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Defending Scott Feldman

The Scott Feldman Experience has had more than its share of dramatic ups and downs, at least when it comes to the reactions of Rangers fans to Feldman and his performance.

He was a solid, and underrated, part of the Rangers bullpen in 2006 as a sidearmer.  2007 saw Feldman's performance go south, to the point where many Ranger fans were done with him.  The 2007-08 offseason, he was frequently listed as a guy who should be a 40 man roster casualty, someone to put on waivers because he had no future with the team.  When Jason Jennings was signed, and Armando Galarraga was designated for assignment, one of the most common criticisms of the move (at least on LSB) was that it should have been Feldman, not Galarraga, who was dropped.

In spring, 2008, Feldman was moved to the rotation and went back to his old overhand delivery, rather than the sidearm delivery the Rangers had converted him to.  And after being called up early in the season, Feldman earned kudos...he wasn't great, by any means, his numbers were really pretty mediocre, but in a season where pitchers thought to be reliable were dropping like flies, despite repeated efforts by the Rangers to limit his innings or shut him down, Feldman was the one reliable, the guy who would take the ball and give the Rangers innings.

And the Rangers rewarded him in 2009 by...putting him back in the bullpen to make room for Kris Benson.*  After that experiment predictably failed, Feldman went back into the rotation, and had a very solid year...his peripherals were mediocre, but he pitched to contact, got ground balls, and let a stellar defense do the work behind him, with the result being a 4.09 ERA on the season and 17 wins.

*  Benson is the perfect example of one of the most maddening tendencies of the current Ranger regime...their tendency to fall in love with mediocre players based on late-February and early-March performance.  Benson made the Ranger rotation despite being pretty poor in the latter stages of spring training, but he had garnered so much buzz in the early stages of spring training, the organization felt they had to have him in the rotation.  Similar experiences have occurred with Matt Kata (whose spring performance resulted in the Rangers waiving Marlon Byrd, a guy they'd signed to be their backup centerfielder), Jamey Wright (and his electric stuff), and most recently, Matt Harrison

Despite Rich Harden being brought in to be the team's #1 starter this offseason, Feldman ended up getting the ball on Opening Day, 2010.  Feldman gave the Rangers a Feldman-esque outing, going 7, giving up 3 runs, not striking out many but not walking many, either.  And since then, he's largely gone south, struggling with his command of his sinker and leaving balls up in the zone.  His peripherals are largely the same from 2009, and better than in 2008, but his BABIP has gone up dramatically and his strand rate has dropped.

As a result, Feldman, despite averaging about 6 innings per start, has a 5.46 ERA, and is in danger of losing his rotation spot.

Feldman signed an extension at the start of the year that will pay him $4.4 million in 2011, $6.25 million in 2012, and has a $9.25 million club option in 2013.  That contract got mixed reviews at the time, but of late, there are Rangers fans urging the Rangers to simply dump Feldman, even if they get nothing in return, just to shed the contract and the obligation to Feldman in 2011 and 2012.  Feldman, it is argued, would be a non-tender candidate this offseason, but since they can't non-tender him, Texas needs to hope that some team is willing to give them a fringe prospect for him, or else claim him on waivers after August 1 so that the Rangers can just dump him.

However...just dumping Feldman right now would be a big mistake.  Not for 2010, but for what it would do to the Rangers' hopes of competing in 2011.

Let's look at the 2011 rotation, assuming Feldman is gone.  You've got three guys who were seemingly be locks...Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson, and Tommy Hunter.  Lewis will be in his second season back from Japan, and will be coming off his first good season in the majors.  Wilson will have exactly one season as a starter in the majors under his belt.  Hunter will be heading into his first full season as a major league starter.

And those are the guys who you are expecting to anchor the rotation of a team that is going into 2011 with championship aspirations.

What are the other options for the rotation?  You have Derek Holland, who has a lot of potential but who hasn't performed in the majors and who has spent most of this year hurt.  You have Matt Harrison, who has washed out a couple of times when given a shot in the rotation, and who seems to be looked at as a bullpen candidate. 

