The key for the Texas Rangers in 2011, their best season in franchise history, wasn’t the second 30-30 season of Ian Kinsler’s career or the big September by then-newcomer Adrian Beltre.
Neftali Feliz posted 32 saves, and Mike Adams was a critical bullpen addition at the trade deadline. Neither of those was the biggest development, either.
Those Rangers, the ones who just missed out on winning the World Series, were buoyed by the remarkable health of their starting rotation in a season in which none of the five spent one day on the disabled list.
As a result, the five starters won a combined 73 games, and the Rangers were forced to lean on a spot starter only five times.
All good things, though, come to an end, and three starters went on the disabled list last year. Two of them are still hurt, and now Opening Day starter Matt Harrison is on the DL with a sore back.
So, for a second straight season the Rangers have had to dip into their pitching depth at Triple A to help keep them afloat.
The key for the 2013 Rangers, at least entering their 10th game of a new season and as it was in 2012, appears to be how well their reserve pitchers will perform.
“We made it through 2011 really only needing five starters, but that’s rare,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “You’re probably going to need seven or eight guys make a meaningful number of starts in an average year.
“The most important thing is to keep our current group healthy. It’s a long year. That’s why we erred on the cautious side with Matt.”
Justin Grimm got the first assignment Thursday night at Safeco Field, taking the spot of Harrison for what could be at least three turns in the rotation before the 18-game winner in 2012 is healthy again.
Grimm was part of a five-deep group that competed for the fifth spot in the rotation in spring training, a spot that went to fellow right-hander Nick Tepesch after perceived favorite Martin Perez suffered a broken left/pitching arm.
After Grimm, the Rangers have righty Randy Wells at Triple A along with lefty Brad Mills, who was signed during the final week of spring camp for the sole purpose of building rotation depth.
Collin Balester and Josh Lindblom, right-handers who were relievers in spring training, are being used as starters at Round Rock.
The Rangers could also turn to long man Derek Lowe for a spot start should, say, Yu Darvish need to be skipped to help the skin issue on his ring finger.
The hope is that the rotation members can maintain their health until Perez and Colby Lewis, an injury victim in 2012, are ready to go again next month.
“Some of our depth this year is in the form of guys coming back from injury,” Daniels said. “We should be in a better position from that standpoint in about a month. Until then, we’re trying to create some options and will keep monitoring the wire and stretching guys out who have started in the past.”
The Rangers turned to Scott Feldman last year with mixed results, and also gave Roy Oswalt, Grimm and Perez opportunities. Alexi Ogando got one start until his groin gave out legging out a bunt.
As the Rangers headed down the stretch, they lost their final 10 games started by Feldman, Oswalt and Perez as the No. 5 starter.
Entering Thursday, though, the depth wasn’t a concern.
“I wouldn’t say we’re holding our breath. I think we’re in pretty good shape,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “We just need to stay healthy. Healthy teams are the ones that prevail.”
Said lefty Derek Holland, who missed a month last season: “I feel strongly with whoever we send out there. Wash [manager Ron Washington] isn’t going to send someone out there who he doesn’t think can get the job done.”
Grimm got the first shot Thursday night.