Texas Rangers

First three Rangers pitchers to watch this spring have similar storyline, elbow scars

Shelby Miller was a National All-Star for the Braves in 2015 before getting traded after the season. He hasn’t been the same since, but the Rangers believe he can be effective again.
Shelby Miller was a National All-Star for the Braves in 2015 before getting traded after the season. He hasn’t been the same since, but the Rangers believe he can be effective again. TNS

No offense to the Texas Rangers catchers who reported to spring training Tuessay, but the pitchers arriving with them are the stars of this show.

Think of a cliché about the importance of pitching, and plug it in here. Here’s one: A team only goes as far as its rotation. Also, a team only goes as far as its bullpen.

Pick your poison, but the point is a team that doesn’t pitch well doesn’t win much.

The Rangers believe they have the potential to field a decent pitching staff assuming all the ifs come in. If the rotation stays healthy. If they get contributions from young relievers. If they don’t find a trade that can’t refuse.

That’s the state of the pitching staff entering their first workout Thursday, and here’s a list of five pitchers to watch the next seven weeks.

Edinson Volquez

The middle part of the Rangers’ famed DVD pitching prospects from the last decade returns to the team 11 years after he was part of the Josh Hamilton trade with the Cincinnati Reds, and he does so after not pitching in 2018.

The right-hander was recovering from the Tommy John surgery he had late in the 2017 season with the Miami Marlins, shortly after throwing a no-hitter. The Rangers say that he completed his rehab last fall and enjoyed a normal offseason.

Volquez is not a pup anymore, but he still understands how to get hitters out. The question, one that applies to at least 60 percent of the rotation, is if he will be healthy enough and effective enough to do so.

Drew Smyly

Joining Volquez on the sidelines last season, though with the Chicago Cubs, was Smyly, who needed Tommy John in 2017 while with the Seattle Mariners.

The left-hander never threw a pitch for either team, and hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since 2016 with the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rangers are saying the same thing about Smyly as Volquez – they are confident that he completed his rehab last fall and will be ready to go on Opening Day. Smyly relies on his command, and that’s often a bugaboo for pitchers coming off Tommy John.

Does this question about him sound familiar: Will he be healthy enough and effective enough to get hitters out?

Shelby Miller

And three makes a crowd. Miller, like Volquez and Smyly, is coming off Tommy John surgery in 2017. Miller pitched in 2018, only 16 innings as his elbow started barking again shortly after he returned.

But he, too, had a normal offseason, and the Rangers believe he has the power stuff to recapture the form he showed early in his career before he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

If he does, the Rangers have struck gold after they missed out on the Brownwood High product in the 2009 draft. Based on the past three seasons, though, that’s a big if.

Jose Leclerc

The surest thing the Rangers had last season, and arguably the game’s second-best reliever to Oakland closer Blake Treinen, Leclerc enters spring training with a guaranteed spot on the team for the first time in his career.

He was just hoping he could make it last spring, and he ended up with the MLB’s best opponents average by a reliever (.126). Leclerc finished the season as the closer, and that’s where he will start 2019.

So, it will be interesting to see how he will handle not having to compete for a job while also knowing that he is no longer a secret entity. The rest of baseball knows who Leclerc is, and he might have to make adjustments.

Taylor Hearn

The Rangers couldn’t pull off a trade last summer that will equal the impact of the Mark Teixeira trade of 2007, but Hearn was the best of the six-trade haul.

The Royse City product, acquired for Keone Kela, is a hard-throwing lefty who the Rangers will continue to let start despite some who are projecting a few as a reliever. Hearn, though, quieted some of that talk with his best season as a starter.

He will not make the team out of spring training, but he could be the first pitching prospect to make his MLB debut in 2019, beating Jonathan Hernandez, Brock Burke and Joe Palumbo.

Kyle Bird

Part of the Jurickson Profar package, this left-hander has the best chance of the trade haul to make the Opening Day roster. He must separate himself from a large group of inexperienced lefties to claim perhaps the final spot in the bullpen.

Jeffrey Springs could be the front-runner for the spot, especially if the Rangers plan to use The Opener at times this season, but hard-throwing C.D. Pelham also finished the season in the majors.

The Rangers are unlikely to pursue a free-agent bullpen lefty, which sounds like bad news for a Jake Diekman reunion, but never say never in this age of free agency.

Bird, who lefty hitters barely touched last season in the minors while he piled strikeouts against both sides, might be the one player who each spring comes from relative obscurity to make the team.

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After 11 seasons covering the Rangers for the Star-Telegram, Jeff Wilson knows that baseball is a 24/7/365 business and there is far more to baseball than just the 162 games each season. There’s also more to Jeff -- like a family and impressive arsenals of Titleist hats and adidas shoes -- but sometimes it’s hard to tell.
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