It's August 30th, and I'm not quite sure what to do with myself. This is unfamiliar territory. For years, the late-August conversations have revolved around prospects and the composition of future Rangers rosters and largely irrelevant transactions and minor points of controversy (e.g. bad umpiring, or the fallout from the Scott Feldman-instigated 2006 brawl with the Angels), and on the rare occasions when late-season contention was a reality (2004 and 2009), there was typically this undercurrent of nervous, pennant race-fueled excitement that kept us engaged.
Right now, though, we're caught in the middle of a dead zone of sorts -- the Rangers are still multiple lengths ahead of the 7.5-game-back Athletics and heavy favorites to capture the division crown, but they're likely three weeks away from rendering that a fait accompli, and until then the bulk of the attention will be focused on preserving team health and other such things that assume extreme importance in October but just aren't very compelling topics right now. The farm system is no longer at the forefront of late-season Rangers discussion, and some of the attempts to discuss next year's team have been drowned out by pleas to "enjoy what we have right now." Okay. I am. Now what?
Rather than telling you about how Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler will make the Rangers a better team down the stretch or conveying some other glaringly obvious idea (or, even worse, recapping this weekend's brutal set of games), I wanted to take a moment to look at something written over this past weekend by Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- an article in which Michael Kirkman is not only described as likelier to nail down a post-season bullpen spot than Derek Holland (this I can agree with), but also as a potentially better prospect than Holland going forward.
I don't know that I can agree with that viewpoint, nor do I think that this sort of article would have been written if Kirkman had yielded 2-3 runs in his five major league innings of work to date rather than his present total of zero; however, the mere fact that this "Kirkman > Holland" idea is even being perpetuated resonates with me at some level, because it all ties back into the TINSTAAPP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect) theory and the oft-chaotic and random nature of pitching development. Put more bluntly, I don't think many people prepared themselves for the eventuality that Holland would still be trapped in developmental limbo nearly two full seasons later.
Around 18 months ago, industry publication Baseball America tabbed Holland as the fifth-best left-handed pitching prospect and 31st-best prospect in the game; the latter figure is a tad misleading, as once you dig beyond the truly elite prospects there isn't significant variation in talent, and ESPN.com's Keith Law illustrated this by going a step further and slotting Holland into the No. 21 spot while firing off this prospect synopsis: "[Holland] doesn't have the raw upside of [Neftali] Feliz, but he's not far behind him in potential and is ahead of him in command and feel for pitching, and is the most likely of Texas' horde (pun intended) of pitching prospects to contribute to the big club in 2009."
That was then. Today, we have media implications of Holland tumbling down the prospect ladder. And this is hardly a unique phenomenon in the context of the Rangers' farm system: former mid-to-upper-range prospects like Omar Poveda (traded) and Michael Main (traded) and Blake Beavan (traded) and Kasey Kiker (isn't good) disappointed and/or were pared from the system. More elite pitching talent in the vein of Martin Perez and Tanner Scheppers has performed relatively well, but hasn't busted out in the way we had grown accustomed to seeing. The only pitcher from the Rangers' latest wave of pitching talent who has meaningfully contributed to the major league rotation has been Tommy Hunter, and I can readily see the argument for him being a mediocre No. 4-caliber starter from this point forward.
The TINSTAAP theory holds that young, talented minor league pitchers are so unpredictable/unreliable -- and their attrition rate so high -- that they're really not "prospects" in the way that their positional counterparts are, and here again it's rearing its ugly head. Since Law lavished praise upon Holland in early 2009, his strike-zone command has seemingly stagnated -- or outright regressed -- and his velocity has dipped slightly while he's been nicked by injuries, and he'll now enter his age-24 season having not yet established himself as anything more than a long reliever/spot starter. I still like Holland, but this is all something to think about the next time the hype machine manufactures a new, exciting, can't-miss pitching prospect and we, despite knowing better, collectively buy in.