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Monday, March 01, 2004

2004 Preview -- The Ranger Rotation 

As mentioned previously, several AL West bloggers got together to collectively look at the 2004 season and compare how we believe different elements of the rival teams will improve or decline. In conducting this review the participating bloggers are taking a somewhat different approach than is followed by many fans. The basic assumption that most people make when they review teams is to expect a similar output from each player in the coming year as that player produced in the preceding year. Statistics and experience, however, show that it's far more likely that a player's performance will change from year to year than remain the same. Therefore, an alternate way of considering changes is to assume that the contribution from each position will change in the coming year, and focus on assessing whether change is more likely to be an improvement or a decline.

The following links have some background on the approach we are trying to use in this evaluation:
The Basic Bad Assumption
The Better Assumption
As part of the collaboration with Athletics Nation, Mariners Wheelhouse, and Fire Bavasi, here is my look at the Rangers starting pitching expectations for 2004.

RANGERS STARTING PITCHING REVIEW

The 2004 Texas Rangers starting pitching. What a mess.

Probably the best thing that one could say about this year’s Ranger rotation is that it can’t be any worse than last year’s rotation. 2003 Rangers starters posted an aggregate 6.24 ERA, a figure that would be bad even in Colorado. Only one Ranger starter in 2003 posted a sub-5 ERA or had at least 30 starts, and that pitcher, John Thomson, has since departed Texas for Atlanta. Sixteen Ranger pitchers started games last season; of that group, only seven are still around, and two of those seven, Ryan Drese and Mickey Calloway, are more likely than not to be gone from the 40 man roster come Opening Day.

In the disaster which was the 2003 Texas Ranger season, the starting rotation was by far the worst area of the team. Chan Ho Park, making $12 million in 2003, gave the team 29 2/3 IP. Ismael Valdes, the veteran signed to bring some stability and productivity to the rotation, logged just 22 starts and put up a 6.10 ERA. Colby Lewis was all over the map during the season, starting off in the rotation, getting demoted, coming back, and ultimately posted a 7.30 ERA. Worst of all, in the equivalent of the #5 spot in the rotation, Tony Mounce, Chan Ho Park, Juan Dominguez, Robert Ellis, Mickey Calloway, Alan Benes, and Doug Davis posted an aggregate 8.29 ERA in 33 starts.

So is there any reason to believe there will be any improvement? Despite the loss of Thomson and Valdes, and the lack of progress from Colby Lewis and other youngsters last year, there is some glimmer of hope. The Ranger rotation should post an ERA better than 6.24 in 2004. And clearly, given how bad the rotation was in 2003, pitchers just coming close to being average would represent a significant step forward, and result in a big improvement in the overall record for the team. Whether or not that occurs depends on the following guys:

Kenny Rogers

The Gambler is back, for his third time around with the Rangers. Rogers is essentially taking over John Thomson’s role last year as veteran inning-eater and stabilizer for a young rotation that will likely see a lot of turnover during the season, and while the Rangers are no doubt hoping for a season similar to Kenny’s 2002 campaign with Texas (210 2/3 IP, 3.84 ERA, 128 ERA+), they would likely be satisfied with the 4.57 ERA he posted in Minnesota last season.

The Rangers received a great deal of criticism for letting Thomson, their only solid starting pitcher in 2003, accept Atlanta’s 2 year, $7 million deal, rather than upping their offer to $8 million over two years to try to keep him in Texas. While I have been a big Thomson fan, and thought landing him for $1.3 million on a one year deal last season was quite the coup for the Rangers, I can’t really quibble with the decision to let him walk. The Rangers made a reasonable 2 year, $6 million offer to Thomson, and offered him arbitration in order to maintain negotiating rights. By offering arbitration, they ended up with Atlanta’s first round pick when Thomson signed with the Braves. Given the choice between Thomson at 2 years, $8 million, or Rogers at 2 years, $6 million, plus a first rounder, this team is probably better off at this point with Rogers and the pick.

