I’ve been pondering a question all day today. It’s something I’ve thought and written about a few times recently, it’s something all Rangers fans think about now and again, it’s something that fans of any other team immediately think about when you mention the Rangers. It is, of course, where’s the pitching? More specifically, for today, my question is: who’s going to be in the rotation next year?
For the last few weeks, every time I wrote about trading Tex, or the trade deadline in general, my main theme was always pitching, pitching, pitching. In trading the three players that they did, they got nine in return, of whom only two are major league ready, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kason Gabbard, one (Matt Harrison) is about AA level, and the rest are prospects, years away if they ever make it. In fact, of the nine, they ended up with four pitchers, which totally blows away my theory of getting more pitching. Not only that, but much of the criticism has been based on how many they got and how low they were. In other words, why trade Tex for five players, mostly low prospects, when a team might have been willing to go with two high prospects. I had set my sights on guys who were ready for the big leagues, AAA types, and they didn’t materialize. Oh, we got Gabbard, who I’m actually very pleased about, but what might we have had if we’d said forget the other two players in this deal, give us one single higher level player, a Jon Lester type guy (though not necessarily actually him). Again, to be fair, the deal with Boston got us much more than I ever hoped, I was expecting one AA level player for Gagne, to get a major league pitcher plus two others for him was excellent. But turn back to the Tex trade, and ask why we would make Salty the centerpiece, when we could have had one of their top pitching prospects? No offense to him, I expect him to become a top player for us, but why are we insisting on getting a first baseman back (yes, okay, he plays catcher sometimes too), when first baseman grow on trees and pitchers are what is coveted?
So, to get back to the point of this blog entry, how does our rotations shape up for 2008? Yes, asking that in the middle of the 2007 season is asking to be second guessed all the way, but since the team has to be thinking 2008 at this point, we may as well address it too.
Here’s who I think the candidates are currently: Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Kameron Loe, Brandon McCarthy, Mike Wood, John Rheinecker, Robinson Tejeda, Jamey Wright, Willie Eyre, Kason Gabbard, Eric Hurley, Josh Rupe, Armando Galarraga, Edinson Volquez. Now, some of these guys are locks, some of them are from my hopes or dreams, some of them may require a lot of other people to fall down in front of them, but all of them have to be considered legitimate candidates.
Locks: Millwood, Padilla, Loe, McCarthy. Does that seriously seem reasonable, that you’d have four locks for five slots already? No, of course not. In fact, quite honestly I’d say there’s only one lock right now, and that’s McCarthy. Apart from pitching very well since the beginning of May (once he got his nerves from the trade out of the way), he’s also one of Jon Daniels’ major trade acquisitions, received for the blue chip prospect John Danks (checked him out lately? I know it’s his first season in the bigs, but I’d take McCarthy over him, especially given his home run rate), which means Daniels has a lot riding on his success. His injury worries this year have been relatively minor (blisters on his fingers), and something that a competent pitching coach should be able to improve. Of the others, Padilla has been on the DL for weeks, although he may be back soonish, and has a big contract that a) is too big to be moved, and b) means he won’t be sent to the bullpen. As long as he’s healthy, he’s in the rotation. Kam Loe went on the DL today, with a stressed back, which is hard to tell from what they said how bad it will be. Given his performances though, he’ll be in. Millwood has had injury and ineffectiveness problems all year, but he also has a huge contract. He’s been making some noise about wanting to contend, not rebuild. If he makes enough noise, and we eat enough of the contract, he could be gone, but right now you’ve got to think he’s in. So that’s four.
Bubbles: Kason Gabbard. Mike Wood. John Rheinecker. Gabbard has to be the front runner, simply because of his success this year, but also because of the desire to show something from the Gagne trade. Wood and Rheinecker have pretty much proven themselves in AAA, but haven’t made a breakthrough in the majors yet. They both have mid-3 ERAs in Oklahoma, and mid-5s in the majors. Wood has a few years on him now, but hasn’t grasped the brass ring, and Rheinecker has had a little taste here and there but not taken it either. Remember Rheinecker’s comments before the trade deadline, about how if the Rangers didn’t want him, there were plenty of teams ready to trade? Laughable, really. They’re both getting a little old (27 and 28) to be pushing their prospect status, they’ll likely make it as journeymen if anything.
Rising: Eric Hurley. Hurley is the stud of the minors, and it’s highly possible he’ll get a few starts in September. Good work in those, plus a good spring, will put him on the bubble too.
Slipping: Robinson Tejeda. Jamey Wright. Willie Eyre. Tejeda you know about, back in AAA after a miserable half season in Arlington, I’m guessing it’s at least a year before he’s back, and even then he might have converted to a reliever. Wright lost his rotation spot to Gabbard, showing where he is in the team’s plans, which is interesting because he wasn’t horrible in the Arlington rotation (4.57 ERA, although far too many walks and too few strikeouts), but he’s just as likely to be a free agent as to be in the team’s plans. Willie Eyre isn’t slipping really, he’s simply been too valuable in the bullpen as the long man, and his lone start notwithstanding, if he comes back that’s probably his destination.