And then?  Martin Perez isn't likely to be ready in 2011.  Tanner Scheppers might be, but his changeup still needs a lot of work to be a starting pitcher in the majors, and he's not someone you are likely to be able to count on for more than 130-140 innings in 2011, given his lack of innings the past two years.  You have Neftali Feliz, should the organization decide to move him out of the bullpen...but you probably don't want to have him start the season in the major league rotation, given the work his secondary pitches need, and given the lack of innings he's logged the past couple of years.  Blake Beavan would have been someone who could have been an option in 2011, but he had to go to Seattle as part of the Cliff Lee deal so that they would absorb enough of Lee's contract for Texas to be able to bring Lee on.

Which means you are looking at Omar Beltre, and Michael Kirkman, and Michael Ballard, and maybe Eric Hurley if he's health, as your minor league rotation depth in 2011, with whatever NRIs you can scrape together this offseason after them.  And before you scoff at the notion that this matters...just remember that the 2010 Rangers went into the season with rotation depth seen as a strength.  And Texas has still had to go to Dustin Nippert and Omar Beltre for multiple starts this season.

A championship contender cannot go into the season with Matt Harrison and Derek Holland in the rotation, and the current internal options behind them, and expect to be a serious contender.  That's simply not an option. no big deal, the Rangers can just go out and sign a free agent starter this offseason, right?

Courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts, here are the starting pitchers who are free agents this offseason:

Bronson Arroyo CIN *
Josh Beckett BOS
Jeremy Bonderman DET
David Bush MIL
Daniel Cabrera CWS
Matt Cain SF *
Jorge De La Rosa COL
Jeff Francis COL *
Jon Garland SD *
Aaron Harang CIN *
Tim Hudson ATL
Cliff Lee SEA
Ted Lilly CHC
Braden Looper MIL
Noah Lowry SF
Kevin Millwood BAL
Jamie Moyer PHI
Vicente Padilla LAD
Nate Robertson FLA
Ian Snell SEA *
Jeff Suppan STL
Javier Vazquez NYY
Brandon Webb ARI
Jake Westbrook CLE
Dontrelle Willis ARZ
Chris Young SD *

The asterisk means there's an option year on the contract, so you can forget about Cain, and likely Francis. 

Cliff Lee and Josh Beckett are the big names on this list.  I'd love to see the Rangers bring Lee back, but I think that's unlikely.  I think the Beckett hype and reputation exceeds the actual Beckett performance, and given the years and dollars he's likely to command, I don't think the Rangers will, or probably should, sign him.

UPDATE -- It has been pointed out Beckett already signed a contract extension.  I thought he had when I was first doing this, then a quick Google search didn't return anything immediately and I figured I just imagined it.  So never mind.

Who else on this list do you think is really worth pursuing, who you can get on a relatively short-term deal and feel comfortable about plugging into the rotation?  Chris Young?  Javier Vazquez?  Do you want to bring Kevin Millwood back?  Hope that Mike Maddux is the guy who can finally get Jeremy Bonderman to reach his potential? 

Jake Westbrook is probably the most appealing option...but he's also going to be 33, is pretty Feldman-esque, and would likely require more years and more money than Feldman would.   And of course, there is the question of whether Jake Westbrook would want to sign with Texas, or if some other team might be more enticing.

The trade market?  The Rangers should be pursuing Roy Oswalt, and Ricky Nolasco, and Dan Haren, and others this offseason.  But that should be the case whether they have Scott Feldman or not...if Cliff Lee doesn't return, finding a quality starting pitcher you'd feel confident about starting a playoff game should be a priority this offseason.

But without Feldman, the 2011 Rangers are going to find themselves with a critical shortage of rotation depth.  Even with Feldman, even if Texas somehow can keep Lee or acquire Oswalt, rotation depth next year likely is going to be a problem. 

But by simply cutting Feldman loose, letting some other team have Feldman because you don't want to deal with his contract, could have a potentially crippling effect on the Rangers' ability to compete in 2011.