Texas has been criticized for overpaying Rogers, and that criticism is probably somewhat justified; Rogers only made $2 million from the Twins last season on a one year deal, and while he had a solid season, he didn’t put up the type of numbers that would seem to warrant a two year guaranteed deal plus a raise. Nevertheless, Rogers is the type of pitcher that Grady Fuson is pushing to bring to Texas, a lefty with an emphasis on “pitchability” who avoids walks, puts the ball in play, and has a history of success in TBIA. He’s had only two bad seasons his career – his bizarre 1997 campaign with the Yankees, that resulted in banishment to Oakland, and his 2001 season, where he suffered from the nerve condition that led to the removal of a rib.

Rogers will turn 39 in early April, and pitchers at that age have a tendency to lose it pretty quickly; nevertheless, the two most comparable pitchers to Rogers at age 38, per Baseball Reference, are David Wells and Jamie Moyer, guys who have managed to keep it together into their 40s. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have Rogers checking in with a 4.94 ERA for the Rangers in 2004, and Rogers’ K/BB ratio actually improved from 2002 to 2003.

As a groundball pitcher, playing in Minnesota most likely benefited him less than it would most other pitchers; the fast Minnesota turf leads to more grounders getting through the infield, and since Rogers allows very few flyballs, he was less able to take advantage of Torii Hunter’s incredible range in center. Rogers’ chances for success in Texas were much better when he was going to have ARod and Young up the middle behind him; with Young moving to shortstop, being replaced at second by the sub-mediocre (defensively, anyway) Alfonso Soriano, Rogers is going to suffer somewhat. Still, keeping in mind the usual caveat involving a player approaching 40, Rogers seems like a relatively safe bet to post an ERA in the 4.75-5.00 range for the coming season.

Overall, Rogers will probably be a slight downgrade in 2004 from Thomson. The real worry with Rogers is going to be in 2005…

Chan Ho Park

Chan Ho. The enigma. The bane of the Ranger fan. The player who some (including yours truly) believe was ultimately responsible for Alex Rodriguez being a Yankee, since, if he hadn’t been such an expensive, franchise-crippling disaster after signing his 5 year, $65 million deal, Tom Hicks would have been much less likely to go into slash-and-burn mode with this team.

Chan Ho was signed at Christmastime, 2001, with the notion being that the Rangers were getting the gift of a legitimate #1 starter. There still is some question about whether John Hart was the driving force behind bringing the Ho to Texas (he’s the classic John Hart type pitcher), or whether Tom Hicks, succumbing to the wiles of Scott Boras, took the initiative and brought the Ho here on his own. Either way, Park has been an unmitigated disaster, representing an empty pit down which the Rangers are continuing to throw millions of dollars, with no relief available until after 2006.

The entire Park signing was one that I railed about at the time; long-term deals for pitchers are dicey anyway, and giving a 5 year deal at $13 million per to a pitcher who had posted an ERA+ of over 115 only once in his career, and who had never had any success outside of Chavez Ravine, seemed like betting on the longest of longshots. Best case, Park would come to Texas and be a good #2 starter (while collecting #1 starter paychecks). What the Rangers have got is a pitcher whose confidence has been shot, whose velocity has disappeared, and who has suffered from a variety of difficult to diagnose physical ailments (which, many suggest, originated between his ears).

The latest story from the Park camp is that Park’s two years of struggles are all Oscar Acosta’s fault. The former Cub pitching coach, hand-picked by John Hart to take over as Ranger pitching coach (and run out of town less than halfway through his first season in Texas), supposedly prevented Park from doing his usual running in the spring of 2002. His inability to run resulted in hamstring problems which kept Park from being able to properly push-off to generate the necessary torque to throw his 95 mph fastball; the hamstring problems led to the back problems that Park suffered through last season. It has also been suggested that Park’s sense of pride, and the pressure of trying to justify his enormous contract, led him to try to pitch through his injuries, exacerbating the problem. Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus reported a (possibly apocryphal) anecdote last season, where Orel Hershiser supposedly told Chan Ho Park, “You must be hurt, because if you weren’t, you’d be able to throw strikes.”

