ARLINGTON -- A punch line was never really needed.
Just the thought that the Texas Rangers would be built on pitching was laughable enough not too long ago.
Maybe it still is to some, or at least it's hard for the franchise's faithful to believe that the Rangers' slugging history, in a hitter's ballpark, will ever be erased.
But the Rangers keep trying, and, as things stand now, they will be built around their starting rotation for at least the next four years.
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The five-year contract extension awarded to Matt Harrison last week gives the Rangers four starters locked up through at least 2016. Each will be in the prime years of his career, and at a relatively affordable rate.
The Rangers can still slug, despite the departures of Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, but their foundation is on the shoulders of Harrison, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando.
"These are accomplished young pitchers," general manager Jon Daniels said. "They've always been talented, but they've overcome some things. They've been coachable. They've figured out some things on their own. They've figured out how to pitch in the American League and in our park to win a lot of games."
There's work to be done before this quartet can become the Rangers' version of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Millwood or Palmer, Cuellar, Dobson and McNally.
Rotations in Detroit and Washington figure to set the bar for 2013, but the core members of the Rangers' rotation carry nice résumés.
Harrison, Darvish and Ogando have been All-Stars, and Holland's profile jumped in the 2011 World Series and figures to rise again in March as one of Team USA's starters in the World Baseball Classic.
Harrison is one of five American League pitchers with at least 32 wins the past two seasons. Among the others are Justin Verlander and David Price, the past two AL Cy Young winners.
"It's huge to know we have those guys, and with Ogando back in the rotation, we've seen what he's done two years ago," Harrison said Thursday during the news conference announcing his $55 million deal that includes an option year for 2018.
"It's going to be a lot of fun. It's going to be a good pitching staff."
The potential is there, but pitfalls aren't hard to imagine.
Harrison, 27, can't regress from the two seasons that put him on the map.
Darvish, 26 and under contract though 2017, can't regress to the form that had him questioning himself in July and August.
Ogando, 29 and under club control through 2016, can't wear down as sharply as he did during his first go-round as a starter in 2011.
Holland, 26 and potentially in the rotation through 2018, can't stay stuck on the same old roller coaster that has provided as many valleys as peaks.
And there's this, courtesy of pitching coach Mike Maddux:
"We just have to make sure everyone stays healthy," he said.
To their credit, each pitcher wants to get better and isn't satisfied with his last act.
Holland is especially motivated to improve in 2013 after going 12-7 with a 4.67 ERA. That's not awful, though the 32 homers in 175 1/3 innings were.
But 2012 was a step back from a 16-win campaign and a Game 4 shutout in the 2011 World Series. Holland was also injured in June, and he has been told that his goofy demeanor and busy schedule cause him to take his eyes off the prize.
His name has popped up in trade rumors throughout the off-season.
So, Holland is driven to follow the path set by fellow left-hander Harrison while toning down the zany persona that produced a pitiful mustache and awful mullet.
"I won't be doing as many appearances and all that stuff," Holland said. "I'm going to limit the distractions. My goal is to show everyone that I belong up here. This is a big year for me. I have a lot to prove, I have a lot to do, and I'm going to do everything I can to do that."
The talent is there, even if the experience is lacking. Harrison, a big-leaguer since 2008, spoke last week over never wanting to stop learning, and no one in the rotation can afford to skip a day of school.
Harrison, Darvish, Holland and Ogando are the Rangers' foundation this year and the future, no matter how unimaginable that might sound for a historically hitting-heavy franchise.
"We've had a lot of turnover over the years in the rotation," Daniels said. "We've had a lot of great individual performances. But to look up and have Matt, Yu, Derek and Alexi, that's the core of the rotation that's going to be here."
"We're not done. We're always looking to get better. But it is evidence that all the efforts we've made on the scouting and development side that has put this young rotation together is paying off."
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760