Texas Rangers

In face of low expectations, Rangers starters for 2018 see bounce-back season

Cole Hamels spent the off-season evaluating his 2017 performances and training to prevent another injury this season.
Cole Hamels spent the off-season evaluating his 2017 performances and training to prevent another injury this season. Special to the Star-Telegram

Tenth in a series of spring training previews

The bellyaching over the starting rotation Jon Daniels has pieced together for the Texas Rangers’ new season has reached the pandemic level, but the cure remains available on days before pitchers and catchers report for spring training Tuesday.

Yu Darvish is still on the free-agent market. If a Darvish prescription won’t make the fan base feel better, a 30-plus dose of starts from the other top free agents still on the market — especially Jake Arrieta or Alex Cobb — would help turn things around, too.

All Daniels has to do is give Darvish a competitive offer, which by now could be more reasonable than what his expectations were entering free agency in November.

But Daniels said again last week, as he has said often this off-season, that the Rangers are unlikely to play at that end of the market. The general manager, presumably at the behest of ownership, continues to provide discount solutions, most recently Bartolo Colon.

The ongoing uneasiness about the rotation might be a slap to the face of those who are actually in it. They know who remains available and understand that a few of them would be an upgrade, but they also believe that in 2018 they can be as good as they’ve been in the past.

“We’ve got a lot of good pitching,” outfielder/designated hitter Shin-Soo Choo said. “Especially the new guys. I’ve played against all three guys. They’re good pitchers. I’m very excited.”

The rotation entering camp includes left-handers Cole Hamels, Martin Perez, Mike Minor and Matt Moore, and right-hander Doug Fister. Righties Colon and Matt Bush are on the outside looking in.

So, how good have Hamels, et al. been?

Hamels has been one of the best left-handers in the game and is motivated to bounce back from what he considers to be a sub-par season. His 4.20 ERA was the second-worst of his 12-year career, but what miffed him the most was the early-May oblique injury that cost him nearly two months.

The injury cost him at least eight starts and at least 45 innings, and put into jeopardy his future with the Rangers beyond this season. Unless he delivers 252 innings, a $24 million option for 2019 won’t automatically vest and then becomes a $20 million club option.

Hamels said that he expects the Rangers to pick up the option, and Daniels has spoken of the Hamels not returning only as technically possible.

“Last year I didn’t really reach a lot of the goals I have set,” he said. “This has been an off-season to really gather information and correct to make this a successful season as a whole.”

Perez insists that he will not miss a single start to open the season after a freak off-season injury to his non-throwing elbow. He threw his first spring bullpen session Feb. 2 and was able to catch every throw back to him with the bum elbow.

He saved his season in the second half, winning a career-high seven consecutive starts and finishing with a career-high 13 wins. His ERA shrank from 5.46 to 4.82 over his final 11 starts.

Rhythm and confidence have also fueled Perez, and he said that he is carrying both into spring training.

“I still have, so that’s why I don’t want to miss anything,” Perez said. “I’ve been working with my arm to be ready on the first day, and I have the conviction that I’m going to be ready.”

Fister, the lone right-hander in the rotation barring Colon or Bush nabbing a spot, believes that the adjustments he made in Boston late last season have his sinker back where it was during his best seasons from 2011 to 2014.

He went 51-38 with a 3.11 ERA in 114 starts over 750  2/3 innings. He allowed only 58 home runs and walked only 136. Both of those stats are areas where the Rangers know they must improve.

The other two newcomers, Moore and Minor, are hoping to recapture past forms that put them among two of the best young lefties in the game. Each has dealt with injuries since.

Minor, 13-9 with a 3.21 ERA in 2013, didn’t pitch in the majors in 2015 and 2016 because of a shoulder issue. Moore, who was 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA in 2013, missed most of 2014 and 2015 because of Tommy John surgery.

Minor is trying to become a starter again after spending last season as a reliever. He’s confident he can carry the innings, even though he hasn’t done it since 2014.

“I’m going to be curious, but I’m excited,” Moore said. “I’m three years away from surgery, but I feel like I’m in a better spot than I was three years ago, two years ago and a year ago.”

Moore made a strong case as the majors’ worst starter last season, going 6-15 with a 5.52 ERA. The main positive to come from the season, which San Francisco Giants fans probably think is a negative, is that Moore felt healthy after each start and didn’t miss a turn.

He has also targeted what caused his misery and is open-minded heading to camp, ready to pick the brains of pitching coach Doug Brocail and the other starters. He said that having three other lefties in the rotation could work to their advantage.

“I’m always going to be open to suggestions to what Doug has going on, or Cole or Martin,” Moore said. “Cole’s been around probably twice as long as I have. I’m going to need some of those, ‘What did you do to that guy?’ We all throw changeups. We can talk about cutters and high fastballs. I’m expecting we’ll indulge in that.”

They need all the help they can get, according to all the off-season bellyaching. But they believe they can reach their past levels and help the Rangers beat expectations this season.

“There’s a huge upside,” Fister said. “There’s a big potential. Having that experience of being in certain situations, whether it’s pressure situations or it’s just off-the-wall situations, it comes into play. If we can play off one another and make a run for it late, that’s a goal for us.”

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