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SP1: Ten questions to be answered on Hwy. 162(Part 1)

02/23/2011

The  Texas Rangers won the American League last season, and made their first ever World Series appearance.

With that sentence, the book is closed on 2010. Yes, it was a great season but the entire 2011 squad has made their way to Surprise and is doing whatever it is that you do in the first week or so of spring training. Some nice long toss, stretching, jogging, all those fun Spring Training activities. Spring Training is a fun time for all baseball fans, because if you’re anything like me once the World Series ends it is a long roughly three-four month layoff. Granted, I had a nice TCU Rose Bowl detour that got me through the winter but that’s another topic for another entry. The one thing Spring Training always brings is questions, questions, questions. Will X be ready, will Y be healthy, how will Z and B leaving, and the list goes on. Ten questions have been compiled, and they will be broken up into three posts(1-3, 4-6, and 7-10). Part one, let’s rock and roll.

 

1. Will the Michael Young situation affect the season overall?

Answer: Before I give the actual answer, I’m not writing this first because I feel it is the most important question of the year. I’m writing it first because I’m sick and tired of hearing about it. This story evolved from a blip on the radar to a nuclear submarine bearing down on the Rangers news landscape. Then it devolved into a media slap fight between the “betrayed” Michael Young and Jon Daniels. It’s long, it’s complicated, it’s overplayed, and since he is in camp training with the team until we have a trade to report this issue is dead. So the answer is no, this little off-season spat will not affect the team because Jon Daniels doesn’t put on a uniform and play. The players in the clubhouse look at Michael Young as their general, their leader and they love him for that. Young returns the love, which he made abundantly clear in the press conference held when he arrived in camp. He loves the team, he’s just having a little bit of a rough time with JD. The plain fact of the matter is I don’t care if JD and Young are sharing a bed, or if they never talk to each other. If Young goes out there every day, gets his hits, and acts like the leader he has evolved into over the past five or so years everything on this front will be OK. We can put away our questions on this, because it’s over. Michael Young is under contract for three years and sixteen million a year, so that means he will play period end of story.

 

2. How much will the loss of Cliff Lee affect the pitching staff, and the club on the whole?

Answer: Most people will tell you yes without a doubt. I will tell you it’s very possible that it will, but I don’t believe so. Let’s step in our time machine, and go back to July 9th. Cliff Lee was traded to the Rangers for Justin Smoak and three names randomly picked out of a hat. At that point in the season, Texas had played 85 games(game 86 was that night, a loss to the Orioles 7-6). The team was 50-36 the day the trade was made, and ahead 4.5 games in the AL West at that time. After July 9, the lowest the Rangers lead in the West ever got was 3.5 games. So by the time Cliff Lee joined this team, they were already at the top and weren’t going anywhere. Factor in that during the regular season with Texas, Lee’s record was 4-6 and he tallied a 3.98 ERA it was not like Lee was God-like when he came over during the regular season. Yes, he was very impressive in Ranger red during the post season until the World Series when he folded like a house of cards and posted an 0-2 record in two starts with a 6.94 ERA in 11.2 innings. So if you’re asking me whether I think Cliff Lee leaving for the Phillies is going to hurt this team I have to counter with “How much did he really help them?” What did Cliff Lee really do except bring that Cliff Lee mystique on the whole? In retrospect, very little. I know the argument “Well he paid off in October.” If we are talking about the ALDS and ALCS yes. Trading for a guy to play in October is fine, but if you want to sign him to a deal because of his post season experience you’re insane.  This team has to get there first, and while I will address that question later I feel that the money and years you would have given to Cliff might not have been the best long term solution. JD and Nolan Ryan are not trying to make this team the 2001 Diamondbacks, who won the World Series and then fell off the map. This team is built for the long term, for a chance to go to the World Series every single year. By not blowing your budget on the first big shiny toy you see, you make a more wise decision that is a long term benefit. Is Cliff Lee nice, you bet. Is Cliff Lee necessary, in short no. This team will go on without him, succeed without him.

