When people think of something as being in a "state of flux," it's implicitly understood that there are forces in play generating some basic amount of instability/uncertainty -- for example, Tommy Hunter's strained oblique muscle, which ultimately proved most advantageous for Matt Harrison's immediate future, but not before the "state of flux" label was affixed to the starting rotation by several media outlets. Ditto for the bullpen and the catching/utility infielder situations, all of which were unsettled to varying degrees but now appear to be coming into clearer focus.
One of the things that's been on my mind for a little while now, though, is how quickly the Rangers could revert to a full-fledged state of flux insofar as both their lineup and their starting rotation are concerned. While the prospect of significant in-season player turnover hardly constitutes a unique challenge for major league teams, it becomes a bit more alarming when your team is not only (a) expected to compete for a division title and, the eyes of some, amass 90-plus wins, but also (b) relying so heavily upon so many players with health- and performance-based questions.
First of all, let's be patently upfront in giving credit where credit is due -- Texas, as evidenced by the relatively low "dollars lost" figures posted at Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score (which don't perfectly align due to differing methodologies, but do paint similarly bright pictures), has ranged from okay to very good over the last 4-5 years in terms of keeping its higher-salaried talent on the field and away from the disabled list; BP calculated that the Rangers lost just $6.8 million due to injuries last season, one of the lower marks in baseball, and I would like to think that's at least partially attributable to a team medical staff which is perceived within the game as better than average.
Of course, the obvious counterargument one could make is that the low figures tallied by the Rangers in the "dollars lost" columns in recent years were largely effectuated by below-average team payrolls, which leads directly into a second key point: player salary and talent level/production are two completely different animals. Of the top 12 producers of wins above replacement for Texas last season, only two banked more than $3.2 million (Michael Young and Kevin Millwood); eight earned less than $2 million, and five earned sub-$500,000 salaries. The point? Dollars lost to injury isn't a very useful proxy for value (e.g. wins above replacement) lost to injury.
It's that latter notion -- the "value lost to injury" -- that's especially unnerving. When juxtaposed against their three division rivals, the Rangers' projected starting lineup boasts four "red-light" players and one "yellow-light" player (according to the team health reports published by Baseball Prospectus's Will Carroll, which denote relative injury risk through the use of a traffic-light system), far worse than the Angels (one yellow, one red) and Athletics (two yellow, one red) but on par with the Mariners (one yellow, four red). The key difference? In the aggregate, Seattle's red-lit players aren't nearly as critical to the success of their season as the Rangers' red-lit contingent, comprising Taylor Teagarden, Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero.
But what does a red light really mean relative to a yellow light, or a yellow light to a green light? Quantifying the value of Will Carroll's traffic-light system is an exercise rife with sample-size issues, but Jared Cross recently found that red-lit hitters (average 25.1 days on the disabled list) not only spent nearly twice as much time on the disabled list in 2009 as their green- (14.9 days) and yellow-lit (12.7 days) counterparts, but also fared worse relative to their offensive projections.
That being injury-prone isn't exactly conducive to overperforming shouldn't come as much of a shock to anyone; similarly, maybe it shouldn't come as much of a shock to any of us if guys like Hamilton and Guerrero don't fulfill our wildest expectations. It's also why it's so frustrating to see Ian Kinsler already dealing with injury problems so early on; his past and present ailments have generally been of the "freak" variety, the sort that you wouldn't regard as recurring issues, but at some point you have to accept that the frequency of said injuries stems from a root cause, that apparently being his all-out style of play. Great for team energy and creating some extra value, but not necessarily so great from a health standpoint.
The starting rotation is an entirely different kettle of fish, at least in the comparative sense: Rich Harden is the Rangers' lone red-lit starter (and for good reason, considering that he's accrued a whopping 367 disabled-list days over the last five seasons), after which C.J. Wilson (yellow?), Scott Feldman (yellow), Matt Harrison (yellow?) and Colby Lewis (?) neatly compose a rather nebulous group of pitchers. Literally every starting candidate from the No. 6 starter (Tommy Hunter) on down is at least yellow-lit, which I suppose serves as something of a reminder that the injury nexus is virtually inescapable for pitchers of any age.
While this fairly large staff-wide injury risk factor aligns Texas more closely with the divisional norm than anything else (only the Angels actually have more than one green-lit starter), the thing that concerns me is that Harrison is, in my mind at least, still anything but a lock to stick in the rotation long term. Lewis? I'm hopeful, but the scouting reports out of Surprise have been decidedly mixed and he has no assurance of anything beyond game No. 1 in spite of his guaranteed two-year contract.
Wilson and Feldman are probably the two surest things on this pitching staff after accounting for both performance and durability, but it's still likelier than not that one, if not two, of the five starters breaking camp are either injured or toast performance-wise by mid-June. Neftali Feliz appears to be out of the rotation picture for the foreseeable future, leaving Brandon McCarthy (red) and the understandably yellow-lit Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland standing as insurance. It's not inconceivable that Dustin Nippert is the No. 6-7 starter a few months down the road. I'm probably traversing the worst-case scenario roadway here, but I think you can understand where I'm coming from and why there may be a certain false sense of security percolating around this team.
What can be done to address these issues? Nothing, really; there's no money to do anything materially affecting the roster until at least mid-season, nor will any meaningful trade opportunities likely materialize until then. This team essentially is what it is right now: a true-talent 85- to 87-win ballclub that has a pretty slim chance of pulling off something much bigger (think 92-plus wins) and a slightly larger chance of collecting 88 to 90 wins. That's great and all, and it's certainly not my intention to put a damper on the impending season-opening festivities, but I think the risk factors surrounding this team might be a little more numerous than even I wanted to admit. We can only hope they don't end up being the sorts of decisive factors that can make or break a season.