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Rangers Season Preview: Starting Rotation - What Are 'The Tiers'?

We begin our Texas Rangers 2021 season preview with a deep dive into all the options for the starting rotation.

It's no secret that the Texas Rangers are rebuilding. 

After finishing with the second-worst record in baseball, the organization was forced to make some changes, which have come from the top down. They pried former major league pitcher Chris Young away from MLB’s Commissioner’s Office in New York and hired him as the ninth executive vice president and general manager in club history. 

They also have parted ways with several veterans this winter, including Lance Lynn, Shin-Soo Choo, and long-time fan-favorite Elvis Andrus.

Like ripping off a Band-Aid. Quick and painful. 

Change throughout the organization has led to several open spots throughout the roster in 2021. Looking back to just last year, the Rangers went into spring training with a set five-man starting rotation and only one true position battle at first base between Ronald Guzmán and Greg Bird. Unfortunately for the Rangers, neither won the job. Isiah Kiner-Falefa forced his way in the lineup at third base, which pushed Todd Frazier across the diamond at first base.

Fast forward to this year, the Rangers have only two positions locked down ahead of spring training: Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who has moved over to shortstop, and Joey Gallo in right field. Both players won Gold Gloves in 2020.

“Those are the two that are probably the most solidified,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said in last week’s Zoom call with the media. “I probably have Jose [Trevino] behind the plate. I think he’s going to get a pretty legitimate shot back there. For the rest of the guys, it is somewhat of an open competition.”

For the rest of the team? Well…that's what I'm here for.

I'm going to break this down in a series here on Inside The Rangers where we will take a deep dive at each position, giving you the most information on what the team may look like come Opening Day in Kansas City.

We'll start with one of the areas that will see some of the fiercest competition in camp: the starting rotation.

Let's go through the list of candidates that could see time in the rotation this season. We'll split these up into three tiers to make it a little easier to see where each option may be once the Rangers break camp in late-March.

* - non-roster invitee

Tier I: The Locks

RHP Kyle Gibson

A 2-6 record with a 5.35 ERA doesn't scream "Opening Day starter", but that's the direction the Rangers are more than likely heading in right now. 

It's difficult to write someone off based on how 2020 went. Gibson only made 12 starts in the shortened 60-game season. He struggled with two outs and lacked consistency when pitching out of the stretch, but fixed those issues later in the season. His numbers vastly improved from August to September, which was highlighted by a complete game shutout in Houston.

Gibson can give the Rangers innings, which they need. Gibson can give the Rangers some leadership, which they need. It's all but been announced that he's the Opening Day starter, so expect him to spearhead the pitching staff in 2021.

RHP Kohei Arihara

The Rangers turned a number of heads throughout the baseball world when they landed Japanese free agent Kohei Arihara during the holiday season.

Arihara brings a seven-pitch repertoire and the ability to log innings for the Rangers. He was 8-9 with a 3.46 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP in 134 2/3 innings with the Nippon-Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional League. The Rangers need innings this season and Arihara is built up to log plenty of them.

His biggest adjustment to the Major League game is the texture of the baseball and getting a feel for gripping his pitches, specifically his splitter and fastball. The Rangers feel his splitter can be a strong tool for him in the North American game. It's worth paying attention to how well he handles the adjustment.

RHP Mike Foltynewicz

The Rangers were able to land Mike Foltynewicz after the Braves moved on from him after one poor outing in 2020, which saw a drastic drop in velocity.

The reason for that drop in velocity? Foltynewicz says it was due to strength lost during the shutdown last year and was not able to put all of that strength back on due to the quick ramp up.

Now he's healthy, and his velocity is creeping back up to where it was when he was an all star for the Braves in 2018. The Rangers also believe Foltynewicz is healthy enough to ramp up his workload and can log a considerable number of innings this season.

Tier II: On the Bubble

RHP Jordan Lyles

If there was a Tier 1.5 (which I guess I could have done), Jordan Lyles would be in it. Lyles will almost certainly be in the rotation, barring any catastrophic failures during Cactus League play. The issue is his numbers were terribly inflated in his first year as a Texas Ranger and the club opted to use an opener with him multiple times in 2020.

The club still believes he can recapture the success he had in his time with the Milwaukee Brewers with proper use of his four-seam fastball up in the zone, and reverting back to a flatter curveball. That may sound confusing, but it's the same curveball he threw while with the Brewers, and the Rangers believe it will play off his fastball better. 

Until the Rangers can tangibly quantify some consistency, questions will remain. 

RHP Kyle Cody

Kyle Cody made his return to the mound last year after an absence that extended beyond two years — and he didn't disappoint. He was 1-1 with a 1.59 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP in 22 2/3 innings last year, which automatically made him a rotation candidate heading into 2021.

The issue is Cody will be on an innings limit this season. He's coming off Tommy John surgery that kept him out of baseball for over two years and the Rangers can't afford to rush him and possibly kill his development with another major injury.

