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The Rangers starting pitching situation should be interesting

The starting pitching situation for the Rangers will likely not be good in 2021, but it should be interesting, at least

Texas Rangers v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

For the Texas Rangers, 2021 is going to about growth, about discovery, about finding out about the guys they have and determining who can be, and should be, traded for value, who should be part of the future of the team, and who looks like they aren’t going to be part of the plan going forward.

For the Texas Rangers, 2021 is not going to be about winning. I mean, the manager and the players and the organization want to win games, and are going to try to win games...but the success or failure of this season is going to be determined by the pieces the Rangers are able to acquire for the future via trade, how many of the young major league or major league ready players take significant strides, and how much growth and development is seen among prospects in the minor league system.

The team has committed to a rebuild. And one of the things that entering the season acknowledging that you are not a contender, that you are building for the future, does is gives you the freedom to try some different things, experiment with options you might shy away from if you were working to earn a post-season berth.

And thus, we have the starting pitching situation for the Rangers this year, which should, if nothing else, be quite interesting to follow.

Note that I did not say good — I am not terribly optimistic about the Rangers’ rotation being one of the better rotations in the league. It may, somehow, end up being good, and that would be a pleasant surprise...but that’s not something any of us are counting on, I don’t think. But it nonetheless will be worth watching.

First of all, while the Rangers are using a five man rotation, only three of those slots are occupied by traditional starters in traditional starter roles. The other two, at this stage, are slated to be filled by a “tandem starter” arrangement, whereby the rotation slot will be filled by two pitchers, each of whom will pitch a few innings.

The tandem starter arrangement was used some in 2020 — Kyle Cody and John King were paired for five outings in September, with Cody starting the game and King coming into the game in relief. The Rangers also experimented with an opener — a pitcher who starts the game, faces 4-6 batters, and then is replaced by the “starter” — in 2020. That, combined with the fact that the Rangers lacked many good traditional starting pitching options but did have a number of guys who could go several innings, had me spending the offseason hoping that we would see the Rangers do something along these lines.

That said, 2020 was the year of the pandemic, everything was different then, and I wasn’t confident that, in a “real” season, the Rangers would do something that was so outside of the box this year. It turns out my skepticism was unwarranted — or at least appears to be, at this point.

Among the traditional starters, Kyle Gibson is probably the least interesting — a first round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins in 2009 out of the University of Missouri, he has spent his career as one of those middling righthanded starting pitchers that the Twins seem to specialize in, bringing to mind a bunch of interchangeable names like Joe Mays, Kyle Lohse, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Phil Hughes, Tyler Duffey, Jake Odorizzi, Randy Dobnak, all striving to reach the Platonic Ideal of a Minnesota Twins Righthanded Starting Pitcher, Brad Radke. He’s kind of a generic righthander, signed by the Rangers to a 3 year, $28 million deal after the 2019 season, and, like so many Rangers players, wasn’t good in 2020.

He’s still kind of interesting, though. Gibson will be the Rangers’ Opening Day starter. He added a cutter in the offseason, and the reviews from this spring have been cautiously optimistic. In each of the two offseasons before Gibson was signed, the Rangers signed a veteran to a 3 year deal for around $30 million, and each of those pitchers struggled the first couple of months for Texas before being really good afterwards, and after a couple of bad months in 2020 for Gibson, we can see if he can continue that trend.

More importantly, if Gibson pitches well this season, he will present the Rangers with a decision in July that will provide a signal for the direction the front office believes the team is going. Even if Gibson pitches well, he’s not going to bring back a huge return in a trade — but as a guy under contract for a reasonable amount through 2022, he would have value, and the Rangers would at least get something worthwhile if they choose to trade him at the deadline to a contender. If, come July, the Rangers see 2022 as being another bad year, and Gibson is pitching well, that’s the direction they’d seem likely to go. But if the front office sees 2022 as being a year of respectability — particularly if they, as rumored, will be going deep sea fishing in the free agent market this coming offseason — they may wish to keep Gibson for 2022 unless they are overwhelmed by an offer.

