At last check, the candidates to be the Texas Rangers’ No. 5 starter are — either confirmed to be or just rumored to be — Randy Wells, Robbie Ross, Nick Tepesch, Justin Grimm, Rick Porcello or Kyle Lohse.
Lohse almost certainly wouldn’t be the No. 5 starter if the free agent were to be signed with less than two weeks remaining before Opening Day, but the competition to round out the rotation would be finished. The possibility of that happening, though, seems remote.
While much is being made for a spot that might get only eight turns before Colby Lewis is ready to come off the disabled list, the other 80 percent of the Rangers’ rotation continues to get ready for the season.
The spring camps for Matt Harrison, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando haven’t been uneventful. Harrison (toe), Darvish (neck) and Holland (stomach) have been slowed some, and only Darvish has cruised through his Cactus League starts without an on-field hiccup or two.
That has also prompted the Lohse and Porcello speculation.
But, with 10 days left until the season opener, the belief is that the first four starters are trending positively toward the regular season and will be good enough by March 31 to make the Rangers a front-runner for the postseason.
“There’s two righties and two lefties that we know of, and they all have big-game experience,” catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. “Our top four guys we can run out there against any other four and have a chance to win that day. That’s what you’re looking for. I look at the pitching as one of the strengths of this organization.”
There is still time for the schedule to be adjusted, but as things stood Wednesday on the final off day of spring training Harrison was in line for the Opening Day start, followed by Darvish, Holland and Ogando.
Pierzynski’s perspective of that quartet also includes what he saw as an opposing player with Chicago before signing a one-year free-agent deal in the off-season. He has batted against each of them as a member of the White Sox and is seeing firsthand from behind the plate just how good they could be.
He remembers Ogando as a starter in 2011, when the right-hander was an All-Star despite throwing only a fastball and a slider, and says the work being done on a changeup this spring will make Ogando more effective.
So will ratcheting up his intensity, something that has been as much a focal point as he transitions back from the bullpen.
“As a starter, you’ve got to be able to do it for six or seven innings,” said Pierzynski, who called Ogando’s stuff “electric.” “He’s done it before, and it’s a matter of proving he can do it again. He’s got all the things that you need. It just comes down to the same as a lot of pitchers: focus and intensity and belief.”
Darvish seems to have left the biggest impression on Pierzynski, who has caught Cy Young winners and All-Stars during his career.
Darvish’s stuff is on par with the best of the best, and his mind is in a good, relaxed place without the same media following as last year and because he is buoyed by his strong finish to 2012.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Pierzynski said. “He’s got as good of stuff as anybody I’ve ever caught. He’s got the ability to be really, really special. He’s got six or seven pitches, and they’re all as good as the next one. He can do it all.”
Harrison is hoping to continue to do more in 2013 after establishing career-bests in victories, ERA and innings in each of the past two years. He is on track to be the Opening Day starter, with fellow left-hander Derek Holland in line to be the No. 3 starter after impressing at the World Baseball Classic and in three chances so far in camp.
Harrison bombed in his spring debut, allowing four runs in one inning, but he dazzled with five shutout innings Saturday against the Dodgers. The inflammation between the first and second toes on his left foot has been cooled by a cortisone shot.
His goal remains to win the Cy Young Award, which doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it did two years ago when he was just trying to win a spot in the rotation. And Harrison sees room to improve.
“Just keep trying to be consistent, and don’t try to do something you’re not capable of doing,” said Harrison, who is entering his sixth big-league season. “The biggest part of it is experience. You’re learning more each time out. You remember guys you face, the teams, the personalities and what they like to do in situations.”
The other key ingredient toward improvement, and not just for Harrison, is health. The Rangers’ rotation didn’t fare too well in that area last season, and a lack of health is part of the reason for the trepidation concerning the No. 5 spot.
But based on what veterans like Pierzynski and Harrison are seeing, setting all good and iffy statistics and pitching lines aside, the Rangers’ rotation is trending the right way as Opening Day nears.
“I think it looks pretty good,” Harrison said. “If we consistently do what we’re capable of doing, we’re going to have a good year.”