There are ways that things could be worse for the 2014 Texas Rangers. But given the current situation, it's not worth tempting fate to mention them; the baseball gods just might decide to go all-in.
Matt Harrison, who has pitched all of 28 major league innings since sustaining the double whammy of a herniated disc in his back and Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in his shoulder, has once again returned to the disabled list. Harrison was given a five-year, $55 million extension in early 2013 to buy out his remaining arbitration years and some of his free agency term -- one of the earlier examples of cost-certainty contracts given to near-arb players. These contracts hand out a lot more guaranteed money than most teams are willing to commit to a guy who either has not entered the arbitration process or is only a year deep into it, in exchange for theoretically saving money down the line when the player turns into an All-Star. The Rangers are big fans of this concept -- they've given a particularly bizarre one to Elvis Andrus, which allows him to opt out of the cost-controlled free agency years on the back end of the contract, even though one would think that's the entire point of the deal. But the Chicago Cubs have done it (Castro, Rizzo), the Royals have done it (Salvador Perez), and the Tampa Rays did it to great effect with Evan Longoria. But now Harrison has reinjured his back in a rather serious way. He has a displaced vertebra, which will either require spinal fusion surgery (yikes) or...not-spinal-fusion surgery. Either way, it goes without saying that very few players come back from a displaced vertebra. Matt Harrison's major league career may be over.
And then Martin Perez -- another Rangers cost-certainty pitcher, who signed a four-year, $12.5 million guaranteed deal in November of last year that buys out his arb years, with team options covering free-agent years at team-friendly rates -- faces a similar, but far more familiar, choice. He has a partial tear of his UCL, which -- as just about everyone following baseball at this point knows -- requires the dreaded Tommy John surgery to repair. He can either get that surgery or try to rest and rehab through it. Sooner or later, though, most guys with partial UCL tears end up getting the surgery. It's unlikely that his story will vary substantially.
This leaves the Rangers without the pitcher who was, to date, their 2014 leader in innings pitched (Perez) and the pitcher they were relying on to come riding back off the disabled list and help stabilize an incredibly-shaky starting rotation (Harrison). More to the point, it leaves the Rangers rotation looking like this headed into Thursday's games:
Yu Darvish (27), 2.33 ERA, 46.1 IP, 54K/13BB
Robbie Ross (25), 5.04 ERA, 44.2 IP, 32K/12BB
Colby Lewis (34), 4.99 ERA, 30.2 IP, 29K/7BB
Nick Martinez (23), 2.38 ERA, 22.2 IP, 13K/11BB
Nick Tepesch (25), 1.69 ERA, 5.1 IP, 8K/3BB
This is not a playoff contender's rotation. Aside from Tepesch's very small sample size -- he has a career 4.67 ERA in 98.1 IP at the major league level, which is still not much to go on -- the Martinez stat line is a bit misleading too. Martinez started the year in the Rangers rotation and was given two starts, in which he gave up 5 runs in 11 IP, having trouble making it multiple times through the Rays and Athletics lineup. Then he was moved to long relief, where he pitched between one and two innings from that role for the next month or so for the other 11.2 IP, yielding only one run in that time. That's very effective, valuable long relief from Martinez -- but it's not 22.2 IP of 2.38 ERA as a starter like that stat line might imply. Perhaps the young arms in Texas will surprise everyone, but what that rotation looks like is Yu Darvish and four days of early calls to the bullpen.
That's immediate good news for the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the other two legitimate contenders in an AL West that's been muddled by pitcher injuries all season. It's a chance for those two teams to maybe put some distance between themselves and Texas for the time being, and even for the Seattle Mariners to hang around a little while longer on the midcard before dropping back into fourth place. The question is: To what extent was this foreseeable?
Anyone who assumed this winter and spring that once Matt Harrison came back, he would stay back and be the old Matt Harrison through the end of the season was probably being overly optimistic. MLB pitchers do not have a great track record coming back from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome -- it's what finally did in Chris Carpenter's career -- let alone recovering from a back injury at the same time. The Perez injury was harder to see coming -- pitcher elbow injuries are more or less a crapshoot -- but Perez, when healthy, has not shown himself to be an impact pitcher. He had a great start to the year, which swiftly corrected itself a couple weeks in. By the time Perez went to the DL, his season line was a 4.38 ERA (96 ERA+) in 51.1 IP. That's roughly a league-average starter. A league-average starter has definite value, but with Perez healthy, the current Rangers rotation is still just Darvish/Perez/Ross/Lewis/Tepesch, with Martinez likely continuing as the longman. That's a legit ace, a league-average starter, two below-average starters and a question mark. If that's the team's planned rotation, and you don't have an elite offense -- and the Rangers haven't had an elite offense for a year or two now -- or an elite bullpen, it's hard to see why anyone should expect your team to make it back to October.
