Players on the Texas Rangers’ spring-training roster began showing up at the Surprise Recreation Campus last week to prepare for another 162-game go-round in 2014.
Missing, though, is left-hander Derek Holland, who won’t be leaving behind the friendly confines of Dr. Keith Meister’s TMI Sports Medicine facility in Arlington for another week.
That leaves one spot in the starting rotation wide open, and the other four held down by:
1) Yu Darvish, a Cy Young runner-up who finished last season with nerve inflammation in his lower back.
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2) Matt Harrison, an 18-game winner in 2012 who pitched only twice in 2013 because of a herniated disk .
3) Alexi Ogando, 19-12 in his career as a starter but a resident of the disabled list three times last season.
4) Martin Perez, who pitched a career-high 167 2/3 innings last year, 124 1/3 of which came in a 19-start stretch from June 22 to Oct. 1.
So, as pitchers and catchers report Sunday, signaling the beginning of another spring camp and another baseball season, no one issue is as big as the starting rotation and no one player is as important to the Rangers’ success in 2014 as an able-bodied Harrison.
An able-bodied Ogando is running a close second.
“This is a big hurdle I have to take on, physically being back the same way I was before,” Harrison said. “That’s going to be tough, but I’ve done everything possible to get back to 100 percent and be ready for our season. I guess time will only tell once I get back in some game action.”
The Rangers have been vastly improved on the mound in recent seasons, ranking among the league’s best, and Darvish has been as good as the Rangers expected he would be when they plucked him from Japan two years ago.
The offense received a boost with the acquisitions of first baseman Prince Fielder and left fielder Shin-Soo Choo, but the club needs Jurickson Profar, among others, to show more in the bottom half of the lineup.
Not all is settled in the bullpen, where the departure of Joe Nathan has left a significant void at closer. But the first six or seven innings, ideally more, that the rotation is able to provide trumps all other areas of concern.
Harrison appears to be full speed ahead, but the Rangers will tap the brakes if necessary. They don’t have much choice but to be cautiously optimistic with Holland out until at least the All-Star break after undergoing microfracture surgery last month to repair damage to his left knee.
Though he has battled inconsistencies throughout his career, Holland for the most part has been an innings-eater capable of streaks of brilliance. Removing that from the rotation for some 20 starts adds to the importance of keeping everyone else healthy.
“It’s going to be a situation that’s going to have a lot of communication between him and Wash and Mike and the medical staff,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “[Harrison] is of the mindset that he’s full-go and it never happened. He’s not going to ease up. That’s not his nature.”
Ogando was expected to settle into the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Now, anyone from Nick Tepesch to Colby Lewis to Tommy Hanson could take the spot. So could lefty reliever Robbie Ross. So could 42-year-old Jose Contreras.
The Rangers like the group that is competing to fill in for Holland. The key for them is also remaining upright.
“A lot of potential. A lot of options. Some unanswered questions,” Daniels said. “If we get through spring healthy, I feel good about our group. I really do.”
If that group performs well enough this spring and red flags are raised about Ogando’s ability to stay healthy, Ogando could find himself in the bullpen.
Daniels didn’t speak to Ogando late last month while at the Rangers’ Dominican academy, but those who did said that the right-hander is in a good spot mentally and physically.
He wants to be a starter, and said that he worked during the off-season to strengthen his shoulder after hitting the disabled list three times in 2013.
“I don’t want to go back like last year,” he said.
Ogando can’t, and neither can Harrison if the Rangers hope to end Oakland’s two-year reign atop the American League West. As of reporting day for pitchers and catchers, neither expects to repeat last season.
“I look to go out there and make every start,” Harrison said. “Time will tell how I feel start to start. Right now, I feel 100 percent. A lot will be said once I get back out there every five days and get my body going and get that adrenaline rush again. But I expect to be out there every five days.”