Which pitcher is most crucial?

YU DARVISH
JOE NATHAN

Yu must produce

MacMahon By Tim MacMahon
ESPNDallas.com
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You can call him Choke Job after his October woes or Condescending Jerk for his act in the other 11 months of the year, but C.J. Wilson played a pretty major role in the two best seasons in Texas Rangers history.

He was a legitimate ace last season, at least until the playoffs started, finishing sixth in the American League Cy Young voting.

Yet the Rangers let Wilson walk in free agency without really putting up a fight. And like him or not, the AL West got a lot tougher when he signed with the Los Angeles Angels, who also picked up a pretty good bat in Albert Pujols.

Like Wilson or not, it isn't easy to replace 16 wins and a 2.94 ERA in 223 1/3 innings. You can't just find guys capable of striking out 200-plus in a season. If that were the case, Wilson wouldn't have been the first Ranger to whiff that many batters since Nolan Ryan.

Which brings us to Yu Darvish.

If the Rangers didn't think Darvish was capable of producing like Wilson, they wouldn't have made a nine-figure investment in the Japanese rock star.

Forget about dialing back expectations for Darvish. Never mind that he begins the season as the No. 3 or 4 starter in the rotation.

Texas needs Darvish to perform like a top-of-the-rotation starter to win the West again, much less make another run to the World Series.

Maybe Derek Holland will be take the next step and be the No. 1 guy. But he's not going to have a dramatically better record than last season, when he was 16-5.

Same goes for Matt Harrison (14-9). And Colby Lewis (14-10).

Neftali Feliz is a wild card whose innings will need to be watched as he makes the transition from closer to starter.

Darvish needs to be dependable and darn good. He needs to be like Hideo Nomo, the 1995 NL Rookie of the Year, except with staying power.

The Rangers, who will shell out $108 million guaranteed in the posting fee and Darvish's salary over the next six seasons, paid significantly more to get Darvish than it would have cost to keep Wilson. They'll need Darvish to justify that decision right away.

Closer is crucial

Durrett By Richard Durrett
ESPNDallas.com
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It might seem odd that in an offseason that consisted of so much interest in the starting rotation, including the signing of Yu Darvish and the move of Neftali Feliz, that a closer would be the pitcher most crucial to the club's success in 2012.

But I think that's the case.

Joe Nathan has to give this club a shutdown closer who can preserve the tight leads late.

The 37-year-old was signed early this offseason and was immediately named the closer. The acquisition allowed the Rangers to tell Feliz back in November that he would be starting in 2012. That gave the youngster plenty of time to mentally prepare for a new role.

The decision doesn't come without some risks. Nathan's track record suggests he's primed to lock down the ninth inning with success. But most of that track record came prior to Tommy John surgery. Nathan had the procedure in 2010 and missed all of that season.

He returned in 2011 as the Twins' closer but struggled and lost his spot. He had three saves in his first four outings, but then allowed nine runs in five innings in his next six games and Matt Capps was named the closer. Nathan went on the disabled list with an elbow strain and missed nearly a month. But when he returned, Nathan showed signs of his pre-surgery form. He had a 3.38 ERA and held opponents to a .193 batting average in his final 31 games. At one point, Nathan went 16 straight games (14 2/3 innings) without giving up a walk.

The second half of 2011 convinced Rangers scouts that Nathan was ready to close. It's now been more than 18 months since the surgery, the usual time for recovery, and Nathan has arrived at camp feeling as good as he has in a long time.

Nathan must give the bullpen that hammer for the final three outs. If he can, that makes the decision to move Feliz a lot easier and it lines up everyone else on the back end.

The Rangers don't need a reminder of how critical the late innings are to success (see Game 6 of the World Series). A reliable Nathan could decide those big games down the stretch and in the postseason.

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