 

3. So if not Cliff Lee, who will be in the starting rotation on April 1st?

Answer: Well let’s start with what we know as fact, CJ Wilson is your Opening Day starter and Colby Lewis is behind him. Past that, it’s open season.  There are three spots up for grabs on this thing, and unlike years past there are actually good candidates to fill them. Tommy “Big Game” Hunter posted a 13-4 record in the regular season, then followed it up by looking totally lost in the playoffs. Derek “Dutch Oven” Holland is also a strong candidate, as the 23 year old tries to regain the spot everyone and their mother thought he would have already ascended to by now. Brandon Webb is now with the team after having a monkey shoulder installed to replaced the old shoulder he had that was shredded by his awesomeness in Arizona. You’ve also got the reigning Rookie of the Year, he of 40 saves and a very awesome fastball Neftali Feliz going to get a look in camp to see if he can find another pitch or three and make this work as a starter. Past that, pencil in the long shots of Matt Harrison, Michael Kirkman, Tanner Scheppers, the extremely long shot of Brett Tomko, and that’s your field pretty much. You’e got essentially eight guys for three spots, and from a fan who remembers the days of the “TBA” being written down as the starting pitcher for the Rangers so often you figured the guy had to have some stellar endurance  this is a stellar problem to have. My projected rotation as of Opening Day(remember that): CJ, Colby, Hunter, Holland, Kirkman. Hunter is a Mark Buerhle type pitcher to me, he doesn’t have a really strong fastball but he knows how to use the pitches at his disposal. He’s durable, not afraid to throw what he wants when he wants, and has a mentality that has to be popular with both pitching coach Mike Maddux and Nolan Ryan. Another young gun at 24, Hunter will start the year in the rotation and probably as the number three which is probably his top out.

Holland is my four, and I’ve got a couple reasons for that. The big one is he is one year older, and that is significant. When this kid was being touted as the next big thing, he was a young man. His first major league experience came at the age of 22, and for any major league player especially a pitcher that is rough. He’s 24 now, and the big news on Dutch is that he has gotten a hold on his maturity problems. He has learned how to handle himself better, and that is only a positive. Plus, even though his performance of 13 straight balls in the World Series was horrendous there is a silver lining to that could. At 23 he hit the biggest baseball stage, and he struggled. Which was to be expected, but it’s positive because now he has something to measure against. A regular season game seems much more calm, much less of a hassle now because he’s had the big time experience. In theory it should be a lot easier for him to mentally get his head around pitching now that he’s had a taste of the big time. Couple that with all the articles you read about him, and the quotes about how he feels this will be his breakout year. Rangers fans, you better hope so because if this kid can ever put all the pieces together I really believe you will not be missing Cliff Lee one single bit.

Which brings me to Michael Kirkman, who I’ve got as my number five to open the year in what most people will see as a head scratcher. Not if you look at his 2010 Oklahoma City numbers: 22 starts, a 13-3 record, 3.09 ERA, 130 strikeouts to only 68 walks with a 8.9 SO/9 ratio and 0.5 HR/9 ratio. Cliff Lee started 28 games total in the regular season, posting a 12-9 record, 3.18 ERA, a very scary 185 strikeout to 18 walks with is good for a 10.28 SO/BB ratio, along with 7.8 SO/9 and 0.7 HR/9. Am I trying to say that Kirkman is the second coming of Cliff Lee? Not at all, because Lee is a one of a kind player who has outstanding control that very few pitchers have and ever will. But Kirkman down in AAA showed some similarities to what Lee put up, and he’s only 24 as well. What I’m saying is, Kirkman has shown in a starter’s role at the highest minor league level that he deserves a shot at the rotation. In a field that once you get past Hunter and Holland the question marks start to really rack up, Kirkman could emerge as a surprise player for this thing.

Check back in soon as I will bring you questions 4-6 in Part Two of our “Ten Questions” series.

Sam

sam@sportsperspective.net

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