Now, of course, it is spring training, and hope springs eternal. Chan Ho is back, supposedly healthy, throwing with the rest of the team, and Buck Showalter is reporting that the Ho looks good. I think management has given up on the possibility of the Ho posting a sub-4 ERA for the Rangers; he walks too many batters and gives up too many homers to really be successful in TBIA (something that you think John Hart or Tom Hicks would have taken note of before signing him in the first place).

However, Park did post a 4.28 ERA in the second half of the 2002 season (albeit with an unimpressive K/BB ratio and a .297 BABIP), the last time he was purportedly healthy. If Park is physically and mentally right – and that is about as big an “if” as you will encounter – an ERA in the range of 4.25-4.75 is not an unreasonable expectation. However, there’s no telling if this acupuncture and workout regimens over the last year have restored him to health. And there’s no telling if the pressure of pitching in a hitter’s park, with the huge contract, has ruined Park in Texas – Dodger fans still remember the way he collapsed down the stretch in 2001, when he was pitching for a big free agent contract.

So it is an absolute crapshoot trying to figure out what will happen with Park in 2004. If he struggles again, however, expect the Rangers to try to work a buyout of his deal, or possibly even release him outright; they have shown, with Todd Van Poppel and Mark Petkovsek, that they understand the value of sunk costs and are willing to release players in order to move on. But if the Rangers are going to return to respectability anytime soon, they need Chan Ho Park to start resembling a big league pitcher pretty soon.

Ismael Valdes (now Valdez) had a 6.10 ERA last year in 22 starts from what was nominally the #2 spot. If I had to guess, I’d say Park will put up better numbers than that this year, but it may just be the optimist in me talking. If Park matches Valdez’s numbers from last year, expect the Rangers to start talking buyout.

Colby Lewis

Strangely enough, Lewis, the 24 year old wunderkind pitching prospect who has gotten shots each of the last two years, has quite a bit in common with Chan Ho Park, despite being more than a half-decade younger and making about 3% of what Park does. Lewis, like Park, has a thunderbolt for a right arm and a ton of ability; Lewis, like Park, has developed a reputation for being a bit of a headcase; and Lewis, like Park, has frustrated the Rangers the past two years with poor performances at the major league level.

What is particularly frustrating with Colby Lewis is the fact that he has performed in AAA; it simply hasn’t translated in the majors. Over the past two years, Lewis has posted ERAs of 3.63 and 3.07 in AAA Oklahoma, with an aggregate 142/47 K/BB ratio in 154 1/3 IP, and just 10 homers allowed. Those are the types of numbers that make statheads salivate. Scouts, meanwhile, are equally enamored with Lewis’s mid-90s fastball, hammer curve, and fluid delivery. The combination should result in Colby having established himself as one of the majors top young pitchers; instead, he has a 7.08 ERA in 41 major league games, and was the worst starting pitcher in baseball last year.

There are several theories about why Colby has struggled; Tom Seaver, while announcing a game he pitched against the Mets last season, said flat out that Lewis was tipping his pitches, and that the Mets (and the rest of the league) had picked up on it and were teeing off. Others blame Lewis’s inability to develop a third pitch, saying that he didn’t work on it enough in the minors because he could blow hitters away. Still others see a young pitcher who just doesn’t know how to pitch.

The maddening inconsistency that has plagued Lewis is illustrated by his monthly splits from last year. Lewis posted a 4.45 ERA in April, a 12.05 ERA in May, 12.71 ERA in June, 3.86 ERA in July, 8.88 ERA in August, and 4.55 ERA in September. Lewis seemed to make progress, after his mid-season demotion, although Buck practiced tough-love with him – after good outings late in the season, Buck would basically say, “That was nice, but he needs to do it again in his next start.” Post-ASB, while Lewis did post a disappointing 6.03 ERA, he managed a 43/22 K/BB ratio in 65 2/3 IP. As a flyball pitcher, Lewis seems particularly susceptible to problems with the poor defensive outfield the Rangers had for much of 2003.

