The Rangers worked hard to build up their pitching depth and this is where it could pay off. They've got a host of candidates for the back end of the rotation. I put Derek Holland as the leader of this group.
Today's position: No. 5 starter
The last time we saw Holland on a mound he was struggling to get batters out in the World Series. Holland appeared late in Game 2 and threw 13 pitches, 12 of them balls. He allowed three runs on three walks and couldn't get an out. What many fans forget is that Holland did appear again in the World Series, pitching a scoreless inning with one walk and one strikeout in Game 4 in Arlington.
I can tell you after seeing Holland several times this offseason that he isn't letting the struggles of the World Series get him down. No, we won't know for sure how he reacts to it until he gets back on the mound in a pressure situation in the regular season. But Holland had many teammates and coaches tell him to shrug it off and I believe he has.
Part of the reason he can do that is what he did against the Yankees in the ALCS. Holland made the postseason roster in the bullpen and came into Game 4 of the ALCS with the Rangers trailing. He came in for Tommy Hunter, who was taken out after giving up three runs in 3 1/3 innings. Holland proceeded to pitch 3 2/3 shutout innings and give his team a chance to take the lead, which it did. He allowed one hit and had three strikeouts and two walks. Holland earned the victory after Bengie Molina's memorable home run came with Holland still in the game. So he can draw on that experience as more of a confidence booster than what happened in the World Series.
Holland, 24, was 3-4 with a 4.08 ERA in 14 games (10 starts) for the Rangers in 2010, his second season in the big leagues. He was on the disabled list for all of June and July with left rotator cuff inflammation.
Holland has good pop on his fastball and has worked hard on his secondary pitches. As the playoff showed, if he has command on the fastball, it sets the table for everything else (of course most pitchers can say that). If not, he has real struggles.
It will be interesting to see where Holland goes from here. This will be his third season in the majors (he pitched in 33 games, 21 of them starts, in 2009). He looked like he was going to take a bigger step forward last year (he was 6-2 with a 1.87 ERA in Oklahoma City, much of that early in the year), but the DL stint hurt that progress. Can he stay healthy? Can he find consistent command? These are questions he must answer.
But he's in position to earn a rotation spot with a solid spring.
Other pitchers will come in fighting for position as well. Michael Kirkman is one of them. He came up to the majors last year in mid-August and was 0-0 with a 1.65 ERA in 14 relief appearances. Opponents batted just .161 against him and right-handers hit only .107 (3-for-28). Kirkman's sinker has become a reliable pitch and he's gaining more confidence with his breaking pitches. He said this offseason that he knows the curve will be key for him as he comes in stretched out as a starter.
Kirkman was the PCL Pitcher of the Year in 2010 after going 13-3 with a 3.09 ERA in 24 games (22 starts) with Triple-A Oklahoma City. He said he learned a lot from his first big league experience and there's s quiet confidence that Kirkman has as he heads to Arizona. Watch him carefully.
Matt Harrison began the 2010 season as the No. 5 starter but struggled before landing on the disabled list with left biceps tendinitis. Once he rehabbed, he returned to the Rangers in the bullpen and was there for the remainder of the season. He finished 3-2 with a 4.71 ERA and pitched better in June, July and August than he had to start the season. Harrison said he feels good and is ready to make his mark in spring training.
Dave Bush is the newest member of the group trying to earn a spot. He was signed to a minor league deal at the end of January (and kudos to the Rangers on this deal too as it's $1 million guaranteed if Bush makes the roster and another $1 million in incentives) and is a guy who can chew up innings. He was at his best in Milwaukee when Maddux was the pitching coach and maybe a reunion will allow Bush to find his stride again. He could end up as a long reliever/spot starter if he's not in the rotation.
We will talk more about Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando as we head to the bullpen next week, but they will be stretched out and given opportunities to start. But like C.J. Wilson last year, they'll have to wow everyone to get there.
The back-end spots of the rotation will be an ongoing story at spring training this year. Be sure to check the ESPNDallas.com Rangers blog periodically throughout camp for the latest.