Having lost out on the arms race for years and years, the Texas Rangers have learned firsthand the past two seasons what quality pitching can do for a team.
An elite starting pitcher can help a team trek through the first two rounds of the postseason and reach the World Series, but a rotation that pitches efficiently and is backed by a deep bullpen can also make it to the Fall Classic.
The Rangers believe that their pitching put them on the cusp of a world title in 2011, and is the key to qualify for a third straight October and to finish the job in 2012.
But there isn't a Cliff Lee to be had on this year's free-agent market, though C.J. Wilson would make a case otherwise. The Rangers' staff ace in 2011 is the best available starter this off-season, and he's likely to command a lucrative contract.
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Major League Baseball's economic system and a group of owners that likes to win are likely to push the Rangers' payroll for 2012 past the $100 million mark.
It's no guarantee, though, that Wilson is in the budget, and the majority of free-agent starting pitchers aren't attractive enough for the Rangers to open their checkbook.
Instead, closer Neftali Feliz could be the biggest addition to the rotation. If so, the Rangers might be buyers on a crowded market for closers.
"Pitching is going to be priority one. It always will be," general manager Jon Daniels said. "That's the mindset that has changed and a large reason why we've had some success to this point.
"No doubt we have a decision to make and a discussion to have with C.J. We've got a lot of good arms, both at the big-league level and close to it, that we've got to sort through before we start looking externally."
Along with Wilson, right-hander Roy Oswalt rates as an attractive starting free-agent pitcher even though injuries limited him in 2011 with Philadelphia.
Oswalt, 34, has been a favorite of team president Nolan Ryan from their days in Round Rock and Houston, and isn't likely to fetch the $16 million option the Phillies declined.
The Rangers might look to Japan for a rotation piece, though the price for Yu Darvish could surpass what Wilson and Oswalt will receive. Darvish, just 25, is coveted more than the last high-priced Japanese free agent, Daisuke Matsuzaka. In 2006, the Boston Red Sox paid $51.1 million for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka.
Darvish is expected to ask the Nippon Ham Fighters to make him available to the major leagues. Clubs will submit a posting bid for the rights to negotiate with him, then will have to give the hard-throwing right-hander a multi-year contract.
The bid and contract could surpass $100 million, and be too much for the Rangers to pay as they attempt to lock up their own players before they can hit free agency in future years.
"Speculation on some of the bigger guys coming out is going to be there," Daniels said. "We've got to look at our core guys first. That's our mentality. But we're all about finding talent. We don't care where it's from."
That includes the bullpen, where Wilson once worked before converting into a starter before the 2010 season. Alexi Ogando followed that path last season, and Feliz could be next.
The Rangers plan to select a role for him soon. If he becomes a starter, the Rangers could choose from many free agents to take over as closer. Jonathan Papelbon is the best of the bunch, but five other past All-Stars are also free agents.
"Philosophically, that goes to why we might consider moving Neffy," Daniels said. "If you move him to the rotation, we'll have to put some things in place to support him as best as possible. If we keep him in the bullpen, we're going to have to do some things to shore up the rotation."
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760