The Rangers’ 2011 Rotation

The Rangers have said they would like to re-sign Cliff Lee after the season and who can blame them? Even though Lee has posted a 4.69 ERA and dealt with a sore back since the Mariners traded him to Texas, he can still be dominant. He has issued just four unintentional walks with the Rangers and struck out 72, so the former Cy Young Award winner is doing something right, in spite of the higher-than-expected ERA.

But lots of teams will want Lee, who figures to be the most highly-coveted free agent starter this offseason. Under new, stable ownership the Rangers have shown signs that they are intent on winning now and are willing to spend. The club traded prospects away to make midseason acquisitions and claimed Manny Ramirez despite his substantial salary.

The Rangers' aggressiveness suggests we shouldn’t count them out of the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, but even if they lose their ace to free agency, the Rangers will have four capable starters.

Tommy Hunter, Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson and Derek Holland were not sure things earlier in the season, but all have built strong cases to remain in next year’s rotation. Hunter had appeared in just 22 major league games going into 2010, but he has since posted a 3.99 ERA and has only allowed 2.5 BB/9. Like many current AL West starters, the 24-year-old has handled major league bats early on in his career.

It took a while for Lewis to figure big league hitters out, but he has become a resounding success for GM Jon Daniels since returning from Japan. So far in 2010, Lewis has a 3.96 ERA with 8.7 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9.

Wilson, a converted reliever, has also become a staple in Ron Washington’s rotation this year. The 29-year-old had not started a major league game since 2005 when the Rangers added him to their rotation this spring, but he has responded well. He leads the American League in walks, but has a 3.10 ERA and 7.4 K/9.

Derek Holland, who recently replaced Rich Harden in the rotation, strung together 11 dominant starts in Triple A before joining the big league club. He has a 4.93 ERA with 8.0 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 in the majors, and the lefty’s still just 23.

The Rangers and Harden have an $11MM mutual option with a $1MM buyout for 2011 and it seems probable that the team will choose to buy the right-hander out. Harden, now in the ‘pen, has walked 6.0 per nine and has a 5.36 ERA. Even if Harden and Lee depart, the Rangers have an assortment of starters to consider if they choose to fill their fifth rotation spot internally:

  • Scott Feldman, a 17-game winner a year ago, has a 5.43 ERA and is now on the disabled list.
  • Matt Harrison, a 25-year-old lefty with a 3.93 ERA already has extensive experience as a starter.
  • Omar Beltre, also on the DL, had a 2.65 ERA in the minors this year, though he struggled in a pair of major league starts.
  • Michael Kirkman, who has been excellent out of the Rangers’ pen recently, posted a 3.09 ERA with 8.9 K/9 and 4.7 BB/9. Before the season, Baseball America suggested the left-hander could become a workhorse starter in a major league rotation.
  • Brandon McCarthy missed significant time with a shoulder injury this year, but pitched well in Triple A. He makes $1.3MM now, so he won’t come cheap if the Rangers tender him a contract in 2011.
  • Neftali Feliz has value out of the bullpen and will be even more important in the late innings if Frank Francisco leaves via free agency. Still, Feliz has the stuff to be a number one starter.
  • Other starting pitching prospects, like Martin Perez, Joseph Wieland and Neil Ramirez, are further away from contributing to the big league rotation.

Bringing Lee back would keep things simple. The Rangers then trot him out on Opening Day 2011 and follow him with Wilson, Lewis, Hunter and, if he earns the spot in Spring Training, Holland. The Rangers have options even if they don’t sign Lee, but retaining the lefty would give them an ace atop the rotation.