Injuries leave Texas Rangers' Opening Day rotation full of question marks
The odds of correctly predicting the Rangers' Opening Day rotation on March 1 weren't quite as long as those of filling out a perfect NCAA bracket two weeks later (roughly one in 9.2 quintillion), but given what Texas ended up with, they might have been somewhere beyond one in four quadrillion (roughly the number of five-pitcher combinations one could make out of the approximately 3,500 active pitchers in the major and minor leagues). After all, one would have had to take every active professional hurler into account to come up with the Rangers' actual Opening Day rotation, which includes three pitchers who have never started a major league game (including relievers Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross), one pitcher who was unsigned until March 5 (veteran Joe Saunders), and one pitcher, 23-year-old rookie Nick Martinez, who wasn't even invited to major league camp.
From the Rangers' intended Opening Day rotation, only sophomore Martin Perez will actually open the season in his intended role. Righty Alexi Ogando has been returned to the bullpen following a poor spring performance and concerns about his durability following a 2013 season in which he hit the disabled list three times with arm issues. Ace Yu Darvish has been scratched from his Opening Day start and placed on the disabled list with a stiff neck. Lefty Matt Harrison will also open the season on the DL as he continues to work his way back from a pair of back surgeries that wiped out all but two starts of his 2013 season. Fellow lefty Derek Holland, meanwhile, will be out until after the All-Star break following microfracture surgery on his left knee necessitated by an accident at his home in January.
Heading into camp, Tommy Hanson and Colby Lewis were considered the top candidates for Holland's vacated spot, but Hanson was released on Wednesday following a poor spring, and Lewis, who has not pitched in the majors since July of 2012 due to surgeries on his pitching elbow and hip, will open the season in Triple-A following an even worse spring performance.
As a result of Darvish's late scratch, Scheppers, who has posted a 2.64 ERA in 115 relief appearances over the last two years, will start on Opening Day, becoming the first pitcher to make his first major league start on Opening Day since the Dodgers' rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 and just the second since Pirates rookie Preacher Roe in 1944. The last non-rookie to make his first major league start on Opening Day was arguably the Dodgers' Red Evans in 1939 (he had 47 1/3 relief innings under his belt from three years before).
As I pointed out on Monday, Scheppers hasn't started a game at any level since 2011, and the last time he made multiple starts in a season was 2010, when he posted a 6.07 ERA in seven starts at Triple-A. Ross, who has posted a 2.62 ERA in 123 relief appearances over the last two years, hasn't started in the majors either, but he did start 68 of his 69 minor league games, posting a 2.88 ERA and 3.69 strikeout to walk ratio, though only six of those starts occurred above High-A, all of them coming in Double-A in late 2011.
Then there's Martinez. Drafted out of Fordham University in the 18th round of the 2011 draft, Martinez was a second baseman in college, but was immediately moved to the mound full-time upon signing with the Rangers. Having made all of four starts above High-A, the 23-year-old righty wasn't even invited to major league camp this spring, but he did post a 2.50 ERA and 2.84 K/BB ratio last year in 25 starts and two relief appearances, most of which came at High-A, a strong showing for a player in just his second full season as a pitcher. Martinez throws in the mid 90s and adds a slider, changeup, and occasional curve and did pitch two scoreless innings in relief of Ross against the Indians on Tuesday, striking out four, though he did face mostly minor league competition in the final two innings of that game. The Rangers' rotation could be radically different by the end of April, as the team hopes Darvish, Harrison, and perhaps Lewis can return by then. The team has also come to terms with free agent Scott Baker, who had Tommy John surgery in April 2012, made three starts with the Cubs last September (two good, one bad), and was released by the Mariners on Tuesday after a rough spring. Baker's contract, a minor league deal that would allow him to opt out if he's not in the major leagues by May 1, is pending a physical. For now, however, the Rangers will open the season with what is easily the least likely rotation in all of baseball.