A Rangers 2010 Pitching Road Map

Today is the official start of baseball season, although most teams don't start until Monday. As spring training opened, we expected a rotation of Rich Harden, Scott Feldman, Tommy Hunter, Colby Lewis and either Derek Holland or Brandon McCarthy. C.J. Wilson and Neftali Feliz were going to be given opportunities to win rotation spots, but few expected either to do so.

Now we know that Holland and McCarthy will be in AAA, Hunter will be working his way back to good health, Matt Harrison will be in the rotation after catching management’s attention early, and C.J. Wilson will be viewed as an upper half of the rotation guy, as he has continued to look better and better. As we open the season, Harrison’s spot appears to be the most tenuous. He struggled late in the spring as he attempted to perfect his off-speed offerings and his overall command.

Among the four listed above who did not win rotation spots, Hunter should receive the first opportunity. Once his strained oblique heals, he will most likely go to Oklahoma City to rehab and begin to fight for his spot. McCarthy has a lot to work on, as he is in the process of completely overhauling his repertoire and approach. A stay in AAA should be ideal for him, but both his progress and the performance of Harrison, Hunter, Holland and maybe even Lewis will factor into his timetable to return to the majors. Make no mistake, though. As frustrating McCarthy’s injury-riddled and inconsistent tenure with the Rangers has been, for a club with playoff expectations, he is welcome rotation depth.

It is worth noting that despite the fact that Holland never really challenged for a rotation spot, his stock within the organization is not down at all. Like McCarthy, Holland should benefit from some time in AAA to add the finishing touches to his game. We saw Holland look nearly unhittable at times in 2009, and we saw his pitches and command periodically disappear. He is right where he should be, and there is every reason to think that he could be an impact player for the Rangers later in the season.

Over the winter, as the club mulled how to use Feliz in 2010, a popular notion emerged. Texas could “Joba” Feliz: start him in the bullpen, send him to AAA for a bit in the middle of the season, and then plug him into the rotation for the stretch run. I suspect that, among their innermost thoughts, Jon Daniels, Nolan Ryan and Mike Maddux have not completely extinguished that notion, but it has not been discussed publicly this spring, and it appears even less likely with Wilson’s emergence. Feliz as a starter most likely will be revisited in 2011 at the earliest.

Who else should hold a bit of our attention as the season progresses? Who has not been mentioned here, but could make a difference for this team as Feliz and Hunter did last season? Three things to keep in mind:

1. Don’t expect anyone else to impact the rotation in a serious way this season. Eric Hurley will be returning, but he has a major task in front of him in returning from a very serious injury. The Rangers have a few other upper-level starting prospects, but they are not impact arms at this point, and handing the ball to them would fall more into the "scary" category.

2. The two pitching prospects in Texas’ system are Martin Perez and Tanner Scheppers, but either making a start for the Rangers this season would be a huge surprise. Perez turns 19 years old today, Scheppers has yet to throw an official pitch in affiliated baseball, and the club will be very strict with each pitcher’s workload. That should preclude both from starting major league games late in the season, no matter how good they look.

3. A variety of guys could help the bullpen. Omar Beltre, Guillermo Moscoso, Pedro Strop, Warner Madrigal -- we will likely see all of them, and any could provide a surprisingly positive boost. There are two, though, who appear to have the package to be electric additions, guys who could turn this bullpen into a different creature if their games come together in time: Scheppers and Alexi Ogando. They have been two of the big stories of camp, Ogando surviving several cuts as the Rangers apparently couldn’t get enough looks at him, and Scheppers showing folks like Ryan such talent that they are beginning to believe that he can front their rotation in time. Watch for these two names this spring. They will start in Frisco, and they could be major factors in Arlington within a few months.