The key activity this week at Rangers Ballpark, where the work never seems to end during the off-season, isn’t the renovation of a concession stand or the addition of luxury seating.
The annual winter pitching camp is in full swing, and the No. 1 priority during the five-day spring training warmup is to see if there are enough capable candidates in the organization to replace Derek Holland in the Texas Rangers’ starting rotation.
And possibly Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando.
Questions surround the Rangers’ rotation less than a month from when pitchers and catchers report to Surprise, Ariz., on Feb. 16
The answers as to if Harrison and Ogando, both coming off injuries in 2013, will be healthy in 2014 will become apparent as the season approaches, but the answer as to if there is an in-house pitcher to replace Holland could be formed this week.
“If you look at our guys that finished the year with us, it’s Yu Darvish and Martin Perez and that’s really about it,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said Tuesday. “We’d like to have some of these guys step up. Some of these guys that were healthy need to continue to be healthy, and some of these guys who were not, we’d love for them to regain their health.
“But we’re really looking for these diamonds in the rough to step up and fill the voids that we have. There’s going to be some intra-staff competition for those spots, and it’s going to be the 12 best fits that we can set up.”
The chances would seem slim that a pitcher like Alex Gonzalez, the Rangers’ top pick in the 2013 draft, or Luke Jackson, their 2013 Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year, would make the Opening Day rotation. But then again, no one expected then-prospect Nick Tepesch to make it last year.
Tepesch stands as the front-runner to fill in for Holland. He had an up-and-down rookie season, which was interrupted by a stint on the disabled list, but he is healthy, a year wiser, and working on a changeup that would make him more effective.
The right-hander made the rotation in large part because Perez suffered a broken arm last spring, so he knows as well as anyone the opportunity that presents itself when a teammate is felled by injury.
“My goal approaching it all is to win a job no matter the situation of mine or my teammates,” Tepesch said. “It doesn’t change how I’m going to approach things. I’m not going to change because circumstances may have changed.”
A pair of relievers the past two seasons, Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers, will be stretched out in spring and given a crack at the rotation. The Rangers continue to get positive reports on Colby Lewis, who is throwing off a mound despite undergoing a hip resurfacing in August.
Lewis isn’t at the camp, but Maddux can see a difference after watching a video of Lewis’ delivery.
“It looked like Colby went back in time and found a fountain of youth,” Maddux said.
But the list seemingly has no end. Left-hander Michael Kirkman is in the mix, along with 42-year-old Jose Contreras, 22-year-olds Gonzalez and Jackson, and a few of their teammates from Class A Myrtle Beach and Double A Frisco.
General manager Jon Daniels said that the Rangers are likely out on the remaining big-name pitching free agents, including Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, but are looking at more affordable options.
The Rangers might have to go that route, with lingering concerns about the health of Harrison and Ogando.
Harrison, the 2013 Opening Day starter who had two back operations last spring and surgery on his right shoulder to fix thoracic outlet syndrome in September, threw 35 pitches Monday and has thrown off a mound six times this off-season.
He has shed 30 pounds gained from inactivity while nursing his back, and said that he is on the same course ahead of spring training that he has taken the past few years.
Ogando was on the disabled list three times in 2013, but he finished strong and again made a case that he belongs in the rotation.
He and Harrison will be there in 2014 if healthy. If not, there are a host of in-house candidates ready to fill in.
“We’ve definitely got some question marks entering spring,” Harrison said after long-tossing and doing conditioning work. “It’s unfortunate what happened to Derek.
“Ogando’s proven himself in the rotation. It’s just a matter of him staying healthy. We’ve got a lot of depth in our pitching staff. For me, I don’t feel any more pressure. I’ve just got to go out and do what I’m capable of.”