"I wouldn’t rule [moving Tommy Hunter to the bullpen] out right now. We're building him up to start and we can go either way. But I'm operating under the assumption, Matt Harrison, we have faith in him and he’s going to bounce back and if he does it's not like there’s anybody that deserves to come out of the rotation. Tommy is one of the 12; he’s a winning piece. And we’ll find the best role for him. We have confidence in him either way." - Jon Daniels, 5/4
I've had a poll buried in the left-hand sidebar for a few days now asking the question of what the Rangers should do with Tommy Hunter upon his much-anticipated return, and the results have, to this point, been interesting -- a preponderance of votes in favor of canning Matt Harrison's run in the starting rotation, followed not so closely by support for employing him in a major league relief role and using him to relieve Alexi Ogando, respectively. Since his activation from the disabled list is still at least 10-14 days out, this isn't something that demands immediate action, and though I'm sure the Rangers are collectively leaning in a certain direction as far as how they would prefer to use Hunter, there's enough lag time here that the consensus could be shifted in another direction before Hunter arrives. Or Derek Holland could break his clavicle in a tragic break-dancing accident out at the Lizard Lounge, and matters could be greatly simplified.
There are enough different variables in play here that I consider this a difficult question without a neat and tidy answer screaming at you, and one that ultimately may not yield an answer that the masses agree with ... but rather than wear you down with a 1,500-word dissertation running through each of those variables, I could simply show you this instead:
If Hunter unseats one of the Rangers' incumbent starters, it will, in all likelihood, be one of these three pitchers, and the odds seem to favor it being Ogando or Harrison more so than Lewis -- in part because of Lewis's track record, which in this case is substantially stronger than that of either Ogando or Harrison, and also because it appears he may have stemmed the tide of inadequate fastball velocity/command. The jury's still out, though. What I was really interested in illustrating here was the reason why Ogando's surface ERA has been so excellent, and why it is acceptable to harbor some concern about what's going to end up happening with Ogando as we move forward.
Here's the thing about Ogando -- he has been very good on the whole. I'm certainly not going to argue against that point. The underlying peripherals (K/9, BB/9, HR/9) have been quite good. Those indicators that are more intertwined with luck and random variation, though, have been insane: of 110 qualifying major league starters, Ogando's left-on-base percentage (93.1 percent) is the highest in baseball, and his BABIP (.186) is the fourth-lowest in the game. I'm certainly open to the notion that is something in his repertoire and/or approach that is conducive to yielding a lower-than-expected BABIP, and I'm also open to believing that he possesses some preternatural ability that enables him to lock in, dominate, and more easily strand those hitters that do manage to reach base. This, though? This is absolutely ridiculous.
And when you pair that evidence with the still-existent concerns over the sustainability of his mechanics, the whole 2.5-pitch thing, the need to monitor his innings so as to hopefully not burn him out by August, and the on-going game of musical chairs in the bullpen, you have the framework of a legitimate argument for swapping him out for Hunter. With all that being said, though, I'm going to cut against the very argument I just laid out and say that I not only think Ogando is safe for the time being, but also that he should remain safe for the time being. There is something to be said for striking preemptively before the inevitable rise in his ERA; there is, however, also something to be said for showing some confidence in a guy who showed the drive and desire to start, unexpectedly won the opportunity, and has now done everything one could reasonably ask of him since being granted that opportunity. I'm not sure you can cut someone like that off at the knees. Not yet, anyway.
My creeping suspicion is that Harrison will remain somewhere between mediocre and lousy over the next 2-3 starts and simplify this "problem," but that's only a suspicion and recency bias is no doubt helping drive it. If he holds it together and no rotation vacancies materialize, I would bet on Hunter being consigned to a flexible bullpen role for the time being, with the hope being that he could step in and deliver in long relief if needed, but also supply some higher-leverage innings if needed -- a proposition that isn't so far-fetched if the fastball/curveball can manage to play up a bit in shorter, controlled bursts.