Not yet: Armando Galarraga. Edinson Volquez. Josh Rupe. Galarraga might prove to be the most successful result from the Soriano trade. His numbers across the board in Frisco were good, enough to get him a promotion to AAA, but he’s 25 and running out of prospect time. Won’t make it in 2008, but should be a candidate for 2009. Volquez, well, he was rushed too far too fast, and fell back to earth with a crash. Don’t forget he’s only 24, and should never have been in Arlington the last two years. Got himself back on track somewhat this year, but he’s also a year or more away from getting back to the show. Rupe was coming up and up, getting some time in the last two years, but injury has curtailed him a lot. He’s been decent as a starter in AAA this year, which puts him in this list, but my guess is he goes back to OKC to get more time in there.
So, throwing out the wildcards, the guys not likely to be here next year (either in the minors for sure or in another organization), what do we have left? Millwood, Padilla, Loe, McCarthy, Gabbard as the front five. Wood, Rheinecker and Hurley as the next three. The others are all unlikelies.
In the greatest teams, you look at their rotations and you don’t see a number one, two, three, four and five pitcher, you see a couple of ones, a couple of twos and a three. In most any playoff team, you’ll get a one, one or two twos, one or two threes, and a four (did you get all that?). Whatever you have, you need a one, and every five you have reduces your chances (and if you have sixes and sevens in there, you’re dead). There aren’t that many ones (Clemens, Maddux, Santana, maybe a couple of others hanging around would qualify in the last few years), and there are far too many fives for anyone.
Millwood, at his absolute best, might have been considered a number one pitcher for maybe two seasons, and a number two for a couple more. Most of the time he’s been a three, which is probably where he’s at right now. What’s interesting, I just read somewhere in the last day or two but I don’t remember where, looking at his career, is how every three years he’s had a huge leap for a season, and 2008 will be a third year. How likely is that to continue next year, given that he’ll be 33?
Padilla had a decent year last year, and parleyed that into a three year deal with the Rangers, which we regretted pretty much from signing. A career 101 ERA+, meaning just barely better than league average, last year was in fact the first time since 2003 that he’d gotten over 100, and even then he only made it to 104. This year, 69. If he can’t get over his injury woes, or his mood swings, he’ll be a millstone on the team, but in fact if he does get over them, he’ll merely be a dragging anchor. I would never have considered him anything more than a number four starter, and probably even a five.
Loe just went on the DL today, hopefully for a short period but of long term concern, since he said it was his back and to be expected because he’s so tall. Well, unless he’s planning on losing a few inches, that might continue to rear it’s ugly head. Now at age 25, he put together half a dozen good starts which appeared to be a breakthrough, but then he regressed again. Which Loe will show up next year? The 7.40 ERA from the start of the season through early June, or the 3.30 ERA for the rest of June and most of July? At this stage, he’s reliably a four, with the possibility of a three.
McCarthy continues to impress every time he pitches. As noted before, a 3.69 ERA since the beginning of May. Hopefully he’s gotten over new team jitters and will continue to pitch like this, and if that’s the case he can only get better as he ages into his prime. Biggest concern is the 39 to 47 walk to strikeout ratio, and how he can get that to get better. It is quite a bit lower than prior years, so can he return to the old ways? I would say he’s probably a three, with bad luck he’s a four but with good luck he’ll be a two in a couple of years.
Gabbard is an unknown quantity to Ranger fans. His career numbers look surprisingly similar to McCarthy’s 2007 numbers though, and that’s probably a good thing. To have a 3.73 ERA for Boston in the pennant race is good, too. Everything I’ve read about him suggests he’s doing better than anyone expected, and they don’t seem to think it will last. I’m honestly not sure where to put him, I feel like he’ll be somewhere between a three and a five, like McCarthy it all depends on luck. Let’s call him a four just to make it even.
Wood and Rheinecker are fives, at best. The fact that they were kept in the minors while Tejeda did what he did speaks volumes about the team’s belief in them. They’re only getting starts when there are gaps, such as tomorrow when Wood will go for Loe, and Rheinecker being in the rotation after both Padilla and Tejeda went out. As mentioned, their age really hurts them when considering them as prospects.
I’m not even going to rank Hurley, because he doesn’t have one big league pitch to his name. You want to think he’s a number one, and who knows, maybe one day he might be. For starting next year though, you’d call him a five and hope for a four. His 39 to 111 walks to strikeouts rate is phenomenal though, so he could be good. Just remember he’s still only 21.
So the front five will be, barring trades or free agents, the same as it was starting this year, with the exception of Gabbard for Tejeda. And herein lies the problem of the Rangers. The guys that might help are years away, the guys that are here are largely mediocre, and we’re relying on the bats to cover over the cracks. When the bats go silent, as they did at the start of the year, the huge hole is exposed. When the pitchers pitch well, as they did in July, again the bats let them down. Yes, it’s hard getting everything working in tune, but it’s even harder when you’re going with a couple of threes and three fours in your rotation, and trying to pretend they’re anything other than what they are. Unless the Rangers blow someone away with a free agent offer (which hasn’t happened in the last 30 years) or a trade (and the biggest chip just left town), they’re waiting for some of these prospects to grow up and become number one and number two pitchers, all before they reach free agency themselves and take the prime of their careers to greener (and deeper) pastures.
Finally, can anyone actually define a number one pitcher, or number two pitcher, or so on? Have the Rangers ever had a one? Maybe I need to come up with my own rankings, and see what I can come up with. It seems like the annual free agent rankings from Elias ought to be useful in calculating starter status, but I don’t think they’re available for any but the most recent years, and the algorithms that make them are certainly not free. If I can find some of those rankings, and throw in a dash of my own calculation, I might be able to get something workable going. Give me some time to think about it. I guarantee I’ll answer the question before the Rangers have a true number one pitcher.