Rangers begin process of finding healthy rotation
As camp opens, club has seven candidates for five spots, several coming off injury
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Tommy Hanson each threw bullpen sessions on Sunday, as Rangers pitchers and catchers officially reported to Spring Training. Colby Lewis is planning to throw live batting practice on Monday.
So begins the process of the Rangers trying to figure out their starting rotation with Derek Holland lost for the first half of the season because of a knee injury. If everybody is healthy, this could come down to whether Lewis and Hanson pitch well enough to push Alexi Ogando back to the bullpen.
"If we stay healthy, I like what we've got," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "We'll figure the rest of it out. One thing we feel like we have is depth in our pitching."
Health is always a tenuous proposition. The Rangers have seven experienced starters competing for five spots: Darvish, Harrison, Lewis, Hanson, Ogando, Martin Perez and Nick Tepesch. Every one of them were on the disabled list at some point last season, which is why the Rangers are also going to stretch out relievers Robbie Ross, Michael Kirkman and Tanner Scheppers as possible rotation candidates.
Darvish's big issue was irritation in his lower back that affected him in September, when he went 1-3 with a 3.34 ERA in his final six starts. Darvish said he didn't feel 100 percent until January, but Sunday was the ninth time he has thrown a bullpen session this winter. He threw 34 pitches without any problems.
"Now I'm feeling good," Darvish said in a brief session with the Japanese media in camp.
Harrison was the Rangers' Opening Day starter in 2013, but made just two starts before being lost for the season because of a herniated disk in his lower back. He needed two surgeries to repair the problem and later had surgery for Thoracic outlet syndrome on his right non-throwing shoulder.
The lefty has been throwing since the beginning of January, and he threw 44 pitches on Sunday without any problems either.
"Right now I'm 100 percent," Harrison said. "I feel I can do everything the rest of the guys are doing. Move forward ... live [batting practice] on Tuesday."
Lewis is the wild card in all of this. He was 32-29 with a 3.93 ERA in 80 starts for the Rangers in 2010-12, but he has not pitched in the big leagues since July 18, 2012 after undergoing surgery on his right flexor tendon and his right hip.
The hip had been bothering Lewis as far back as 2006, and compensating for it may have led to the torn flexor tendon. Lewis underwent hip replacement surgery last August, and there is no real history of a pitcher continuing his career after undergoing such a procedure. But he has been throwing off a mound this winter, and so far the hip has not been a problem.
"The first toss off the mound, I was kind of worried if it was going to feel like it was going to separate or anything different," Lewis said. "But after the first toss, I haven't worried about it not even one bit. I feel like I have drive off the back side."
Lewis, 34, is in camp on a Minor League contract, and his comeback may be considered a long shot. But if he makes it all the way back, the Rangers haven't forgotten the huge role he played during their two trips to the World Series.
"He has a track record," Washington said. "From the reports we're getting, he's ready to compete. He'll get that opportunity. I wouldn't count him out. The opportunity is open to him just as it to everybody else in camp."
Hanson was signed last week to give the Rangers more options for the rotation. If Lewis comes back full strength and Hanson pitches the way he did with the Braves in 2009-11, it could mean the Rangers moving Ogando back to the bullpen.
Ogando was in the rotation last year, but was also on the DL three times because of shoulder and biceps inflammation. Ogando is 19-12 with a 3.40 ERA in 48 career starts, and 7-1 with a 2.46 ERA in 108 relief appearances.
"We haven't given up on Ogando as a starter," Washington said.
Tepesch appeared to be the leading candidate for the fifth spot until the Rangers signed Hanson. But if he develops an effective changeup to go with his fastball and breaking pitches, Tepesch could force his way back into the rotation. Remember he came out of nowhere to win the fifth spot last season.
The Rangers have six weeks to figure this all out. The first official workout is Monday, and so far, with the exception of Holland, all their starting candidates appear to be healthy.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.