With 8 more games to go on the Spring Training slate, things are starting to come into focus for the Texas Rangers. Ryan Rua has all but assured himself a roster spot for a second straight season with another strong showing this Spring. The utility infielder position may be still up for grabs, but I'm not sure there will be much sleep lost over exactly which one of Hanser Alberto or Pedro Ciriaco ends up making the roster.
The one area that has yet to come into focus it that of the 5th starter. The Rangers will need someone to take on the role until Yu Darvish makes his much-anticipated return to the mound sometime in May-June. As I talked about recently, Chi Chi Gonzalez headed into this competition as the favorite to win the job, followed closely by Nick Martinez.
Martinez seemingly took himself out of the running by giving up 11 earned runs in 11.2 innings pitched in Spring Training, but he'll get a chance today to redeem himself and possibly place himself back into the mix. That's where the Rangers find themselves; no one has stepped up to seize the job as their own.
It's not for lack of trying, of course. Chi Chi Gonzalez has likely only remained in the running over Martinez simply because of his pedigree. That is, he slots in higher on the prospect "food chain", if you will. I'm not saying it's fair, I'm only saying what it is.
And as we've addressed here before, the problem with Gonzalez in 2015 was the strikeout-to-walk ratio of 0.94. That is, he actually gave up more walks than strikeouts. In delving a bit deeper to look for an appropriate comparison, I could find none in 2015. The closest I could really come up with (and only if I really lowered the minimum innings pitched threshold)? Matt Harrison.
The same Matt Harrison who pitched 16 innings for Texas before being tossed into the Cole Hamels deal. The same Matt Harrison who very well may not pitch again as he once again deals with back pain. To be clear, a healthy Matt Harrison was a solid pitcher, a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, a guy you'd love to have a player compare to. But the Matt Harrison we saw pitch in 2015 isn't a good comp.
We can go back and forth talking about a results versus peripherals discussion on Chi Chi Gonzalez. One camp will say that it's only the results that matter, and that his 3.90 ERA in 67 innings bears that out. The other side will point to the xFIP of 5.26 and SIERA of 5.59 and say that he's due to regress at any point.
And without a doubt, you take the 3.90 ERA from your 5th starter, provided you can get it. The really crux of the issue at hand is that ERA generally doesn't provide much predictive value on what a pitcher might do going forward. As it's so dependent on not only the pitcher, but the defense behind him, things get lost in the shuffle.
When we look at his peripherals, we get a better idea of what we can expect him to do going forward. So, a K/BB ratio of 0.94. We've established that's not good. At what point does this stabilize to potentially show us a trend? If we ask Baseball Prospectus for their handy chart, we see that strikeout rate tends to stabilize at 70 batters faced and walk rate at 170 batters faced; both thresholds that Gonzalez crossed in 2015.
For reference, I decided to take a look at what kinds of swings-and-misses Gonzalez managed to induce in 2015. And here they are:
For a pitcher that is supposed to have a changeup that he mixes in with things, it appears that Chi Chi's biggest problem has actually been getting hitters to bite on it, probably attributable to there being only a 5 mph average difference between his fastball and changeup. Ideally, you'd like to see the changeup dropping below the strike zone, fooling hitters, and inducing both whiffs as well as weak grounders. The logic goes that the more strikeouts a pitcher induces, he thereby also is able to induce weak contact. That just hasn't been happening, and the changeup needs to be dialed down lower than an average velocity of 86 mph.
So we have a trend, some stabilized peripherals, but the pitcher in question is only 24, so there's time to turn this around, right? That's where we just don't know. Certainly Texas would like to see those things turn in the other direction. Even the 2.56 K/BB rate Chi Chi put up at Double-A Frisco in 2014 would be a solid improvement. That would put him somewhere a little closer to Ubaldo Jimenez in 2015. Still not great, but for a 5th starter, certainly usable. And I doubt anyone will thumb their nose at a 2.7 WAR from that portion of the rotation.
And finally, we get to where things stand today. Chi Chi Gonzalez isn't, at least so far in Spring Training, turning this thing around. He's pitched 13.1 innings and given up 7 walks. He only just yesterday recording his first 2 strikeouts of Spring Training. In this case, the sample is too small to reliably gain anything from it, but when it comes to the position battle at hand, it's what we have to go with his 2015 resume. And so far, that resume just isn't that good.
As much as I hate to say it, barring some changes in Chi Chi's repertoire, I'm just not sure he can reach that middle-of-the-rotation potential that Texas has pegged him for. I sure hope I'm wrong, but as it stands right now, it's not looking good.
Exacerbating the problem is that the guy that appears to be the next-best option, A.J. Griffin, is a bit of an unknown. He's still on the road to recovery from Tommy John Surgery in 2014, and hasn't pitched in a Major League game since 2013.
The good news is that he's missing a lot of bats, compiling 13 strikeouts against 2 walks in 14.1 innings of work. However, it's simply hard to tell how ready he is to handle the workload of a starting pitcher just yet.
If I had to put forth my best guess, I'd wager that Griffin is the favorite for the 5th rotation spot. Failing that, it all gets a little bit muddy, and I'm just not sure that Texas has a legitimate 5th starter on their roster if Griffin isn't the guy once the calendar turns to April.
Follow Brandon Land on Twitter @one_strike_away