TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

Christmas really came early for the Texas Rangers and their fans with the news earlier this week that the Rangers’ posting bid for Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish was the winning bid.  The club will undoubtedly end up signing Darvish, but the negotiations are not likely to be easy and could well take almost the full 30 days.  Darvish will command a contract of at least five years with an annual salary in eight digits.  The total cost to the Rangers (posting fee and contract) will likely range from $110 to as much as $140 million.  There is no question that this is a bold move on the club’s part.  If Darvish pans out as many believe he will, the Rangers will have one of the top starters in baseball.  If Darvish becomes a bust, the financial disaster could hamper the team for years.

Boston manager Bobby Valentine, who managed in Japan for seven years this century, says Darvish is one of the four or five best pitchers on the planet earth.  On the other hand, the history of Japanese starting pitchers coming to the US has not been good.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was posted five years ago, and the combination of posting fee and contract represented an investment of more than $100 million for the Red Sox.  He won 33 games in his first two seasons, but has won a total of just 16 in the last three years.  He is generally thought to be a bust, but his 49 career wins rank him third all time among Japanese pitchers trailing Hideki Irabu and Hideo Nomo.

It is clear though that the Rangers decided that Darvish is the best starting pitcher option in this season’s free agent market.  He’s at least a major part of the reason the team didn’t stretch to keep C. J. Wilson in the fold or make a bigger effort to sign Mark Buehrle.  He is costly, but the cost to obtain his services is money, not prospects.  There has been speculation about a number of starting pitchers being available this winter, such as Geo Gonzalez and Matt Garza.  Gonzalez was moved to the Nationals this week for four prospects, at least two of which are very good prospects.  Darvish on the other hand arrives without damaging the Rangers’ farm system.  While the total spent on Darvish will exceed on a net present value basis the offer the Rangers made a year ago to keep Cliff Lee, he will open up marketing opportunities that will create income streams that will at least partially offset the cost.

Assuming the contract is finalized, the Rangers effectively have seven starting pitchers, and the question becomes what to do with all of them.  One will become the long man in the bullpen, the role handled by Dave Bush early last season, and by Scott Feldman late in the year.  Those two stepped in to make the only five starting assignments last season that weren’t taken by the starting rotation coming out of spring training.   Feldman is likely to return to that role, leaving six for five rotation spots.

One idea that has been floated is for the Rangers to have a six-man rotation.  This is actually a thought that should be considered.  In Japan, there are far more off days during the season, and Darvish has routinely pitched on five days’ rest.  A six man rotation would represent a similar, not increased work load for Darvish.  The Ranger rotation definitely wore down toward the end of the season, so a six man rotation could benefit all six of them.  One problem with a six man rotation is the bullpen.  Most teams carry seven relievers.  With a six man rotation, either the pen would have to be shortened to six relievers or the position players would be reduced from 13 to 12.

Another option is to return Alexi Ogando to the bullpen.  He was certainly successful in 2010 out of the pen, and was good in the playoffs this year in that role.  However, he was the Rangers’ best starter for the first two months last season.  He showed the stuff and mound presence to be a dominating pitcher.  he in fact made the All-Star team.  Certainly, there is maturity and refinement that needs to happen for Ogando to become a top of the rotation starter, but he showed the promise of becoming not just a good starting pitcher, but a really good starter.  He needs to be given the chance to become what he is capable of being.

Another option is to trade one of them.  One of those won’t be Derek Holland, who was the Rangers’ best pitcher over the final months of the season.  Texas and Holland are said to be in discussions for a long term contract of five years or more.  The two most likely to be traded are Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison.  Lewis is the oldest of the group and can become a free agent after the 2012 season.  He was slowed last season by a hip injury.  Other teams know all these facts too, such that Lewis will likely not bring a king’s ransom in a trade.  Harrison being left handed and younger would bring a greater return, but on the other hand does the team really want to give up on a young left-handed starter that won 14 games with a 3.39 ERA last year?

Actually, the team should probably make no decisions any time soon.  Tommy Hunter was penciled into the starting rotation when spring training began each of the past two seasons, and ended up on the disabled list when the season began.  Everyone is optimistic about Neftali Feliz moving to the rotation, but what if he struggles in the new role?  He has the talent to be a really top starter, so the team will likely show patience to develop him; but there is no assurance Feliz will ever become a solid major league starting pitcher.  The best approach is really to go to spring training and see how the situation plays out.

MINOR MATTERS: Pitcher Eric Hurley, released by Texas earlier this fall, has signed a minor league contract with the Angels.  Hurley was the 30th player drafted in 2004.  He pitched for the Rangers at the big league level in 2008, making five starts with a 1-2 record.  Arm problems have side tracked his career since.  He appeared to be on the comeback trail early this past season at AAA Round Rock until he was hit by a line drive and lost about three months to a concussion.  He was not called up to the big league club in September despite being on the 40-man roster and was subsequently released after the season.

Texas also released left-handed pitcher Kasey Kiker this week.  The 24 year-old was selected in the first round with the 12th pick in the 2006 draft.  Kiker never rose above the the AA level in the Rangers’ organization and represents a major draft bust, as he was selected in front of pitchers such as Kyle Drabek and Ian Kennedy.

The Rangers traded for catcher Luis Martinez, sending right handed pitcher Ryan Kelly to the Padres.  Martinez joins Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba as the catchers on the Rangers 40-man roster.  He will likely start the season at AAA Round Rock, but provides depth at the position.

Lastly, Texas re-signed infielder Matt Kata to a minor league contract.  The Vanderbilt product was with Round Rock in 2011, hitting .293 with 13 home runs and 71 RBIs.

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