The field for the final spot in the Texas Rangers’ rotation, at this point a temp job until Yu Darvish finishes his recovery from Tommy John surgery, was thinned out Friday afternoon as pre-camp favorite Chi Chi Gonzalez was optioned to the minors.
A.J. Griffin looks like the front-runner based on his Cactus League body of work, which includes five solid innings late Thursday against Oakland. Gonzalez’s future, he was told, is to be more than a fifth starter, and the Rangers believe he needs more time at Triple A Round Rock to make that happen.
Before Gonzalez’s season-opening fate was handed to him, Darvish threw another bullpen session on the long road back to the majors and then met with the media to talk about baseball and life.
He didn’t really talk about life, something he rarely does, but as Opening Day draws nearer with Darvish still not near being on the roster, he’s facing a new challenge.
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He believes he can retire big league hitters now — “Easy,” he said — but while his fellow Rangers pitchers are getting big league hitters out, he’s relegated to throwing bullpen sessions with no batters in the box.
That’s coming, probably in a few weeks, and will be followed by the build-up to rejoining the rotation. Until then, Darvish is left to find something to grab onto each day rather than be consumed with boredom or dragged down by the sense that he’s on the outside looking in.
“I don’t look too far ahead,” Darvish said. “By staying positive, that means you can either pick being positive or being negative. Both are free. I think being positive is better, so that’s what I pick every day.”
The closer and closer you get back to play, you start integrating yourself back toward the center. You feel that, and I see him in everything we do, drawing himself closer and closer to this team.
Manager Jeff Banister on Yu Darvish
The Rangers have looked ahead, though, as they consider how to deploy their starting rotation without Darvish in it for as long as the first two months of the season.
They know how many times they will need the fifth starter, possibly as few as six starts, before Darvish is back. They are weighing things such as whether to use off days to skip the fifth spot or use the off days to help the starters have something in reserve late in the season.
Nothing beyond the Opening Day starter, Cole Hamels, is official. Hamels pitched Friday night in a late game against the San Diego Padres, heaving 73 pitches in only three innings.
Martin Perez will start Saturday and be followed by rotation hopeful Nick Martinez. Colby Lewis is likely to be the No. 3 starter as the Rangers plant a right-hander to split up left-handers Perez and Derek Holland, who is looking like a fit in the fourth spot because of his ability to work deep in games ahead of a fifth starter who might not work more than five or six innings.
If Darvish doesn’t return until early June, that fifth starter — Griffin, Martinez or a third possibility, Jeremy Guthrie — could log eight starts. That starter, when he’s being skipped, could find himself in the bullpen.
Manager Jeff Banister said that five pitchers remain in the hunt for the fifth rotation spot, though A.J. Griffin, Nick Martinez and Jeremy Guthrie appear to be the top three candidates.
The Rangers aren’t reinventing the pitching wheel, but there are a lot of spokes in it.
“The first two times around the rotation, you need a fifth starter,” manager Jeff Banister said. “With the off day, you can honor the rotation and that kind of puts you at a four-man slot until the third time around. Then, you need a fifth starter, and there’s another off day.”
Banister and Darvish are still seeing their relationship develop after he missed last season, Banister’s first as manager. They talk behind the scenes, when the media isn’t around, and Banister knows Darvish well enough to assess how he might be feeling.
The 2013 Cy Young runner-up, Banister said, is starting to assimilate himself back with the team after being exiled to the disabled list and unable to do anything baseball-related. There’s no slumped shoulders or sense of isolation. The comeback trail, Banister said, has been invigorating.
“The closer and closer you get back to play, you start integrating yourself back toward the center,” Banister said. “You feel that, and I see him in everything we do, drawing himself closer and closer to this team.”
Darvish has had his family with him this spring, which has also helped him stay upbeat. He has even taken to talking to members of the Japanese media this spring after shutting them out for much of his previous three seasons.
3.27 Career ERA for Yu Darvish, who could return to the rotation by late May
As for the baseball, that’s been filled with those positives he seeks out each day. Darvish threw his longest bullpen session — 35 pitches — of his rehab process Friday and felt more energy in his body compared with a lethargic session Tuesday.
He will continue to add pitches until he gets to throw live batting practice. And, each day, he will look for something positive to grab onto.
“I’d like to increase my effort level and pitch with conviction, be a little more into it,” Darvish said. “Right now, my focus is to stick with the plan the team gave me. At this point, I’m satisfied with where I’m at with my pitches.
“I’m trying to be positive every day, and I’m even better than I thought I would be at this point.”