Seasoned Lewis tabbed as starter

ARLINGTON, Texas -- As odd as it might seem, the area of most depth for the Texas Rangers in 2010 is on the mound.

Pitching, for as long as anyone can remember, was on the endangered species list in Arlington. That doesn't appear to be the case anymore.

The Rangers' rotation certainly has some questions going into 2010. Can Scott Feldman put up similar numbers in 2010? Can Rich Harden stay healthy? Can the young pitchers continue to improve and learn from mistakes made last season?

But one question that won't be asked is whether there are enough talented hurlers to plug into the last few spots. For once, the Rangers aren't stuck rummaging through leftovers, hoping to find a viable arm to stick into the rotation (see Kris Benson from 2009).

The latest member of that starting group was introduced Tuesday. Colby Lewis is back with the Rangers after spending two years in Japan. And general manager Jon Daniels said Lewis is in the rotation, along with Feldman and Harden.

Tommy Hunter has the inside track to another spot, leaving Derek Holland, Brandon McCarthy, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz and C.J. Wilson fighting for the No. 5 starting job. Daniels said he would prefer to have a lefty claim a position in the rotation, but the club will go with the five best no matter which arm they use.

"You can never have enough starters," Daniels said. "I think you'll hear us say that more than once this spring and this year. I'm hoping we don't need them all, but history and experience says that you do."

Daniels said those who don't make the rotation will slide over to the bullpen. Others could start in Triple-A Oklahoma.

"Part of the design of this club was to have considerable depth at the pitching staff," Daniels said. "The best teams in the game are going to use 18 or so pitchers during the course of the year. Nobody uses 12. We want to make sure that when we do have to use them, whether it's injury or lack of performance, that we were reinforcing the staff with quality."

The Rangers feel Lewis adds to that quality. They are convinced -- enough to give him a two-year deal (at a total of $5 million of guaranteed money, plus incentives) and a club option for 2012 (at $3.25 million) -- that he returns to the United States a more accomplished pitcher than the one who left. He went into the majors with great fanfare in 2002, impressing the Rangers with his stuff and making the jump from Double-A to the rotation.

"That spring was organized chaos," Daniels said. "Colby was one of the bright spots. He was pushed aggressively, maybe too aggressively. He was raw ability at that point without finishing the developmental process as a pitcher."

Shoulder injuries and command issues led to high ERAs and shuttling back and forth between the minors and the majors in 2002 and 2003. He had right shoulder surgery in 2004 and missed the 2005 season. He pitched mainly at Triple-A in 2006 and was released in spring training by the Washington Nationals on the same day as the birth of his son.

"Two or three days later, Oakland called and asked me to finish up camp with them," Lewis said. "At that point, it felt like I had to do something else and I had to make it better somehow. It was like, 'If I'm going to be a big leaguer, I need to do it.'"

Lewis pitched well in Triple-A but gave up 10 runs in his only start with Oakland and shifted to the bullpen, where he pitched better in 25 outings. After that 2007 season, he decided to see whether he could support his family in Japan.

"I thought I'd never come home," Lewis said. "I really didn't."

But while he was overseas, Lewis discovered how to locate his pitches, showing signs of the stuff that made him the Rangers' first pick (38th overall) in the 1999 draft. Lewis added a cutter, a pitch that certainly has served Feldman and Hunter well, to his repertoire to go along with his curve, slider and changeup. His long delivery has given way to a more compact style. And he has learned how to outthink the hitter. That doesn't mean he can't still bring it. He said he hits 96 mph on the radar gun "when I feel good," but for the most part has dialed it back to make sure he hits his spots.

Lewis, 30, proved the past two seasons that he could stay healthy, eat innings and do it with an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio. He pitched 178 innings in 2008 for Hiroshima, striking out 183 and walking 27. He threw 176 innings in 2009 with 186 strikeouts and 19 walks.

If Lewis pans out, it will be another bargain for the Rangers. The club has put considerable resources in its Pacific Rim operations and Lewis, even though he's from Bakersfield, Calif., is a product of that work. His total deal is worth $8.25 million plus incentives for three years. Other pitchers coming from Japan with similar performance numbers cost a whole lot more. Kenshin Kawakami earned $23 million for three years with the Atlanta Braves. Hiroki Kuroda got $35 million for three years with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Those two didn't have Lewis' injury history, but both put up comparable statistics in their final two seasons in Japan. So maybe the Rangers got a good deal.

For the most part, Daniels and his staff are through with their offseason shopping. They wouldn't mind adding a veteran catcher at the right price, and they are still keeping track of Ben Sheets. The club had someone watching Sheets' workout Tuesday, but it's unlikely that Texas has enough money to sign him.

That means it's almost time for the spring training competition to begin. Only this time, the Rangers have plenty of good candidates and very few rotation spots to fill. That's the way Daniels wants to keep it.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.