Grady Fuson has already said that this season is put up or shut up time for Colby Lewis, and he seems to have embraced the challenge, showing up to training camp having lost 15 pounds, and looking in better shape than the somewhat doughy specimen that showed up for camp last year. Orel Hershiser, who has gotten mixed reviews for his work as pitching coach so far, but who is unquestionably one of the best there is at understanding the science of pitching, has worked with Colby to use his slider more and to generally increase his baseball I.Q. Barring a disastrous camp, Lewis should start the season in the rotation, but if he struggles once more, he’ll likely be banished to the bullpen for good, with the Rangers seeing if he can make a Dotel/Gagne-esque conversion to a setup or closer role.

It is tough to say what to expect from Colby in 2004. Most of the stathead methodologies were predicting big things from Colby in 2003, and after his disappointing season, they have scaled back, for the most part, pegging him in the 5.25-5.50 range (which, in TBIA, isn’t all that bad). Colby reminds me a lot of Bobby Witt, a guy with a great arm and a ton of ability who just doesn’t seem to be able to put it together. I think Lewis will either step up and establish himself as a guy who is a #2/#3 caliber starting pitcher this year, giving the Rangers a sub-4.80 ERA as a starter, or else he’ll be working out of the pen as a setup man come Labor Day with an ERA over 6 while in the rotation. Which one of those is more likely, at this point, I have no idea.

Lewis was second on the team in starts last year, with 26, despite the 7.30 ERA. My guess is that he’ll improve on that figure this year – but if he doesn’t, he won’t get close to 26 starts. Lewis, or whomever would end up taking over his slot in the rotation, should be able to improve on last year’s performance from this slot by at least a full run of ERA.

Ricardo Rodriguez

Ricardo Rodriguez came to the Rangers along with Shane Spencer last year in exchange for Ryan Ludwick. Supposedly, the Rangers were working on a Kevin Mench for Rodriguez deal when Mench broke his wrist, ultimately ending his season, and decided to give up Ludwick (whom the organization seemed higher on than Mench) to go ahead and get the deal done. Rodriguez never pitched for the Rangers last year, having suffered a hip injury prior to the trade which ended his season, but he has come to spring training at 100% (according to reports), and is expecting to nail down a rotation spot.

Rodriguez was a top Dodger pitching prospect in 2002 when he was traded to the Indians in part of a deal for Paul Shuey. The deal was largely panned at the time, with the perception being that the Dodgers gave up too much to land Shuey, but Rodriguez struggled with the Indians, both in 2002 and in 2003, before succumbing to his injury. Rodriguez also hasn’t been particularly young for his respective leagues – he was 23 when he had his breakout season at high-A Vero Beach in 2001, posting a 3.21 ERA with 154 Ks versus 60 walks in 154 innings – and, coming from the Dominican, there are always going to be some questions about his “real” age.

That said, what there are no questions about are his arm. Rodriguez throws in the low-90s, with a good curveball and change. While he isn’t ace material, he’s generally thought of as a pitcher who could be a good middle-of-the-rotation starter, possibly a #2. The jury is still out on him, though, as injuries have plagued him the last two years, and kept him from establishing much of a track record at the upper levels – Rodriguez has just 113 innings at AA and AAA combined, and 123 innings in the majors. While his innings in the upper minors have been impressive, like Colby Lewis, he has struggled thusfar making the translation to the majors.

Also like Lewis, Rodriguez’s 2003 monthly splits are particularly informative. He started off well, posting a 3.32 ERA in April, before dropping to a 6.04 ERA in May and a 9.88 ERA in June, before being demoted to AAA Buffalo, and ultimately getting shut down for the season. While Rodriguez’s supporters say that the decline is evidence of the hip problem (which was initially misdiagnosed by the Indian medical staff), his detractors claim that the physical problems cropped up late in his run, and that his struggles were just a matter of the league catching up to him.

