The doom-and-gloom forecasts for the Texas Rangers’ starting pitching in 2014 aren’t without merit, with Matt Harrison betrayed by a soft bed at his spring rental house and with Derek Holland betrayed by man’s best friend and a wooden staircase.
Two rotation spots are open, though the hope of some inside the organization is that Colby Lewis’ bionic hip holds up and the left arm of late-signee Joe Saunders doesn’t fall off before Opening Day.
But as the Rangers know all too well since the Miracle of 2011, when their rotation posted a disabled list-free campaign, pitching plans don’t always work out as designed.
So the competition among 10 candidates, none of them considered as good as Harrison or Holland, continues at the Surprise Recreation Campus and other Cactus League venues. Saunders and right-hander Tommy Hanson, members of the 40-man roster, auditioned Tuesday at Camelback Ranch against the Chicago White Sox.
The results were mixed, which isn’t unusual for this time of year. The results also aren’t the only thing pitching coach Mike Maddux, manager Ron Washington and a host of coaches, front-office types and scouts will use to fill out the rotation.
Spring statistics can be as reliable as a Ford Pinto, and many times are just as combustible. But one or two shaky outings won’t necessarily throw a pitcher’s candidacy into flames.
The process, as Maddux calls it, for awarding a rotation spot isn’t that simple.
“There’s like two camps: those that are on the team and those that are trying to make the team,” Maddux said. “Results matter for some more than they do others.
“We try to be honest with guys and let them know that some guys might not get an out all spring training and they will be on the team,” Maddux said. “Some other guys that might not give up a hit all spring training, and they’ll have a hard time making the team. That’s just the reality of it.”
Lewis’ spring debut wasn’t pretty, as he issued two runs on two hits and two walks while recording only two outs. But, as the tried-and-true spring cliché goes, he was working on things.
His stride is now longer after his August hip resurfacing, and he was adjusting to that. After a bullpen and a dose of live batting practice, Lewis allowed one hit in two scoreless innings Sunday and was happy with his velocity.
Working on things, at the risk of not getting outs, is part of the spring process for a pitcher. He might throw only fastballs to see how it’s playing. He might have mechanical tweaks to make. He might be trying to add a changeup to his arsenal.
If things do go badly, it’s OK by Maddux.
“I do tell the guys that spring training is full of mulligans,” he said. “If you’re trying something, I’ll be the first one to back you.”
A pitcher also isn’t helped by the Arizona climate. Balls fly in the thin, dry air, which also affects the movement on pitches and turns infields into the firmness of parking lots.
So, when Nick Tepesch allows eight hits in 2 1/3 innings, as he did Sunday, Maddux and crew are unearthing the root causes for an opponent’s success.
“The Cactus League is a great place to hit,” Maddux said. “The fields are hard, the air is thin, your curveballs don’t curve as much, your two-seamers don’t sink as much, fly balls are all adventures, and any ground ball goes through.
“So you look at the process. If a guy is throwing ground balls, apparently he’s getting the bottom of the barrel.”
That includes looking at the type of hitters a pitcher faced, especially if he worked late in a game. Minor leaguers looking to make an impression are in the game at that point, and they don’t let their bats sit on their shoulders.
Also included is the fatigue factor. Evaluators consider when a starter might have hit a road bump. Take staff ace Yu Darvish, who on Monday worked three scoreless innings before surrendering a run in his final two frames as he stretched his pitch count in an effort to build arm strength.
Just about all aspects of the spring pitfalls were evident Tuesday as Saunders allowed four runs/three earned in three innings. Chicago’s second run came on a two-out high infield chopper by noted base-clogger Paul Konerko that in the regular season is an automatic out, and Gordon Beckham started the third with a solo homer that left fielder Engel Beltre initially moved in upon to catch.
The results don’t always tell the full story and aren’t the final judge and jury on a pitcher’s fate, and it’s up to Maddux and the rest of the Rangers evaluators to consider the full picture before eliminating a rotation candidate.
“We look at the process,” Maddux said. “In spring training, those guys that have a baseball card that does have years on it, they’re able to work on things. You have other guys trying to make the team, and those guys are going to be a little more results-oriented. You ask them to get outs.”