SURPRISE, Ariz. — The prototypical Major League Baseball ace is consistent, reliable and capable of giving his team a lift every time he takes the mound. He either has overpowering stuff, à la Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez, or the intensity, focus and command to take very good stuff to another level. That means you, Roy Halladay.
The Texas Rangers have two pitchers who fit the description. Unfortunately, club president Nolan Ryan is 65 years old and special assistant Greg Maddux is 45. They would be challenged to cover first base at this point, never mind take the mound and give manager Ron Washington a quality start.
So here’s the salient question in Surprise: Do the Rangers have a new staff leader in residence who was born more recently than the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration? We’ll find out soon enough.
As the Rangers pursue a third straight World Series appearance, pitching remains a focal point and a source of pride for the organization. Two years ago, Texas’ staff ranked second in the American League in innings pitched and fourth in ERA. Last year the Rangers sliced the staff ERA from 3.93 to 3.79, fifth-best in the league. Despite playing half their games in a charitable offensive park, they’ve shed their reputation as an organization that bashes first and asks questions later.
But they’ve also become adept at saying goodbye and retooling on the fly. In December 2010, Cliff Lee spurned a nine-figure offer from the Rangers to sign a five-year, $120 million deal with Philadelphia. Last season, C.J. Wilson stepped forward to embrace the role of staff leader, finished sixth in American League Cy Young Award balloting and parlayed it into a five-year, $77.5 million free agent deal with the AL West rival Los Angeles Angels. So where do the Rangers go from here?
“You move on,” Washington said. “Of course you’re going to miss a pitcher the quality of a Cliff Lee or a C.J., but the guys here have proved they can handle the job. We’re very confident and comfortable.”
The Texas rotation, as currently constructed, is long on talent and relatively short on experience. Colby Lewis, the elder statesman of the group at 32, has 631 big league innings if you exclude his time in Japan. Lefties Derek Holland, 25, and Matt Harrison, 26, continue to grow and evolve. Neftali Feliz is transitioning from closer, and Alexi Ogando could land in the rotation or the bullpen. The Rangers also have Scott Feldman, who was a postseason savior as the team’s long man in October.
Which brings us, finally, to Yu Darvish, whose talent and stuff prompted the Rangers to shell out almost $112 million between the posting fee and the contract.
Is there a legitimate top-of-the-rotation presence in that group? More important, does it matter?
“What I said last year is pretty much how I feel now,” Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “We don’t have a No. 1, but we have the same chance to win every night, so there’s no letdown. If we don’t have a No. 1, we’re stacked with 2s. And that’s OK.”
Calling all aces
In some respects, the whole “Who’s No. 1?” debate is a trick question. All 30 big league teams have de facto top-of-the-rotation starters. But Minnesota’s Carl Pavano, Kansas City’s Luke Hochevar and Baltimore’s Tommy Hunter are atop their teams’ depth charts essentially by default.
Depending on how finicky you are, 10 to 20 pitchers embody the characteristics of a true No. 1. Halladay, Lee, Verlander, CC Sabathia, Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez are no-brainers. Josh Johnson and Adam Wainwright qualify if healthy, and Chris Carpenter still exudes that ace cachet at age 36.
Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Cole Hamels, David Price and Jon Lester slot in right behind them. Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Jair Jurrjens and Ricky Romero are accomplished pitchers in their mid-20s, and Ian Kennedy and James Shields ranked high in Cy Young balloting last year. A year or two from now, Stephen Strasburg and Matt Moore could be automatic mentions in this group.
Despite the absence of Rangers from the list, two big league front-office people said Texas’ rotation is worthy of a pennant contender, particularly because it’s supported by such a formidable lineup.
“They have plenty of arms,” a National League general manager said. “If you play them in a four-game series, there’s not one game where you say, ‘We’re facing one guy we can tee off on.’ Given their offense, that’s pretty important. Sure, you wish you had a Verlander, but there aren’t many guys like that out there. I think the balance of that rotation is really good.”
With seven legitimate starters, the Rangers are better equipped to survive the oppressive Texas heat. Washington also has the luxury of monitoring the workload for Feliz as he prepares to shift from closer to the rotation.
“A lot of times you’re not defined by who starts Game 1 of the postseason,” an NL executive said. “You’re defined by who starts that game in August when you have two starters on the DL and you’ve taxed your bullpen and need someone to step up. That’s what gets you there in the first place.”
Among Texas’ seven potential starters, Holland and Darvish are generally regarded as the best bets to join the elite group of pitchers with the “ace” designation.
Holland went 16-5 with a 3.95 ERA last season and saved his best performance for Game 4 of the World Series. A day after Albert Pujols hit three home runs to lead St. Louis to a 16-7 blowout, Holland took the mound with skeptics in abundance. He threw 8 1/3 innings of shutout ball in a 4-0 victory, and nobody doubted him anymore.
“We watched this guy go from an older boy to a young man,” Mike Maddux said. “Just to see him mature before us is pretty impressive — not just as a baseball player but as a person. That equates to success on the field.”
Holland ranks among a select group of lefties with the ability to blow the ball past hitters. His average fastball radar gun reading of 94.2 mph was sixth-highest among starters behind Ogando, Verlander, Price, Michael Pineda and Edwin Jackson. When the St. Louis hitters weren’t griping about the wide strike zone after Game 4, they were gushing over his velocity.
“It’s not complicated,” Lance Berkman said. “He’s throwing 95-97 miles an hour from the left side. How many guys in the game do that? There’s a handful, and they’re all studs. Jon Lester. CC Sabathia. David Price.”
Holland attracted quite a following in October for his sprig of a mustache and entertaining dugout impersonations of Harry Caray and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he wants to dispel the notion that he’s some sort of happy-go-lucky cutup. Holland grew his hair into a shaggy, disheveled mop in the offseason and spent the winter in a quest for self-improvement. After concluding that inconsistency with his breaking ball was his biggest obstacle to reaching the next level, he made that a major point of emphasis over the winter.
“I’m having fun,” Holland said, “but I also want people to get the message that I work my tail off. I know a lot of people were concerned with me doing my impersonations and the other stuff and saying, ‘Is he really going to be focused?’ Trust me — my mind is on baseball.”
Darvish, by all accounts, is supremely confident in his ability and driven to be great. But he’ll have to make numerous adjustments to the American culture and baseball in the U.S. Japanese starters from Hideo Nomo to Hideki Irabu to Daisuke Matsuzaka have grappled with the transition with varying degrees of success.
Like Dice-K, Darvish reportedly throws seven or eight pitches, and might be wise to shelve a couple for the sake of efficiency. But he’s not ready to give away any trade secrets. During his introductory news conference last week he declined to even acknowledge how many pitches are in his repertoire, much less outline his plans.
When asked whether he’s interested in getting guidance from the great Nolan Ryan and Greg Maddux during his voyage of self-discovery this season, Darvish demurred. The international star whose every move is chronicled by dozens of media members each day gave the same flustered response that might come from an American high school kid who followed the illustrious careers of Big Tex and Mad Dog.
“I feel hesitant to approach them,” Darvish said through an interpreter. “If they come to me with advice, I would be very grateful. I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”
Darvish had better be ready and take advantage of every resource at his disposal. Life in the big leagues awaits, and aspiring aces need to grow up in a hurry.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
Crasnick: Rangers seeking a dominator in their rotation
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