On The Rangers' Troublesome Fifth Rotation Spot

The Rangers' fifth starting spot is a mess right now, but they do have several options, led by Derek Holland.

 

So, Rich Harden sucked again yesterday and the Rangers lost an important game with his and/or Scott Feldman's rotation spot on the mound. Richard Durrett does a good job today of reviewing the options for the slot's next start - next Saturday against the Red Sox. The six possibilities he mentions are Harden, Feldman, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Michael Kirkman and skipping the slot, since the team has off-days Monday and Thursday. He also provides Ron Washington's initial thoughts on the start:

Manager Ron Washington said just after Harden's start that right now, Harden is penciled into that spot. But he also acknowledged that he hadn't had a chance to sit down with his coaches and discuss the matter.

The Rangers are in a strong position right now, but a loss to Oakland today would put the A's seven back in the loss column. The race would not be over. August is not the time for auditioning starting pitchers - not when you're in a race - so my preference for Saturday would be to skip  the fifth starter slot. Because of the arrangement of the two off-days, no one would have to pitch on short rest. 

But whether Harden gets one more start or the spot is skipped, all five of those names that Durrett mentions do seem like possibilities for the last eight or ten starts. 

Harden's situation is the most complicated. Jon Daniels said on the radio last week that Rangers brass "challenged" Harden before his last rehab start and that he suspected that Harden pitched mad in that start and his first start back with the Rangers. That emotion apparently wore off Saturday, and with it, Harden's effectiveness. While his recent success hinted that he could still be a factor for the club down the stretch, the return to what we've seen for the rest of 2010 from him seems to be fairly definitive evidence that what ailed him was not fixed by some time off and most likely won't be fixed this season.

I am fine with giving Harden a few more chances to prove himself down the stretch, but not such that the experiment hinders the club's playoff chances. Skipping his spot this Saturday does not remove the opportunity to test Harden. It gives the club a better opportunity to clinch the division sooner and do more experimenting in September, when that sort of experimentation should take place. 

Scott Feldman is strictly a fall-back option. He may offer the least downside of any of the alternatives, since he is a virtual guarantee to complete five or six innings, unlike all of the other options. He also provides little upside, as he is close to a sure thing to allow four or five runs in those 5-6 innings. Still, it's nice to have him as a baseline as the other options play out.

Michael Kirkman is the least likely to receive starts in August because of the roster machinations that would be required (though he is on the 40-man roster) and his lack of track record, but he will be around in September and should get some sort of a look. Kirkman's lack of control and command have held him back throughout his career, but after taking a giant step forward last season in jumping from low Class-A to Double-A Frisco and surviving Triple-A for most of this season, he has turned another corner this summer. He has allowed more than two earned runs in just two of his last ten starts in the offensive Pacific Coast League, and, more importantly, after an ugly 47:36 K:BB ratio through ten April/May starts, he has improved to 66:26 since.

His last three starts have been excellent, as he has allowed one run in six innings each time out and has posted a combined 18 IP | 13 H | 3 ER | 0 HR | 4 BB | 21 K line. He pitches today in Colorado Springs, one of the toughest pitching parks in organized baseball. Another good performance likely puts him squarely in the mix for September, if not next weekend's critical start.

Matt Harrison is an option, but I don't really see the point in going to him right now. While he still hasn't mastered the strike zone as a reliever (19:14, the same as his ratio as a starter), the end results (.222/.308/.313) have been better, as he has avoided home runs. At the same time, I haven't seen the sort of progress that suggests that he would be better than Feldman right now or that his upside outweighs any of the others'. 

Derek Holland is the most intriguing of any of these options, because I think that he has the best chance of being a worthy option in the number four slot during a playoff series if Tommy Hunter or C.J. WIlson struggles down the stretch. Unlike Feldman and Harden, he was actually pretty good in his limited shot as a starter, making three nice starts (combined 17.1 IP | 14 H | 5 ER | 4 HR | 3 BB | 15 K) before shoulder issues cut short his next two attempts and he was placed on the disabled list. 

He has made three starts for the Oklahoma City Redhawks since returning to Triple-A, including last night's start, in which he pitched six scoreless innings but posted a pedestrian 3:2 ratio. His stat lines suggest that he's not quite back, so I would lean away from making the move to him for Saturday's game. I do view him as the top option for this spot for the last several weeks of the season, however.

So there are a lot of variables - as many variables as there are options, plus the variable of the team's lead in the division. Looking at August first and assuming that the race is still on through the month, my focus would be on Holland's progress. Once the Rangers are convinced that he is fully in sync, he's the guy. No one wanted to see him have shoulder issues or experience a setback in his rehab by injuring his knee, but the disguised blessing is that he has only thrown 76.2 innings this season (and had an abbreviated spring training as well). If he is pitching well - and he is capable of pitching quite well - there will be no restrictions on his innings, both down the stretch and for as long as the Rangers last in the playoffs. He also should have one of the freshest arms going.

Until Holland is ready for the spot, and once Saturday's option for skipping the spot has passed, I am okay with seeing what Harden can do one or two or three more times. Once he proves himself ultimately unable to handle the spot, I would rely on Feldman to bridge the gap. Thursday's off-day is the last of August, so the fifth spot will have to make its regular start through the month.

September is where things get particularly interesting. If the team has the division well in hand, the end of the season could be a free-for-all battle for the starting pecking order. Not only will all five of these alternatives be on the roster, Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson could be badly in need of some rest. Lewis has faced the 6-7 month grind of a five-man rotation essentially for the first time in his career. Wilson has too, and he is about to double his major league career high in innings pitched (73.2). He lasted just three innings in his last start - his shortest start of the season and only the seventh time in 22 starts that he did not complete six innings.

The Rangers also have additional relief options to call up and fill Feldman's and Harrison's roles in the bullpen if necesary, including Tanner Scheppers, Omar Beltre, Doug Mathis and Pedro Strop, the last three already on the 40-man roster. So Harden, Feldman, Holland, Harrison and Kirkman could all theoretically get starts in September, as the Rangers slow the pace of the other starters. But unless Harden surprises for more than one start at a time or Kirkman gets a chance and runs with it, this situation should be all about Derek Holland.

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