Like Lewis, once again, 2004 is put up or shut up time for Rodriguez. He turns 26 in May, and another lost season moves him from the realm of promising young pitchers to the category of busted pitching prospects. Rodriguez’s repertoire seems more suited to starting than relieving; unlike Lewis, he doesn’t have the big fastball, so he seems less suited to a translation to the bullpen, and thus may get more opportunities in the rotation than Lewis will. Still, given the number of pitching prospects the Rangers have pushing up from the minors, Rodriguez’s window of opportunity is starting to shut; if he doesn’t impress by the All-Star Break of 2004, he could find himself shunted aside.

Unlike Lewis, I see Rodriguez as a guy who could end up posting decent bottom-of-the-rotation numbers this year, and thus staying in the rotation picture without having a true breakout season. The stathead projections for Rodriguez are similar to that for Lewis, but unlike Lewis, I don’t see Rodriguez stepping up and posting huge numbers this year. Even before his injury problems last year, his K/BB ratio was troubling, and his minor league walk totals and ratios suggest a pitcher who won’t be dominating. I think the Rangers would be satisfied with an ERA in the 5.00-5.50 range from Rodriguez this year, and I think that’s a reasonable expectation for him in the coming season, if he can stay healthy.

The Rangers are going to be extremely disappointed if Rodriguez doesn’t perform better than the grab-bag of miscellaneous filler that the Rangers plugged in at the back of their rotation last year. He’s just a couple of years removed from being the Dodgers’ #1 prospect, and although he doesn’t appear to have ace potential, the Rangers view him as someone who can be a building block in the rotation for the next several years. Like Lewis, the leash on Rodriguez will be relatively short, particularly given the number of alternatives in the system. One would expect an improvement from last year, both against his 2003 performance and against the performance of the 2003 Rangers back of the rotation starters; however, as with Lewis, the possible Beta is very high, and we could see a 2 run per game improvement from this slot, or another collection of 7+ ERAs.

R.A. Dickey

The gritty, gutty, R.A. Dickey. A favorite of Showalter, Hershiser, and the Ranger fans, Dickey is the polar opposite of rotation-mates Lewis and Park. A first round pick out of Tennessee early in the Doug Melvin years, a Ranger doctor noticed that Dickey’s arm hung at a funny angle in an Olympic team photo; a subsequent examination detected that Dickey had no ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, which made the fact that he was even capable of pitching a minor miracle. Without the ligament, his status dropped dramatically, and he ended up signing with Texas for a fraction of the usual first round money. Until last season, it looked like he’d be nothing more than a footnote in Ranger history, having toiled at AAA Oklahoma for four straight years.

Early on, however, he caught the eye of Buck Showalter, who has (for better or worse) tended to taking a liking to guys with more guts than ability. It probably didn’t also hurt that Dickey had added a circle-change to his repertoire, giving him an additional weapon for his arsenal. Buck was taken by Dickey’s heart and attitude – he proclaimed at one point that he could pitch in the rotation and out of the pen if Buck needed him to, since he didn’t have an elbow ligament to damage anyway – and called Dickey up early in the season. After riding the shuttle a couple of times, while pitching long relief out of the pen, Dickey finally got a shot at the rotation, and did a respectable job, putting up a 5.25 ERA in 13 starts.

Dickey is very similar to Seattle fifth starter Ryan Franklin – at age 29, he’s older than most pitchers just cracking the majors. Because he doesn't have great natural ability or one dominant pitch, Dickey, like Franklin, substitutes a full arsenal of pitches, a knowledge of how to pitch, and a willingness to grit it out and throw strikes. He seems like someone who would be best utilized as a middle or long reliever – I was critical of the decision to put him in the rotation, thinking that it would result in him being overexposed – but he continued to confound his critics by pitching well, although he did fade late, posting a 5.95 ERA in his last four starts.

