PHOENIX -- Yu Darvish announced his presence with authority in the Cactus League, looking downright Cy Young Award-worthy last weekend. He threw a 94 mph fastball and a 62 mph curveball, and it hardly mattered that he was facing his teammates on a back field in an intrasquad game at Surprise Stadium.
“The way he looked today, he’s ready for Opening Day," catcher Robinson Chirinos said after the performance.
Flash-forward six days and the Rangers are facing a grim reality with their staff ace: Opening Day 2016 is probably a stretch.
No matter how stoically the Rangers tailor their response, it’s devastating news that Darvish has a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and might require Tommy John surgery. He resides in that upper echelon of big league starters, and his absence would put a major crimp into the team’s ability to rebound from a 67-95 record and last-place finish in the American League West in 2014.
Darvish’s injury injects a vibe of here-we-go-again to a team that couldn’t wait to put last season behind it. The Rangers have already lost infielder Jurickson Profar for 10 to 12 weeks with a shoulder problem, and now they are on the verge of losing a starter who matches up with Felix Hernandez, David Price and the best the American League has to offer.
“When he’s right, he’s one of the best in the game," said general manager Jon Daniels. “That much is clear. You’re talking about a guy who’s a year removed from being second in the Cy Young voting. It speaks for itself."
The Rangers probably thought they had exhausted their share of bad injury news last season, when they incurred 2,281 disabled list days. (By comparison, the Arizona Diamondbacks were second in the majors with 1,448 DL days.) Texas used 11 first basemen and 40 pitchers -- including Mitch Moreland, Chris Gimenez and J.P. Arencibia, who are position players.
With Darvish out of the picture, everything changes in the rotation. Derek Holland and Yovani Gallardo ascend from Darvish’s trusty sidekicks to Texas’ Nos. 1 and 2 starters (feel free to pick the order). Colby Lewis and Ross Detwiler move up from back-end guys to Nos. 3 and 4 starters. And barring a significant acquisition, Nick Tepesch, Nick Martinez, Alex Gonzalez, Anthony Ranaudo and Lisalverto Bonilla are in the mix for the final spot. New manager Jeff Banister even mentioned veteran Ross Ohlendorf as a potential candidate for the fifth job.
Inevitably, knee-jerk speculation will focus on the possibility of Daniels making a trade. But it’s hard to imagine he will empty out the farm system to make a run at Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels, who still has four years and $96 million left on his contract. Even if the Rangers found a way to acquire Hamels, the money invested would put a dent in their ability to retain Darvish when he becomes eligible for free agency in 2017.
Between innings of the Texas-Milwaukee game at Maryvale Baseball Park on Saturday, Daniels said he is keeping all options on the table.
"I don’t think you rule anything out," he said. "We actually came into camp pretty pleased with our starting depth and some of the options we have. That’s not to say that at some point down the line, you don’t look outside.
"It’s not easy when you lose one of the key guys on the club. But we’re not the only club it’s happened to, and we’re not the only club it’s going to happen to. Nobody cried for San Francisco when they lost Matt Cain [last season]. These things happen. They suck, but they’re part of the game."
If there was a smidge of positive news to be gleaned from Saturday in Texas’ camp, it came in the form of Banister’s poised and authoritative reaction to the loss of Darvish. Banister was an undiscovered gem for years as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ coaching staff, and he displayed a mix of Clint Hurdle and Clint Eastwood in his response to the loss of Darvish.
First, Banister gathered his players and coaches and gave them an update so they wouldn’t be caught off guard. Then he expressed the same sentiment voiced by Daniels -- that the Rangers will not lapse into a "woe is me" posture and declare the 2015 season a lost cause.
"First and foremost, I feel terrible for any player that goes through this," Banister said. "But the human body breaks sometimes. We’ve got to do our best to try to prevent it, but when it does, you have a plan. Man down, and next man up.
"We’re going to wrap our arms around Yu and love him up. We’re going to keep his locker warm and the light on for him. We’re not going to close up shop. If it comes down to Yu Darvish not being able to go, nobody in baseball is going to call a 20-second timeout for the Texas Rangers."
There’s inevitably a personal toll on players who suffer major injuries and teammates who share the clubhouse with them. Veteran infielder Ed Lucas, who is competing for a job off the Texas bench, saw a similar scenario play out in Miami when Jose Fernandez, the team’s young ace, had Tommy John surgery last spring. In September, the Marlins lost MVP candidate Giancarlo Stanton to a fastball in the face.
"Of course, it’s tough from a team perceptive, but it’s also tough from a personal perspective," Lucas said. "I don’t know Yu that well yet, but I know what it’s like from watching Jose last year. Everybody knows what type of competitor Jose is, and it killed us to have to watch him go through that on the sidelines while we were out there battling every day. Unfortunately, this is becoming more and more a part of today’s game."
Lucas paused for some reflection. He faced Darvish in the first live batting practice in camp and recalled how it looked like Darvish was throwing “about 110."
One can only imagine how anguished Darvish is right now. After pitching in the intrasquad game, he did an English-language interview with Texas beat reporters and talked about his greater comfort level in camp. He and his girlfriend have a baby on the way, and Darvish acknowledged that he was in a very good place this spring.
A few days and 12 pitches later, he's on his way for a second opinion, and he might be on an operating table by mid-March. It’s hard for Texas fans or anyone who follows baseball to wrap their minds around that.