This is one of the more interesting position battles in camp this season. It appears the first four rotation spots are pretty set (barring injuries, of course) with Rich Harden, Scott Feldman, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter. But who will be the No. 5 starter?
A gaggle of candidates are in Surprise, Ariz., now to compete for that spot. The current foursome does not include a left-hander, possibly giving an early edge to Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and C.J. Wilson. But general manager Jon Daniels has made it clear that the best pitcher will get the job and it won't simply be handed to a lefty.
The good news for the Rangers is that this shows how much more depth they've developed among the pitching staff. Besides Holland, Harrison and Wilson, Brandon McCarthy will get a shot to compete. So will flamethrower Neftali Feliz. Doug Mathis and Dustin Nippert are probably more long-relief options.
Going into camp, I felt like Holland had the best shot. He gained valuable experience in the majors last season and is a lefty, which would be nice to have in the rotation. His sprained right knee has set him back about a week (assuming he starts throwing off a mound sometime this weekend), but that doesn't mean he's out of the running.
Fortunately for Holland and the Rangers, the minor injury occurred early in camp, and he has time to get going and get in the mix. Holland was 8-13 with a 6.12 ERA in 138 1/3 innings last season. He was 6-12 with a 6.23 ERA with 94 strikeouts and 40 walks in those 21 starts. What hurt Holland was a string of five straight starts in August and into September where his ERA jumped from 4.72 to 6.17. He allowed 26 home runs, tied for 10th most in the American League among pitchers with at least 120 innings. Opponents hit .288 against him.
But Holland also had flashes of true brilliance. He threw a complete game, three-hitter against the Angels in Anaheim and allowed one earned run in 8 2/3 innings against Seattle in a memorable start just before the trade deadline. He clearly has a ton of potential. The question is whether he learned enough last season to go into 2010 a smarter, better pitcher. And one that can be in the rotation from the beginning. One thing he's talked about is pitch sequence and learning a lot about that in 2009. He's one to watch this spring.
It's tempting to see what Feliz can do as a starter, isn't it? He teased everyone with his performance out of the bullpen last season, blistering balls at 100 mph. But his velocity did come down a bit by the end of the season, probably thanks to a little fatigue. Still, Feliz is special. That much is obvious. The Rangers have to figure out how best to use him, something discussed more here. He wants to start and he'll be given that chance in spring training. I still think he ends up in the bullpen to start the season, but we'll see. And even if he does, that doesn't mean he can be stretched out and put in the starting rotation at some point in 2010. One way or the other, he'll get a chance to start. I can't wait to see that.
Wilson is also getting a chance to start this spring. He'll have to be one of the top two starters in camp to be thrown into the rotation. Why? Because he's too valuable in the bullpen. But he's hungry to show he can start and is excited about the opportunity. In Mike Maddux's words, Wilson "was the bullpen" for the Rangers last season. He stepped in when needed for Frank Francisco and ended up 5-6 with a 2.81 ERA with 84 strikeouts and 32 walks in 73 2.3 innings. Wilson was last a starter for parts of the 2005 season, including six starts with Texas.
Harrison arrived at camp 30 pounds lighter than this time last year, something he talked about here. Harrison is coming off surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and must show he's healthy and back to form. He's got a lot to prove, but he's a lefty that has shown potential. He even had two complete games in 2009.
McCarthy is also trying to prove himself. Since the Rangers made the trade for McCarthy, which involved lefty John Danks, McCarthy hasn't been able to stay healthy. He was 7-4 with a 4.62 ERA in 17 starts last season. What could help him in the race for the fifth spot is that he was starting to find his form before developing a stress fracture in his right shoulder blade for the second consecutive season. McCarthy was 3-2 with a 3.79 ERA in May. He returned in September and pitched well, finishing 2-2 with a 3.45 ERA that included two quality starts.
Who do you want to see get that fifth spot?