A Comparative Analysis Of The 5th Starter Candidates
By Eric Reining
Can we all come to grips with the fact that spring training is not that interesting? Perfect, now let’s move on.
Somewhere out there, probably tucked away in a bunker in the dry hills of the greater Phoenix area, Jon Daniels and his team already have the gist of the 25-man roster set. They know who the last two bench spots will go to; they know who they like to round out what appears to be a suspect bullpen arrangement; they know which starting pitcher will cover the 5th spot until Colby Lewis returns from his rehab (which is expected to be 6 weeks into the regular season). And that’s great.
The problem is, we don’t know any of these things. All we can do is project what we think to be the best answer, and generally the best way to do that is by analyzing Ranger trends from recent history. This is what we know, and thus, this is where I will begin on the search for our fifth starter.
What we know about the Rangers is they will do absolutely everything within their means to extract the most possible value out of a player. Since starting pitching is the most valued commodity on the open market, it makes sense that — in recent years — they’ve looked to capitalize on the arms of C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando in the rotation, rather than the bullpen. Wilson paid off with back-to-back stellar campaigns as a starter before cashing in with the Angels, and Ogando produced an impressive 3.5 fWAR in his only season utilized out of the rotation.
Basically, we know the Rangers aren’t afraid to take relievers and put them in the rotation.
As far as stylistically, it’s safe to say the Rangers — like every other team in baseball — prefer pitchers who have the potential to rack up a lot of strikeouts. The ability to eliminate contact and generate swings and misses is imperative, particularly when pitching in Arlington, where weak contact seems to turn into damage more often than other places.
It’s just difficult for hurlers who pitch to contact on an extreme level to sustain success in Texas, which is a big reason why Matt Harrison is such a rarity. He doesn’t strikeout a lot of hitters, but he doesn’t allow many of his base runners to score.
Anyway, if it comes down to “high floor vs. high risk” decisions, the Rangers typically travel the bold, aggressive route, which is why I think Jon Daniels will go outside the box with his 5th starter to open the season.
Before spring training, the list probably resembled something like this (in order of likelihood to be the #5):
Now here we are, about three weeks later, and the list’s look has drastically altered (updated order of likelihood):
- Nick Tepesch
- Michael Kirkman
- Robbie Ross
- Justin Grimm
- Randy Wells
Martin Perez Kyle McClellan
Perez and McCellan went down to injury and probably won’t be back until May at the earliest. Grimm and Ross haven’t been especially convincing in the spring, specifically with focus on their strikeout and walk rates. Randy Wells is, well, still Randy Wells (unfortunately). Nick Tepesch and Michael Kirkman are essentially the dark horses and front runners at the same time, if only for the fact that no other pitcher from that collection has stood out.
Wells has the most experience of the bundle, accumulating 529.0 Major League innings with a career 4.08 ERA, and an xFIP of 4.29 — pretty much your typical #4-5 starter in the National League. He doesn’t strike a ton of people out (5.87 K/9IP) — mainly due to an average/below-average fastball (average velocity of 89.1 mph in 2012) — but he has a decent career walk rate (3.11 BB/9IP).
Justin Grimm seems to be the player who had the most to gain from the spring, what with Martin Perez’s injury and all. He just hasn’t proven it (yet). Last year he gave up 14 earned runs with the Rangers in the small sample of 14.0 IP, but has otherwise been a pretty sturdy pitcher on the Minor League circuit. The one thing Grimm seems to have going against him is the same as Randy Wells and Robbie Ross: they just don’t really have putdown-type stuff.
I was curious what kind of spring Robbie Ross would have, attempting to transition from bullpen to starting pitcher. I mean, after all he was drafted as a starting pitcher. He was exclusively a starting pitcher in the Minor Leagues before killing it last spring. Ross is a solid reliever, but until he develops even an average 3rd pitch [change up] to complement his above average fastball/slider mix, he will probably remain in the bullpen. As I mentioned with the previous two pitchers, Ross’s 6.51 K’s/9IP out of 65.0 bullpen innings in 2012 would not stand up if he were thrust into a starter’s workload.
Michael Kirkman is an enigma. Sometimes he pitches like Billy Wagner in his prime. Other times you sort of feel like Scott Feldman is on the mound. No rhythm. No concept of the strike zone. Just a bearded, bewildered pitcher gazing at the catcher like he really doesn’t want to throw the next pitch. Over 79.0 career innings in the Majors, Kirkman has a solid 8.54 K/9 rate, juxtaposed by a rather high 4.44 BB/9. His career ERA is 4.33, though his SIERA (3.83) suggests he’s got some talent.
In 9.0 shutout innings this spring, including three perfect innings in a spot-start a couple nights ago, Michael Kirkman has been the best pitcher in camp. With no options remaining, this is his prove it season with the Rangers. He would be quite the diamond in the rough if he can keep his walks down.
The last candidate is rookie Nick Tepesch. He’ll pitch the entirety of the 2013 season as a 24 year-old, though because his birthday is in October, technically it’s his age-25 season.
If he makes the team, it will be wildly reminiscent of Robbie Ross’s ascension last year. Like Ross, Tepesch has thrown only limited innings (90.0) above Single-A. Would it be risky to start a pitcher essentially with Double-A experience in a Major League rotation? Absolutely. But with the way the schedule works out, the 5th starter doesn’t need to be used until the second week of the season, and if Colby Lewis is due back in six weeks, then we’re probably only talking about 4-5 starts from the 5th spot in the rotation. It’s an appropriate opportunity to take a chance on a younger pitcher who could generate more value.
From that standpoint, I think Nick Tepesch is the leader heading into the clubhouse, but Michael Kirkman is certainly creating his ripples in the stream.
Who do you think will be the 5th starter come Opening Day?