Injuries should be giving Rangers queasy feeling

02/20/2014 9:21 PM

02/21/2014 8:39 AM

After undergoing three surgeries last year, Texas Rangers pitcher Matt Harrison woke up at spring training Thursday morning with stiffness in his lower back.

Expected closer Neftali Feliz, meanwhile, felt a little stiff behind his right shoulder.

Earlier in the week, the team’s most important setup man last season, Tanner Scheppers, felt a spasm in his back.

And then there’s lefty Derek Holland, still on crutches after knee surgery and probably not back until midseason.

The team has been in camp less than a week. All stiffnesses and crutches aside, when do the men who run the Texas Rangers start feeling something aching inside their own stomachs?

The news Thursday that left-hander Harrison, who was able to make only two starts last season, was again experiencing discomfort in his back prompted the club to abruptly shut him down and make plans for him to return to Texas for further evaluation.

Could be nothing ... or could be Defcon 3.

“Not a big alarm,” Harrison said Thursday, “but I’m a little bit concerned after the issues I had last year. They want to try to nip it in the bud and get it checked out by [Dr. Drew] Dossett to make sure there’s nothing serious going on.”

Harrison is being counted upon to be the Rangers’ No. 2 starter this season.

Holland was expected to be the rotation’s No. 3.

It doesn’t take a lot of algebra to figure out where an extended absence by Harrison, an 18-game winner two seasons ago, would leave the ballclub.

“Let’s wait and see what the MRI shows,” general manager Jon Daniels said, tapping the proverbial fire engine brakes.

Fair enough. But how many more wait-and-sees can the Rangers’ pitching staff handle?

As many as it takes, manager Ron Washington suggested Thursday.

“They’re not going to stop the Texas Rangers season because somebody goes down,” Washington said. “That’s why you bring in numbers.”

Ah, yes, Campaign 2014. The Rangers’ rotation has more candidates than incumbents.

Scheppers himself is one. Lefty Robbie Ross also wants a crack at moving from the bullpen to a starting role.

“Who wouldn’t want to have a bigger role on the team?” Scheppers said. “That’s kind of where I’m at with it.”

Instead of shopping baseball’s late-winter free agent list, however, Daniels and his staff have taken a broader, low-risk approach to covering the rotation’s possible shortcomings. That’s how ex-Brave, ex-Angel, ex-90 mph fastballer Tommy Hanson and Cuba-born Jose Contreras, who may or may not be 42, ended up in the Rangers’ camp this spring.

“It’s all about options,” Washington said, “and we have plenty of them.

“We’ll leave out of here with five [starters], and we’ll feel pretty good about it.”

The club’s thinking appears to be that with 33 pitchers listed on the spring roster, all of the new ones couldn’t possibly be duds. The problem with that theory, however, is that if Holland and Harrison both are absent for multiple weeks, the Rangers may have to tread in uncertain waters for as many as 25-30 pitching starts.

They don’t need, say, Hanson, Contreras or Ross to perform to the high level that Harrison and Holland have in their recent pasts. But in the American League, 30 shaky pitching starts could end up costing a team a postseason spot.

As long as Harrison and Holland come back at some point, Washington said Thursday, the club can handle their absences.

“Say Harrison is not ready to go until May — who cares?” Washington said. “As long as he’s ready to go.

“The guy just came off surgery. We’re not going to panic. He’ll be ready in May.”

One by one, the free agent pitchers have left the market. Matt Garza signed with Milwaukee. Bronson Arroyo struck it rich with Arizona. Ubaldo Jimenez signed with the Orioles.

Is what it would take to sign Ervin Santana — probably in the neighborhood of four years, $50 million, same as Jimenez — a wiser roll of the dice than hoping Hanson, et al., pan out?

Less than a week into spring training, it’s a question for the Rangers with no easy answers.

Aches and stiffness are everywhere at this camp so far.

But I’m wondering how is Jon Daniels’ stomach.

About Gil LeBreton

Gil LeBreton

@gilebreton

Whether it's pondering Moose McNuggets at the McDonald's in Norway or chasing Lance Armstrong up some mountaintop in France, Gil LeBreton has been entertaining Star-Telegram readers for nearly 30 years. He's covered 21 Super Bowls, 14 Olympic Games (summer and winter), saw Muhammad Ali box, Paul Newman drive a race car and Prince Albert try to steer a bobsled.

Gil also once briefly held the WBC Junior Welterweight title belt -- he had to, because the guy he was interviewing, champ Bruce Curry, had to suddenly step into the men's room.

Email Gil at gilebreton@star-telegram.com

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