The Rangers’ season has gone mostly according to plan. They lead the AL West at 26-21, with Oakland two and Los Angeles four games back. The offense has holes, but it has improved recently. Vladimir Guerrero is leading the team in the Triple Crown categories, Nelson Cruz has hit the ground running after a bum hamstring (although he may have suffered a setback at the end of Wednesday's game), and Josh Hamilton has temporarily quieted his critics. Elvis Andrus has stepped up as the leadoff hitter, Ian Kinsler is back from an ankle sprain, and young first baseman Justin Smoak has shown flashes of power and patience. The question for Texas is still the same: will their pitching hold up?
For an introduction to their staff, check out the AL Season Preview I wrote in March. Some of these predictions have come true – Tommy Hunter is on the DL, and Neftali Feliz is thriving as a reliever – while the jury is out on others.
What should we make of Scott Feldman? Last year’s 17 wins are history. He had a bad May (6.97 ERA) and is at 2-5, with a 5.84 ERA for the season. Feldman has struggled badly on the road (7.11 ERA). While his velocity is good at 91-94, Feldman has battled his command. He has fallen behind and lacked an out pitch to escape jams. Some breaks have gone against him.
On the whole, Feldman is on a learning curve. He threw 153 innings in the minors, which is low for an unheralded prospect (30th round choice in 2003). I anticipate Feldman will right the ship somewhat and finish the year as Mike Pelfrey did in 2009 (5.03 ERA). MLB.com points out Feldman has struggled with his cutter and changeup this year. Feldman’s total of 18.1 pitches per inning (P/IP) also is too high for a sinkerballer. More on the Ranger staff’s efficiency later.
C.J. Wilson had a good camp (22 strikeouts) and is now the staff ace. I gave Wilson a look during my spring training wrap-up . Wilson has a deeper repertoire than I thought –as well as his fastball and slider, he throws high-80s cutters, a mid-70s curve, and an occasional changeup. He works right-handers low and in with hard stuff. Wilson has been hurt by hanging breaking balls and inconsistent defense. After allowing twelve runs in his past two starts, he still has a 3.07 ERA. Wilson’s 16.2 P/IP and 3.87 pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) are the best in the Rangers’ rotation. He should continue his success.
Colby Lewis has been a pleasant surprise. He pitches in and out with a straight 91-93 mph fastball and 80-85 mph slider. Lewis also throws an occasional 77-81 curve and low-80s changeup. He has benefited from his fresh start, as hitters seem genuinely surprised by his stuff. While Lewis’ success isn’t smoke and mirrors, he is definitely a sell-high candidate. He is essentially a breaking-ball pitcher with good fastball command – not a safe bet after the age of thirty. Once hitters have seen him, Lewis will become a 180-inning, 4.50 ERA roster filler.
You shouldn’t need reminders to avoid Rich Harden. Long a fantasy owner’s nightmare, Harden is tied with Gil Meche for the major league lead in walks (34). His statistical indicators are terrible: among the 128 pitchers who have thrown 40 innings, Harden is tied with Justin Masterson for the highest number of P/IP (19.8). As has been well documented, Harden’s fastball (91-95) has declined as he has needed his good stuff to move quickly through innings. It’s the flattening of his pitches that has allowed opponents to wait him out.
Derek Holland has filled Matt Harrison’s spot nicely since Harrison went on the DL. He dominated at Triple-A (4-1, 0.93 in six starts) and will remain in the rotation after Harrison returns. Holland has shown just 90-93 mph, but he did hit 95 in his relief appearance on May 26. He is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, but his curve and change are coming along. Holland’s future is very bright, but be cautious in 2010. There are only five left-handed starters 25 or younger who are succeeding in the AL now. Can you name them?
Closer Neftali Feliz has been terrific. He is tied with Rafael Soriano for the AL lead in saves (13). After tiring down the stretch in 2009, Feliz is dialing it back up to the high 90s – he hit 101 three times on May 25 - and he continues to throw strikes. He is now throwing an 83-85 mph slider, although he tips it. Remarkably, Feliz has not allowed a hit over his 8.1 innings on the road. My spring prediction of 20 saves seems conservative.
The Rangers are dancing around what roles Feliz and fellow high-90s right-hander Tanner Scheppers will play on their staff. This spring, they maintained their long-term plan was to move Feliz eventually into the rotation. Considering how well he has performed, it will be hard to move him from the closer role. The Red Sox and Jonathan Papelbon toyed with the idea of turning him into a starter before 2007, but they eventually decided against it.
The problem – and it’s a problem most teams would love to have - with leaving Feliz as the closer is that Scheppers profiles as a reliever even more than Feliz. Scheppers has an overpowering fastball-slider combination and a history of shoulder trouble. The Rangers didn’t pay him a $1.25 million bonus last year to pitch in the eighth inning for them. Scheppers currently is being “stretched out” at Triple-A by throwing two innings every fifth day. It’s almost June, and Scheppers has thrown just 21 innings. This plan sends this message to me: “We don’t want this guy to get hurt in the minor leagues.”
A truer prospect for the rotation is lefty Martin Perez, who zoomed to Double-A as a teenager in 2009 by going 6-8, with a 2.90 ERA in 115 innings. He has had some rough outings in the Texas League both in 2009 and this year, and is currently 2-2, with a 5.26 ERA. Perez has a lively low-90s fastball, a good curveball, and a great delivery. Yet it’s safe to say that his timetable has slowed, as he’ll turn 20 next April.
