Less than two weeks remain until Opening Day and the starting rotation for the Texas Rangers is still very much up in the air. Darvish has been named the Opening Day starter with Martin Perez the number two pitcher. Alexi Ogando will probably fill the third spot, despite struggling with command in his last outing, but after that it’s really a bit of a mess.
Matt Harrison has looked reasonable in the spring, but some back soreness early in camp has him several weeks behind the other starters. In his last game against the Royals, he said in a post game interview that he hoped to be ready to go by mid-April. That’s a problem for the Rangers, as they will likely need a fifth starter by April 9th, when they travel to Boston for a three game set. Trying to get through the Red Sox series would be possible, if you went with a bullpen start for the game on April 8th or 9th, assuming you don’t want any of your starters going on short rest. There is another off day after the Sox series, so the pen would have time to recover, if needed. That could push the time frame for Harrison back to April 15th.
The man to take the fourth spot in the rotation is a big mystery right now. Colby Lewis is a crowd favorite and has shown reasonable velocity in the spring, but struggled with his pitch location and was pounded in his last start. Even more concerning, his pitch count was kept low by the coaching staff, a clue that perhaps he is just not physically ready to go yet. I would expect Lewis to start the year in AAA and see if he has anything left. Nick Tepesch has already been optioned to Round Rock after a very challenging spring, so I would not expect him to be a part of the Rangers plans, at least not early in the season. That leaves us with Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers, Joe Saunders and Tommy Hanson. Ross and Scheppers have arguably performed the best while both Saunders and Hanson have struggled.
Ross and Scheppers are a valuable part of the bullpen but it usually makes more sense to try and make your best pitchers into starters, if they can handle the position. Ross was a starter for his entire minor league career, so he has plenty of innings in that role. I think he will have the inside track on a rotation spot.
Tanner Scheppers has been stretched out as a starter this spring although he was very effective in the 8th inning last season. With Neftali Feliz searching for his lost velocity, moving Scheppers into the rotation leaves the back end of the bullpen pretty thin, unless the team decides to give up on Ogando as a starter and put him in the bullpen permanently. Scheppers has been a reliever for much of his career with the Rangers and he has an unorthodox throwing motion, which many feel will make him more prone to injury, especially if he has to handle the workload of a starting pitcher. I suspect for these reasons Scheppers will resume his late inning role on Opening Day.
Joe Saunders is a journeyman pitcher, who has shown he can eat up innings, although he may not give you much of a chance to win those games. Last year, he went 11-16 while posting a 5.26 ERA with the Mariners. He is projected by ZiPS to put up a 4.77 ERA this season while pitching 160 innings. I suspect the Rangers would be very happy with that sort of performance if they can get it.
Tommy Hanson is the other reclamation project the Rangers signed in the offseason, he pitched in limited action for the Los Angeles Angels last year, posting a 5.42 ERA with a 4-3 record. ZiPS has him projected to post a 5.31 ERA this year in 123 innings.
Both Hanson and Saunders are signed to team friendly deals, guaranteed around $250,000 with additional money to be paid if they make the major league team and further incentives based on innings pitched. So, the Rangers could cut ties with one or both and not really feel much pinch from taking a chance on them.
I think Ross has a real shot to nail down the fourth spot in the rotation, if he can pitch reasonably well in his remaining spring games. Then, the question becomes what the Rangers really think of Matt Harrison’s time table to return. If they think he will be ready by mid-April, then they might take a chance and not keep either Hanson or Saunders. That would be a pretty big gamble to take though. Saunders is rumored to have a handshake deal with the Rangers front office that they would give him his outright release to try and sign with a team elsewhere, if he doesn’t make the big league roster. It’s not clear whether Hanson would accept a bullpen or AAA assignment. If the Rangers lose both pitchers and Harrison’s back flares up again, they would be left without a viable fifth rotation member until mid-summer, when Derek Holland is hoping to return.
My guess at this point is that the Rangers will try to keep both, putting Saunders on the major league team in the fifth spot and trying to get Hanson to accept a AAA assignment or go to the bullpen as the long reliever. When Harrison is ready, either Ross or Saunders could be relegated to the pen, depending on who was pitching better at the time.
All in all, it looks like the next two weeks will be interesting in Surprise.