Rangers' fate is tied to pitching
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Texas Rangers have lost their primary No. 3 hitter of the past five seasons, Josh Hamilton, and the middle-of-the-order impact bats of Michael Young and Mike Napoli.
Yep, about the rotation.
"I think we're going to score runs, and our defense is going to be good, so I just really think that it's going to come down to the pitching giving us an opportunity to win ballgames," Rangers president Nolan Ryan said.
There's reason for concern.
After back-to-back American League pennants in 2010-11, the Rangers had to settle for a Wild Card invite to the postseason last October, and they got knocked out in the one-game showdown against the Baltimore Orioles.
They led the Major Leagues with 808 runs scored last year, and ranked second to only the Yankees with a .780 OPS. They, however, ranked 16th in the big leagues with a 3.99 ERA in a season filled with pitching uncertainty.
Ryan does not deny the impact of Hamilton, who parlayed free agency into a five-year, $125 million deal with the AL West-rival Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
"I think the day Josh signed, I think the pucker factor went up considerably," said Ryan of the reaction in the Rangers front office.
Ryan, however, felt Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and his staff handled that challenge well, signing Lance Berkman to take over at the DH spot, and A.J. Pierzynski to assume the primary-catching chores, while opting to give Craig Gentry, the fourth outfielder a year ago, an everyday chance in center with 2011 Cuba defector Leonys Martin lurking.
"I think our baseball guys took a step back and said, 'All right, what we formulated going into the offseason hasn't materialized so we need to step back, look at the landscape and figure out what we can do to improve our ballclub,'" said Ryan.
There, however, is still that looming concern about the pitching staff.
Matt Harrison, with 32 starts, was the only member of the rotation to make as many as 30 starts last year. Yu Darvish started 29 games, and Derek Holland 27. The Rangers used 11 different pitchers in the rotation, and the pain was felt early.
Worst fears on the attempt to move Neftali Feliz out of the bullpen to the rotation were fulfilled. Eight appearances, seven starts, into the season and Feliz was done on May 18. He underwent Tommy John surgery on Aug. 1. It's usually at least a year recovery, and when he does return the cautious faction figures to win out and Feliz will return to the bullpen. Holland was victimized by a stomach virus that limited him to no starts in June. Colby Lewis underwent season-ending elbow surgery in July, and could be out the first two months this season.
So where do the Rangers turn?
Well, they do have Harrison and Darvish.
Then there is the hold-your-breath duo of Holland -- who they hope has taken a step up in maturity after an offseason chat with Ryan -- and Alexi Ogando -- whose lack of an offspeed weapon saw him back in the bullpen last year following a second-half fade as a starter in 2011.
"With Ogando, we're going off what he did two years ago as a starter, and you hope that he'll show the consistency that he had the first part of the  season, and that he'll hold up over the course of the year. With Derek, the area of concern is the fact of his inconsistencies. So, yeah, both of those guys are going to need to take their game to another level."
And then ...
"We've got to find a fifth starter and then obviously fill some places in the bullpen," said Ryan. "I think, obviously, we're going to hope that one of the young kids steps up and fills some of the needs that we have."
Part of the challenge for the Rangers is balancing the urgency of the moment with the long-range picture. If Lewis really does return in six weeks or so, how much do they really want to invest in acquiring a starter? So the Rangers are willing to spend the spring auditioning. Martin Perez is a hot topic, but he did not distinguish himself in a 12-game big league audition last year that included six starts.
The Rangers brought veterans Kyle McClellan and Randy Wells to camp as non-roster invitees. Justin Grimm has only two years in pro ball but did get a late-season audition in Arlington last season. And as Ryan assessed the situation, the impression was left that the door is open for Robbie Ross, who moved into the bullpen last year.
"All of us feel that Martin Perez is a very talented kid who has three pitches, and when we start talking about a spot in the rotation, really what you look for is somebody that has that," said Ryan. "The thing I hope to see out of him is consistency. I think for him to earn that spot, that's what he's going to have to do, show some consistency. When you look at what Robbie Ross did last year, his outings in Spring Training were pretty darn consistent and that's what you hope that whoever wins that spot -- I have a feeling that's what's going to be a separator."
At least he hopes it is.
Oakland showed what a strong-armed staff can do when it knocked off Texas to claim the AL West a year ago.
Ryan and the Rangers are looking to call the A's hand this time around.
Their success depends on how the arms develop this spring.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.