surgery, the 12-16 month recovery window has shown to produce the best results. By considering post-surgery innings pitched, history has shown that pitchers returning after a slightly longer span, in the 14-20 month range, have out-pitched those returning slightly more quickly or further removed from the procedure.
This is relevant to Darvish since his recovery time puts him in line for a 14-15 month overlap between surgery and his first game back. It is, however, important to note that most pitchers don't return to pre-injury form until roughly 24 months after surgery, so it will be a healthy exercise to temper expectations for Yu in 2016.
If you remember back, a whole three months ago, to when the Rangers traded for Cole Hamels, it was ultimately with the intention of strengthening the club's future. Not necessarily the present, as it worked out. I believe it's reasonable to assume Jon Daniels wouldn't have made the trade if Yu Darvish was healthy and pitching every 5th day in 2015, but then again the Rangers are a different team in a different place in the standings if that's the case, and the whole damn spacetime continuum is changed. So who the hell knows.
Until the next crop of Ranger prospects (Mazara/Gallo/Brinson) graduates to the major leagues -- which figures to be 2017 -- the roster is mainly comprised of late-prime/post-prime veterans, so there is a ton of incentive for the front office to go for it the next two years, with both Hamels and Darvish sharing 40% of the rotation duties. I don't see everything in terms of a team being "all-in" or "in a complete rebuild," but if those were the two endpoints in the spectrum, the Rangers would clearly be closer to the former.
For Yu Darvish, what's most important is his health, and that he doesn't experience any significant setbacks leading up to his expected arrival in Arlington.