The Texas Rangers are camped in Surprise, Ariz. less than two weeks away from a nationally televised appointment with the Astros in Houston.
After nearly a month of spring training, let’s assess where the Rangers stand on the biggest question facing the team before their season opener on March 31st:
Who will be the 5th starting pitcher?
After pursuing big names such as Zack Greinke and James Shields, the Rangers failed to acquire another top pitcher this off-season. The decision to stay out of the starting pitching market this winter was largely based on the confidence the front office had in the existing rotation pieces of Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, and Derek Holland.
The 5th starter would only be needed for around 8 starts before June 1st, when former star Colby Lewis returns from forearm surgery.
Alexi Ogando is slated to move back to the rotation after a year in the bullpen the team would then look internally for a 5th starter – such as highly touted prospect Martin Perez.
Most observers expected Perez to take the open rotation spot, and his very good performance in the early weeks of camp seemed to solidify his chances. However, a broken left forearm in early March has sidelined Perez.
Justin Grimm, another top minor league pitching prospect, has had a disappointing spring-with two rough starts effectively eliminating him from the discussion.
Veteran pitcher Kyle McClellan showed signs of life on the mound this spring, only to be hamstrung by a 4-week rehab diagnosis for a strained muscle. The team is now without a clear front-runner for the position and may be forced to look to the free agent market for someone to make the required starts in April and May.
The two remaining internal candidates who may yet surprise and challenge for the job are Michael Kirkman and Nick Tepesch; both have pitched well thus far in camp.
Kirkman has exceeded expectations this spring by improving on his strikeout to walk rate and has yet to give up a run in nine innings of work. He pitched well out of the bullpen in the final months of last season, posting a respectable 3.82 ERA.
Tepesch has been one of the breakout stars of camp so far, arriving as a non-roster invite with no major league experience who is now being seriously considered for a starting job.
His ten strikeouts in 13 innings and ability to pitch out of tough situations have been especially attractive to Ranger’s pitching coaches.
Robbie Ross, last season’s bullpen standout, has also been mentioned as a candidate for the 5th spot, but his high value as a reliever may prevent him from joining the rotation.
The search for a passable back of the rotation starter has come to a near dead-end as the more reliable options, such as Perez and McClellan, have fallen to injuries and the remaining candidates offer little in the way of battle-proven big league experience.
The team could very well decide to go with a high risk-high reward option like Tepesch. Fans should not be surprised to find the team signing a more established free agent pitcher shortly before opening day. The team has shown little tolerance for overpaying for pitching in the past; leading many to expect an inexperienced candidate rather than an overpriced one.