Cody will almost certainly start games for the Rangers in 2021, but it's difficult to put a finger on the exact number of innings he'll provide the club this year.

RHP Dane Dunning

The centerpiece of the Lance Lynn trade, Dane Dunning can easily slot in and give the Rangers quality innings in 2021. He doesn't have the stuff that will blow hitters away, but he has a dynamite slider and an impressive amount of control for a young pitcher.

Like Cody, Dunning will also be on an innings limit in 2021. And also like Cody, he's coming off Tommy John surgery and hasn't had the time to ramp back up to a starter's workload due to the cancelation of the minor league season and the shortened MLB season in 2020.

Dunning can certainly become a mainstay in the Rangers rotation for years to come, and he will certainly start games for them this season. The Rangers will just have to watch those innings in 2021.

LHP Taylor Hearn

Taylor Hearn made a successful return to the mound in 2020 after a disastrous MLB debut in 2019, which was followed by injuries that kept him sidelined for the remainder of the season.

Hearn pitched out of the bullpen for the Rangers last season, logging 17 1/3 innings with a 3.63 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP in 14 appearances. He flashed an overpowering fastball-slider combination, striking out 23 batters (11.9 strikeouts-per-nine). However, he struggled with his control at times, walking 11 hitters. 

Hearn has always envisioned himself as a starter and the Rangers are giving him the chance to come into camp and win a starting role. What will ultimately tell if he can win the job is how well he can mix in his changeup — what he calls his best pitch — with his fastball and slider.

LHP Hyeon-Jong Yang*

Hyeon-Jong Yang is a 14-year veteran of the KBO, with a career record of 147-95 and a 3.83 ERA. The Rangers signed him to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training to compete for a spot in the rotation.

Yang will turn 33 before the Rangers head back to Arlington and he's coming off a season in the KBO where he posted a 4.70 ERA. However, he's coming off seven consecutive seasons where he logged more than 170 innings. You may be catching on to the theme here, but the Rangers need innings in 2021. That makes Yang a candidate worth watching.

READ MORE: Rangers EXCLUSIVE: Taylor Hearn Seeks Starting Role

Tier III: Hey, It Could Happen

LHP Kolby Allard

The demise of Cory Kluber's Ranger career paved the way for Kolby Allard to earn a regular spot in the Texas rotation. However, Allard was roughed up in 2020, going 0-6 with a 7.75 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in eight starts. He was eventually removed from the rotation, giving the Rangers looks at other young pitchers.

Allard has worked this offseason with new pitching coaches Brendan Sagara and Doug Mathis, and has been open to changing a number of things. One change in particular is a move to the first base side of the rubber. 

How well these changes play out could throw Allard back into the mix or bury him beneath the number of pitchers coming up over the next couple of seasons.

LHP Wes Benjamin

Wes Benjamin impressed the Rangers in Spring Training 2.0 last year, which earned him an eventual spot in the Texas bullpen. He made eight total appearances, with one start, posting a 4.84 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 22 1/3 innings.

While Benjamin primarily pitched out of the bullpen for the Rangers last season, he provided the team at least four innings of work in half of his appearances. In his only start of the season, he threw 80 pitches over five innings, allowing three earned runs.

Benjamin is well equipped to eat some innings for the Rangers, whether it be in a piggy back role or as a long reliever out of the bullpen.  

LHP Joe Palumbo

The Rangers are committed to keeping Joe Palumbo as a starter, and plan to stretch him out as one in camp. They still believe he has the stuff to start in the big leagues.

Palumbo's 2020 season was derailed before it could truly begin when he dealt with a flare up with his ulcerative colitis — a disease that Kyle Gibson has also had to manage over the past couple of seasons. He and Gibson have already had conversations about the disease, and Gibson praises team dietitian Stephanie Fernandes, so at least the 26-year-old pitcher has a strong support group in the clubhouse.

Palumbo is healthy coming into camp, but his workload will surely be limited after pitching scarcely in 2020.

RHP Tyler Phillips

Tyler Phillips was one of the young Rangers pitchers that impressed at the alternate training site in 2020. The Rangers expected big things from Phillips in the minor leagues last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the minor league season.

Phillips comes into camp ready to compete, but may need some fine-tuning before trying to claim a permanent role in Arlington.

RHP Jharel Cotton*

At one point, Jharel Cotton looked like he was going to become a mainstay in the Oakland A's starting rotation. Unfortunately for both parties, Cotton was bitten by the Tommy John bug and never got a chance in the Bay Area.

This isn't the first time the Rangers have taken on a former A's hurler and tried to get something out of it (anyone remember, A.J. Griffin?). Cotton will come into camp with something to prove, whether he steals a spot in Texas or pitches well enough to earn a spot elsewhere.

CONTINUE READING: Is Leclerc the Rangers Closer?

Chris Halicke covers the Texas Rangers for Follow him on Twitter @ChrisHalicke.
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