Dickey will be on the staff to start the season, and likely will be in the rotation, due in no small part to Showalter’s loyalty to him. I still question whether he can have success long-term as a starter, and think that his highest and best use is as a versatile swingman out of the pen who can spot start if need be. If he gets 30 starts this year, I’d peg him at a 5.50-5.80 ERA for the season. But Dickey has surprised me before…and I wouldn’t be all that surprised if he surprised me again this year. I expect a drop in performance compared to last season, compared to what Dickey did last year in the rotation, but if he gets 30 starts, he shouldn’t do any worse than the pitchers at the end of the rotation in 2003 for the Rangers.

The Other Candidates

The Ranger rotation is as unsettled as any in baseball, and though the rotation seems likely to be Rogers, Park, Lewis, Rodriguez, and Dickey to start the season, there are other candidates who could earn starting jobs, either because of injuries, bad springs, or simply someone stepping up and staking a claim.

Mickey Callaway was claimed off of waivers late last season, and has managed to hang on to a spot on the 40 man roster, against all odds. The Rangers saw something in him last year, and Orel Hershiser worked with him on his mechanics, ultimately resulting in Callaway adding a few mph to his fastball and showing real progress late in the season. Management is intrigued by Callaway, who has bounced around with Tampa Bay and Anaheim before landed in Texas, and will give him a long look in the spring. He seems to be the top candidate to end up in the rotation should one of the above candidates falter, and could be a real sleeper coming into the 2004 season.

Glendon Rusch was signed as a non-roster invitee, after being released by Milwaukee after the 2003 season. Rusch looked like he was going to have a nice major league career after the 2000 season, when the former Royal farmhand posted a 4.01 ERA while going 11-11 for the Mets. Rusch regressed each year afterwards, however, until finally, in 2003, he posted a 6.42 ERA with the Brewers while going 1-12, and suffering the indignity of a mid-season demotion to AAA. As a lefty who is actually younger than R.A. Dickey, the Rangers will give him a look, but given his steady regression, and his tendency to give up the gopher ball, it seems unlikely he’ll crack the rotation unless the Ho gets hurt again, and Lewis or Rodriguez end up imploding.

Joaquin Benoit and Ryan Drese are both still hanging around, hoping for one more chance. Benoit is the more likely of the two to stick, albeit most likely in the pen. He’s shown flashes of brilliance, but has frustrated the Rangers with his inconsistency and lack of focus, although his 5.55 ERA in 17 starts last season was third on the team among starters. He’s best known for coming in from the pen in the 2002 season, in a game where Aaron Myette was ejected for throwing at the first batter of the game, and giving the Rangers 7 strong innings and almost completing a no hitter. He’ll likely end up in the long relief role to start the season, getting spot starts and possibly a chance to crack the rotation. Drese, who came over from Cleveland in the Einar Diaz/Travis Hafner deal, was a bust in the rotation last year, was relegated to AAA, got chewed out down there because of his attitude, and ended up pitching pretty well at Oklahoma to end the year. Out of options, he’s likely to end up clearing waivers and joining the Redhawk rotation, but he’s a possibility to stick at the end of the rotation this year, as well. Benoit, who has the ability but not the consistency, is a better bet to perform if given the chance than Drese, who looks like AAAA material.

In Conclusion…

As I mentioned before, the good news is that the Rangers’ rotation can’t get much worse than it was in 2004. The Rangers have a decent set of options available to start the year, with Juan Dominguez and Ryan Snare waiting in the wings in AAA, likely ready to come up at the All-Star Break if someone isn’t getting the job done, and Edwin Moreno, Nick Regilio, Erik Thompson, and Wes Littleton among those who could be knocking at the door come September.

If the Rangers are going to return to respectability this year, the improvement is going to have to come from the rotation. For that improvement to occur, they need good seasons from at least two of the Park, Rodriguez and Lewis trio. Those three represent the biggest question marks on the team right now, and could end up sinking the team if they struggle. On the other hand, they also represent the best chance for the team to, in the words of Tom Hicks, get better, faster, faster than anyone thinks.


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