With Yu Darvish possibly signing in Texas, just who is going to move in an already full rotation?
The Rangers have won the rights to negotiate with Japanese-Iranian sensation Yu Darvish thanks to a record bid of $51.7 million, giving them 30 days to figure out a contract with the pitcher. While they don't necessarily have to figure out who he is going to replace in the rotation during those 30 days, that awkward conversation is going to have to happen eventually: the Rangers have six starting pitchers on the big league roster if they sign Darvish -- seven if you count Scott Feldman.
The Rangers don't count Feldman anymore, though, as he was bumped from the rotation in 2011 thanks to injury and the rise of both Alexi Ogando and Matt Harrison. Both were relievers prior to 2011, but, like C.J. Wilson before them, were successful in their conversion to a five-day plan. It's unlikely that the Rangers -- who are run by people who like their pitchers to throw more -- are going to stick with a six-man rotation, meaning someone is going to get Feldman'd this spring.
Who should it be, though? Colby Lewis was inconsistent in 2011, but overall has been effective in his return from Japan (401 innings, 8.2 strikeouts per nine, 3.0 K/BB, 110 ERA+). Derek Holland threw nearly 200 innings last year in his first full season in the majors, and had the peripherals (7.4 strikeouts per nine, 2.4 K/BB, 46 percent grounders) to back up his 3.95 ERA. He was the #29 prospect in the minors heading into 2009, and is finally delivering on that potential -- there is no reason to shift his role.
Neftali Feliz hasn't started before, but the Rangers already revamped their bullpen to account for moving him out of it: in addition to Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, acquired at the deadline in 2011, they signed Joe Nathan for two years and $14.75 million. The Feliz as starter experiment is happening, and given Feliz's stuff and arm, it should happen, too.
That leaves the most likely candidates as one of the two pitchers just recently converted to the rotation. Ogando threw 169 frames in 2011, most of it coming over 29 starts, while Harrison made 30 starts and tossed 185 innings. Ogando was booted from the playoff rotation, in part because he was tired: after posting a 2.92 ERA and walking just 23 batters in 104 innings in the first half, Ogando saw his command slip (20 walks in 64 innings) and ERA rise (4.48) in the second. It wasn't a terrible performance by any means, but it's fair for the Rangers to ask themselves if Ogando's fatigue is going to be a permanent thing, or if it was caused by it being the first year of his switch to starting.
Harrison threw another 18⅓ innings in the postseason, giving him 204 on the year. He didn't have the strikeout or K/BB numbers of Ogando (6.1 per nine and 2.2 times more punch outs than free passes), but he did one thing Ogando didn't: He induced grounders 48 percent of the time, posting a 1.5 groundball-to-flyball ratio. There is almost nothing more important for a Rangers' pitcher to do, given their hitter-friendly home park. He never had this much success in the past, but changes to his repertoire paid dividends.
Sans context, there isn't much difference between these two. Both have solid control, and while they don't have excellent swing-and-miss stuff, they throw quality strikes and have FIP that back up their quality ERA. With the context of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington in mind, though, Harrison is likely the better pitcher to have in the rotation due to those grounders. Grounders are why C.J. Wilson was able to sign a long-term deal with the Angels despite pitching in Texas (and walking plenty of batters) his whole career, and they are why Holland is someone who needs to stick in the rotation, too.
Ogando will have plenty to do out of the pen. He's a better pitcher than Feldman, giving the Rangers a better sixth starter than they had last year. He was fantastic as a reliever in 2010, too, posting higher strikeout rates as expected, and inducing grounders more often than he did as a starter. The Rangers might need the depth, too, as Feliz is a good idea, but not a sure thing, as a starter, and it's rare that a team goes the year without some kind of pitcher injury.
Darvish might seem like a luxury for Texas given they already had a full rotation, but as teams like the Red Sox in 2011 remind us, depth is key to surviving the whole season. Darvish gives them depth, and Ogando gives them a better backup plan than anyone else in the majors. Depth is one reason the Rangers have made two consecutive World Series, and even with Wilson moving on, depth will be a strong suit for them once more.