It took a little bit longer to fully materialize than I expected it would, but one of this franchise's most deeply ingrained rituals -- that being the annually heated debate over (and the annual process of selecting) the Rangers' No. 5 starter going into Opening Day -- is now beginning to kick into full gear, with Brandon McCarthy, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and C.J. Wilson apparently being the last four hurlers legitimately standing in the competition. That, in and of itself, is cause for some minor celebration. No more Pedro Astacio. No more Sidney Ponson. No more Kris Benson. I'll drink to that. Multiple times.
Management is, of course, refusing to tip its hand as far as its early preference to fill that rotation vacancy, although I believe that one would be mistaken in attempting to infer anything substantive from that lack of disclosure, such as something along the lines of "well, if the Rangers aren't saying anything, it's because they have no idea who they're going to pick." Quite the contrary, I suspect. They might not be saying anything, and there might be another 2½ weeks of evaluation time remaining, but they probably already have a pretty good idea as far as whom they're to give the nod to.
Wilson has already been vigorously discussed around these parts (here and here, respectively), and I'm not sure that there's much else that can be said about his rotation candidacy at this point, other than that the value created by his grounder-inducing tendencies might be getting overlooked to some extent. Provided that his career 52.9 percent ground ball rate remained largely unchanged in the reliever-to-starter transition, and provided that his other peripherals -- notably, his strikeout and walk rates -- didn't incur too much damage in the transition, he would compare favorably to the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez, albeit with a bit less velocity. Jimenez, by the way, is really damn good.
Harrison is currently being identified by some media outlets as the clear-cut front-runner in this competition, with his trimmed-down figure and faster-tempo delivery and improved fastball velocity all working harmoniously to fuel the spring hype machine (and, by extension, his "stock"), but I'm not convinced. Despite wielding above-average stuff for years, Harrison's strikeout rates have always vacillated between lackluster and mediocre (verging on terrible since his arrival in the majors, in fact), and while some young pitchers experience epiphanies and post breakout whiff rates around age 24-26, he has yet to show any indication of doing the same. I guess I'm just an obstinate skeptic.
Regarding McCarthy and Holland, consider the following: Sean Smith's ever-popular CHONE player forecasts have both pitchers pegged around the 4.60-4.80 FIP (fielding-independent ERA) range in 2010, with McCarthy (4.63 FIP) actually enjoying a 15-point edge over Holland (4.78 FIP). To reiterate an earlier point made with regard to the PECOTA projections, these are both 50th percentile forecasts, meaning that they're the most likely scenarios; however, there's greater variation -- or upside/risk -- surrounding Holland's projected performance, which is great if you're a true-talent 80-win ballclub that already needs to catch some breaks to reach the post-season. If, however, you're closer to the 90-win mark, opting for consistency over volatility might be the prudent call.
Of course, one could view that as gross oversimplification of the issue, and they would probably be right. Holland's the superior strikeout pitcher and (as David Brown recently pointed out) a serious breakout candidate, and the mere fact that McCarthy has radically changed his pitching arsenal this off-season likely rendered his projection obselete, because projection systems can't detect non-quantifiable changes like that. Then again, if McCarthy is good to go for some league-average work in the major league starting rotation, but only for about 100-110 innings in that capacity, doesn't it make the most sense to not squander those innings on long-relief/minor league work?
There's probably a lot more that could be articulated on this topic, but it would amount to a massive waste of time and keystrokes -- the No. 5 starter competition makes for great conversation fodder, but the odds are quite strong that at least one of the starting five will land on the disabled list by May 15th and/or knocked out of commission for an extended period of time by June 1st, throwing the door wide open for one of the losing combatants. That, combined with the distinct possibility of regular-season failure on the part of the victor (and correspondingly swift removal from the rotation), precludes this from being an all-or-nothing-type deal. I think.