Other possibilities for the Rangers' bullpen this summer are explored in this excellent analysis on MLB.com by Jamey Newberg. He notes that the Texas bullpen leads the league in innings despite their starters’ success – after all, the highest ERA in the rotation is just 4.22. In a nutshell, the Rangers’ starters need to improve their efficiency. Their staff is averaging 17.17 P/IP, 26th in the majors. Their 352 strikeouts are eighth, so that explains some of it. Yet the Rangers don’t have the depth to throw 130 pitches a night. Interestingly, the club’s top three relievers - Neftali Feliz, Frank Francisco, and a resurgent Chris Ray - are more efficient than any of the starters. If Holland (17.8 P/IP) and Feldman become more aggressive, the Rangers would be more likely to survive the August heat and see some cool October nights.
Radar Love: Fastball Velocities for No. 5 Starters
Baltimore: Brad Bergesen: 88-91 in Washington on May 22.
Boston: Tim Wakefield: 72-73 with the fastball, and 60-66 with the knuckler, in Philadelphia on May 23.
Chicago White Sox: Freddy Garcia: 87-90 against the Marlins on May 23. Dan Hudson is 5-2, 4.47 at Triple-A Charlotte. He has 59 strikeouts in 48 innings, including 11 on May 23 in eight scoreless innings.
Cleveland: Mitch Talbot: 89-93 against the White Sox on May 25. Talbot hit 94 a few times.
Detroit: Armando Galarraga: 88-92 in Los Angeles on May 22.
Kansas City: Kyle Davies: 90-95 against the Rockies on May 22.
LA Angels: Scott Kazmir: 89-92 in St. Louis on May 22.
Minnesota: Francisco Liriano: 93-94 against the Yankees on May 26.
NY Yankees: Philip Hughes: 90-94 against the Mets on May 22.
Oakland: Tyson Ross has been filling in at the fifth starter slot until Brett Anderson is healthy again. Ross, a first-round pick in 2008 from UC, was at 90-94 against the Tigers on May 20. Ross came into the season as one of the A’s top 10 prospects, but a first look at his mechanics makes me dubious he can stick as a starter. He looks like a setup man.
Seattle: Jason Vargas: 84-88 against the Tigers on May 26.
Tampa Bay: Wade Davis: 90-94 against the Red Sox on May 24.
Texas: Derek Holland: 90-93 on May 22 against the Cubs. Holland didn’t hit 93 until the fourth inning.
Toronto: With Dana Eveland designated for assignment and Mark Rzepczynski in Triple-A, the Blue Jays don’t have a fifth starter now. Brett Cecil is their #4, and he was at 87-90 in Los Angeles on May 24. MLB.com reports that Brian Tallet and Jesse Litsch are options for the fifth starter spot once June rolls around and they are healthy.
Arizona: Billy Buckner: 87-89 against Toronto on May 23.
Atlanta: Kenshin Kawakimi (#4): 85-90 in Florida on May 25. Fifth starter Kris Medlen was at 88-92 in Pittsburgh on May 23.
Chicago Cubs: Tom Gorzelanny: 89-92 against the Dodgers on May 26.
Cincinnati: Homer Bailey: 91-96 in Cleveland on May 23. Bailey left the game in the third inning with shoulder inflammation and was placed on the DL. An MRI came back negative, and supposedly he feels fine, so Bailey should be good to go after his two weeks are up.
Colorado: Jason Hammel (#4): 92-94 in Kansas City on May 21.
Florida: Anibal Sanchez: 88-92 against the Braves on May 25.
Houston: Felipe Paulino: 93-97 in Milwaukee on May 25.
LA Dodgers: John Ely (#4): 84-88 against the Tigers on May 22. The Dodgers have been working Ramon Ortiz as their fifth starter, but don’t have one officially listed on their website.
Milwaukee: Chris Narveson (#4): 87-90 against the Astros on May 26. Manny Parra is now the fifth starter, and supposedly will throw on Saturday the 29th against the Mets. Parra was at 92-95 in Minnesota on May 23.
New York: With Jonathon Niese and John Maine on the DL, Oliver Perez is now listed as the Mets’ #3 starter. However, the Mets need to change their website, because Perez is not scheduled to start any time soon. Japanese lefty Hisanori Takahashi is now in the rotation, and he was clocked at ( ) against the Phillies on May 26. R.A. Dickey kept the Phillies down with his 68-78 mph knuckler on May 25. Dickey even mixed in an 84-85 mph fastball.
Philadelphia: Kyle Kendrick: 87-92 against the Red Sox on May 22.
Pittsburgh: Brian Burres: 88-90 in Cincinnati on May 24. Brad Lincoln is currently 5-2, 3.77 at Triple-A Indianapolis. He will likely take Burres’ job in the next month.
St. Louis: Brad Penny hit 90-96 against the Angels on May 21, then went on the DL with a strained lateral muscle.
San Diego: What team leads the majors in ERA? That’s right, it’s the Padres – who have a 2.11 ERA at home. Call Petco Park the anti-Coors. Wade LeBlanc was at 84-88 in Seattle on May 21.
San Francisco: Todd Wellemeyer: 89-92 against the Nationals on May 25.
Washington: Luis Atilano (#4, with Scott Olsen on the DL): 88-90 in San Francisco on May 26.