The Rangers did a whole lot to shore up their offense this winter, but coming into the season, question marks about the depth of their rotation abounded. Now those question marks loom even larger, as Yu Darvish has been scratched from his Opening Day start due to ongoing problems with his neck and may be sidelined beyond that.
The 27-year-old Darvish is coming off an outstanding season in which he struck out an MLB-high 277 batters, delivered a 2.83 ERA across 209 2/3 innings, made the All-Star team for the second straight season and finished second in the AL Cy Young voting behind Max Scherzer. While he made 32 starts, he did serve a 15-day stint on the disabled list around the All-Star break due to a mild strain in his trapezius, the neck muscle that moves the scapula. After the season, a source revealed that he had pitched through September while battling a nerve issue in his lower back that caused numbness in his right leg.
It's unclear whether either of those problems are related to Darvish's current woes, but either way, they have the Rangers concerned. On Friday, Darvish was scratched from his Cactus League start due to a stiff neck that he initially attributed to sleeping on wrong. The stiffness lingered, and once the 27-year-old righty acknowledged after playing catch on Monday that he was still not 100 percent, he and the Rangers decided to scrap the Opening Day turn. He's been sent to Dallas to see back specialist Dr. Drew Dossett, who performed disc repair surgery on the Rangers' 2013 Opening Day starter, Matt Harrison.
The likelihood is that Darvish will open the season on the DL, with a stint backdated to March 21, which would cost him only the first six days of the season. Martin Perez and Tanner Scheppers are the likely candidates to replace him for Monday's opener against the Phillies, and Darvish could take his first turn on April 8 agains the Red Sox, the first time the team needs a fifth starter.
Even if Darvish only misses the one start, his absence is still unsettling given the state of Texas' rotation. Derek Holland, the only other pitcher to make more than 20 starts for the Rangers last year, is out until midseason after tearing cartilage in his left knee and undergoing microfracture surgery. Harrison made just two major league starts and needed two surgeries to repair a herniated disc, then had surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome in September; he won't be ready to start the regular season, though he has hopes of returning in April. Likewise for Colby Lewis, who hasn't pitched in the majors since mid-2012, due to a double-whammy of surgeries to repair a torn flexor tendon (July 2012) and remove bone spurs from his right hip (August 2013).
That leaves the 23-year-old Perez and the 27-year-old Scheppers as the only sure things for the season-opening rotation given that the team has decided to move Alexi Ogando — whose 3.11 ERA was second-best among Rangers starters behind Darvish — back to a setup role after he served three stints on the DL last year for shoulder issues. Perez made a strong showing across 20 starts after returning from a broken forearm, but given a high of 167 2/3 innings, the young lefty could face a cap later in the year. Scheppers, outstanding in short relief last year, has been converted to the rotation despite just 12 previous starts in five years of pro ball, 11 of which came in 2009-2010. Robbie Ross, who has spent the last two years in the Rangers' bullpen after starting throughout his minor league career, is a rotation candidate, but he has just six starts above High-A in his career. Once-promising Braves righty Tommy Hanson is a scrapheap pickup who threw just 73 innings with a 5.42 ERA for the Angels, battling a forearm strain and a demotion to Triple-A. Joe Saunders may be healthy as a horse, but he's coming off a 5.26 ERA (70 ERA+) and −0.3 WAR in 183 innings with the Mariners.
If that MASH unit wasn't dismaying enough, on Sunday the Rangers revealed that Jurickson Profar will miss 10-12 weeks due to a muscle tear in his right shoulder, and on Monday, they lost Geovany Soto for 10-12 weeks due to a torn meniscus in his left knee that will require surgery, as well as outfielder Engel Beltre, who has a fractured tibia that may date back to winter ball. Where Profar and Soto are slated to start, Beltre was a candidate for the big club's bench, mainly because he's out of options. They have yet to determine how they'll handle either starter's absence, but it doesn't appear as though 20-year-old second base prospect Rougned Odor, who has just 20 games above High-A, will get the nod; instead the team will muddle through with some combination of Josh Wilson, Adam Rosales, Kensuke Tanaka and Brent Lillibridge unless somebody is brought in from outside the organization. Behind the plate, Robinson Chirinos may see more playing time than J.P. Arencibia, who has failed to impress manager Ron Washington on either side of the ball. Hopefully, Darvish's woes are shorter-term concerns than the ones for the lineup, but even if they are, his importance to the team's bid for contention makes even his minor injuries a serious problem. Here's hoping his neck woes pass so that he can get back to dominating hitters.