In the game of trying to design sturdy, effective starting rotations built to withstand the rigors of a 162-game schedule right out of the gates, the operative question to ask is generally not if all hell will eventually break loose, but rather when. Case in point: of the 14 Opening Day starting rotations employed by American League ballclubs at the outset of the 2009 season, only six of those five-starter groups ultimately amassed at least 100 combined starts. The Texas Rangers? Try 79 total starts, the fifth-worst mark in baseball. Muchas gracias, Señor Benson.
"But Joey," you exclaim, "isn't it dangerous to make blanket characterizations about the season-wide stability/effectiveness of a rotation on the sole basis of the number of starts made by the five starting pitchers a team begins its season with?" Indeed; hence, the invocation of "generally." And where the assumption of "all hell breaking loose" becomes something of a misnomer is when you have legitimate rotation depth that rolls two or three pitchers deep behind your No. 5 starter (such as the Rangers have), with a projected Opening Day pitching staff that looks something like this:
Starting Pitchers: RHP Rich Harden, LHP C.J. Wilson, RHP Scott Feldman, LHP Matt Harrison and RHP Colby Lewis
Relief Pitchers: RHP Frank Francisco (closer), RHP Neftali Feliz, LHP Darren Oliver, RHP Chris Ray, RHP Dustin Nippert, RHP Darren O'Day, Pitcher Y
Yes, assuming the current Cactus League rotation schedule holds, the Rangers will be rolling out a neat and symmetrical lefty-righty-lefty-righty quartet behind Harden. Don't think anybody saw that coming a month ago. The first thing that bears mentioning -- that is, after you do a double take at Wilson being listed as the No. 2 starter -- is that there appears to be a clear-cut and definable rationality to the coaching staff's madness, in the sense that this alignment reflects a desire to evenly distribute handedness and style more so than it does the organization's perception of each pitcher's true talent level.
After the two rotation-fronting strikeout kings (hyperbole which might be a little premature where Wilson is concerned), you find the sinker- and cutter-hurling innings-eater (Feldman) whose success derives from good control and grounder-inducing tendencies and so on, after which you switch back over to another southpaw wielding above-average velocity (Harrison) and then over to what strikes me as a fairly generic, albeit solid right-hander (Lewis). In his debut article, Josh Garoon adroitly cast some doubt upon the notion that handedness really matters all that much, and I'm fairly skeptical myself as to whether you really create synergistic value by "mixing it up," so to speak, but the Rangers have apparently deemed this a shot worth taking.
Insofar as the bullpen is concerned, my suspicion is that Brandon McCarthy will end up nailing down one of the two vacancies at the back of the line, leaving Doug Mathis and Ben Snyder and other back-of-the-roster pieces of their ilk to grapple for one spot. The problem with this rotation -- besides the very high beta, of course -- is that it doesn't appear designed to go exceptionally deep into games; Harden's really good when he's right physically, but not somebody you can reliably expect to surpass the six-inning mark, Wilson's something of a question mark (as is Harrison, arguably to an even greater extent) and Lewis is still years removed from pitching stateside.
[Note: I committed a blurry-eyed 6:00 a.m. oversight here in that I forgot to account for Darren O'Day's inclusion in the Opening Day bullpen. Whoops. So, assuming you pencil him in, that obviously leaves just one vacancy, rather than two, and probably renders guys like Mathis/Snyder irrelevant -- that is, unless Texas is compelled to keep McCarthy completely prepped for starting work by slotting him into the RedHawks' rotation, which is addressed below. For what it's worth, O'Day's is no longer a lock to open the season on the active roster by virtue of his bone bruise, so if he incurs another setback, well, just view this oversight as inadvertent prescience. Or something.]
One of the ideas that has repeatedly been challenged this spring concerns the Rangers' ability (or lack thereof) to safely option McCarthy to the minors without another team effectively blocking the move by submitting an optional waiver claim. Some, including myself, point to the "gentleman's agreement" referenced by former Blue Jays assistant manager Bart Given (which holds that teams simply don't claim other teams' players on optional waivers); others suggest that this would serve as no sort of impediment to another team, particularly a division rival of the Rangers, submitting a claim on McCarthy for the sole purpose of hindering the team's roster flexibility.
Stepping back and looking at the big picture, though, would such a procedural gambit really accomplish anything? My stated preference has been -- and will, through the foreseeable future, continue to be -- McCarthy over Harrison in the rotation, but even if that possibility is off the table, he still generates more value working alongside Nippert in long relief than he does at Triple-A Oklahoma City. Given those aforementioned concerns about the rotation's ability to work deep into games, does Texas not somewhat address the issue by having two league-average or better relievers at the back of their bullpen boasting the ability to throw 2-3 innings at a time?
And while I'm thinking of it, one more thing that's been gnawing at me: I've been reassured by baseball-smart people whom I trust that there's no reason to be alarmed at Harden's pedestrian spring velocity, that Keith Law's scouting report about Harden's mechanics have no predictive value going forward, that I should only raise the warning flags if he's still throwing 88 mph with weak secondary pitches come April 5th ... and perhaps they're right. Perhaps my eyes are deceiving me. Perhaps it's his M.O. to look terrible during spring training. But if being vaguely concerned about what my eyes are telling me is a crime, then consider me guilty as charged. That's all.
[I'm not going to be so insulting to your intelligence as to pretend that the disappearance of yesterday's Brandon McCarthy article didn't happen, so here's your editorial transparency: Yeah, it's down, but hopefully not for long. We're working on it. Thank you for your patience and drive safely. Seriously, do drive safely, I hear Central Expressway is a pain in the neck this time of the morning and-]