The elephant in the room is Derek Holland, of course. If he were healthy, Holland would easily be the No. 2 instead of Perez -- but Holland suffered a dog-related knee injury in January that required surgery, and he still hasn't been able to work his way back from that. He should be back at some point this season, but at this point it's still unclear when. And as Harrison and many, many other players across baseball have shown, it's foolish to assume guys are going to come back from an injury on time and just as good as they used to be.
The Rangers essentially positioned themselves as having a choice: Either jump into the Tanaka bidding war, which they wouldn't have won, or take the responsible route of keeping their draft pick and steadying the course. Pitchers Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez were still very much on the market at that point in time, and Texas had already lost its first-rounder in the Shin-Soo Choo signing, so either of them would've only cost a second -- but Texas was never a major player in those negotiations. It's hard to say whether that was because of the pick compensation involved, budgetary concerns or dissatisfaction with the pitchers available. But the Rangers said they were comfortable going into the season with Robbie Ross as either the team's No. 2 or No. 3 pitcher, and at the time, that seemed like a situation where the Rangers had to know something everyone else didn't, because otherwise even the Angels had a better rotation on paper.
Regardless, however, things are what they are, and the question is: What in the world does Texas do now? The other organizational options that aren't in the rotation right now are Tanner Scheppers and Joe Saunders on the DL, hopefully returning in the near future. (Scheppers, however, also has some dreaded elbow inflammation of his own.) After that it's...Justin Germano? Ryan Feierabend? An obscenely-rushed Luke Jackson? None of these options sound very palatable.
No, if the Rangers are serious about this season -- and they should be, because this is a team whose window is right now, despite how much certain parts of their farm system have been hyped -- then the answer will have to be found on the trade market. Mark Buehrle is the guy making the most noise there right now as the possibilities establish themselves, but that's partly because everyone still sort of expects him to implode every time he walks out to the mound. Jeff Samardzija might be available from the Cubs, if the Rangers really want to trade for a mercenary Cubs starter for the third season in a row. Francisco Liriano might be interesting if he can get his act together in Pittsburgh. With David Price's ERA north of 4.00 at the moment -- and Price being a year and change removed from elite performance -- I don't think anyone's going to see eye-to-eye on what he's worth in the market. There's certainly no quick fix available for the Rangers on the trade market now, in the middle of May.
The Rangers' current position is not entirely of their own choosing, of course. Even with a healthy Derek Holland, that rotation could still use a third established starter -- but unless you're going to play the hindsight card on Jason Vargas in May, there wasn't really anyone out there who would have been worth the pursuit. The trade market is more intriguing. The Diamondbacks were apparently just giving prospects away, and Skaggs would have instantly become the best healthy starter in the org not named Darvish. But those things don't happen in a vacuum; Arizona really had a thing for Mark Trumbo. And the Rangers have been almost comically stingy on the trade market in recent years regarding dealing their prospects for MLB-proven talent -- even given that general manager Jon Daniels is a guy who prioritizes hanging onto the talent he develops. If Jurickson Profar had been in play the last year or two instead of weirdly blocked and in limbo -- and now hurt -- there's any number of ways the team could be better.
All that said, the Rangers are no more deserving of sympathy than anyone else for how the winds of fate blow. They've still got more than a fighting chance in the West this season -- Oakland's offense is going to slow down a little, and while Sonny Gray is legit, Jesse Chavez and Scott Kazmir are probably not going to also sustain ERAs below 2.50 past June or so. They've got the system depth to be players in the developing trade market if they want to be. But it's hard to see the return for another post-concussion syndrome Mike Olt or Justin Grimm-level prospect taking the team to the next level. And if the Rangers don't want to move anyone more important than that, Texas fans might be forgiven for looking forward to 2015 a little bit earlier than they've become accustomed.
Unless you're a real big believer in Mark Buehrle.