Behind Gibson is Mike Foltynewicz — former first round pick of the Houston Astros, former All Star for the Atlanta Braves, waived and outrighted in the summer of 2020 after an awful spring training and summer camp that saw his velocity disappear, and then a free agent once the 2020 season ended. The Rangers signed Foltynewicz to just a one year deal — but he has 4+ years of service time, which means that he will not be eligible for major league free agency this offseason, but instead will be arbitration-eligible. That means that, like Gibson, Foltynewicz is under team control for 2022 (though unlike Gibson, the Rangers aren’t committed to him for 2022 if he doesn’t work out).

Like Gibson, the reports from spring training have been encouraging — Foltynewicz’s velocity appears to be back where he was when he was good, and the Rangers have him slotted in the starting rotation. His track record is that of a middling starting pitcher who hasn’t been able to consistently stay on the mound — even his All Star season was a bit fluky, with his 2.85 ERA being accompanied by a 3.37 FIP and a 3.77 xFIP — but middling starting pitchers still have value. And like Gibson, if Foltynewicz performs in the first half of 2021, the Rangers will have a decision to make.

Folty is more interesting than Gibson, though, at least to me, because of the difference in career arcs. Gibson is a guy in his early 30s who has had a pretty normal career. Foltynewicz was well regarded prospect used as a trade chip used by the Astros at the end of their rebuild to acquire Evan Gattis, joined the rebuilding Braves, was mediocre, had a breakout season as a 26 year old that had folks expecting great things of him, regressed the next season, and was banished from the 40 man roster the following summer. And now, at 29, he looks to rise from the ashes, to rebound from a career nadir and get his career back on track.

Who wouldn’t root for that?

The third “traditional” starter is Kohei Arihara, 28 year old righthander who has spent his career with the Nippon Ham Fighters of the JPL. In the JPL he was...fine. Servicable. Career 3.65 ERA, not a lot of strikeouts, not a lot of walks. He had a 2.46 ERA in 2019 in 24 starts, but followed it up with a 3.46 ERA in 20 starts last year.

There’s skepticism about how well Arihara will perform in the United States, which is why he only got $6.2 million over two years* in his deal with the Rangers — pitchers teams are confident can at least be league average starters are going to get a lot more than $3M per year guaranteed. But he, unlike pitchers in the United States, pitched a lot of innings in 2020, meaning that there’s less concern about his ability to log a lot of innings in 2021, and there may be some advantage in the fact that he’s new to MLB and batters haven’t faced him. On the other hand, he’s also having to deal with an MLB ball that is less tacky than the one used in the JPL, which presents hurdles, and there are legitimate questions about how many swings and misses he can induce.

* Arihara’s deal is also front-loaded, with $3.6 million in 2021 and $2.6 million in 2022. That could be a sign the Rangers plan on spending in 2022, or it could be a cynical hedge against the possibility of COVID-19 resulting in canceling games with a pro-rated reduction in salaries in 2021.

Arihara may turn into a solid, respectable starting pitcher — in which, hey, the Rangers have the same decision with him in July that they potentially have with Gibson and Foltynewicz — or he may bomb, or he may end up being less a 6 inning guy than a 3 inning guy and get shifted into one of the tandem spots. Who knows? Its a mystery, and we all love mysteries, and so we should be following closely the Kohei Arihara adventure.

That gets us to the final two spots — the tandem starter spots (though we should note that Chris Woodward has said he won’t have them back-to-back in the rotation, in order to preserve the bullpen, though stick a pin in that because we’re going to come back to that issue later). The plan appears to be to try to have a righthander paired with a lefthander, ideally with the pitchers having different styles, so as to make it harder for opposing teams to platoon and to give the opposing batters different looks.

Chris Woodward yesterday announced that one of those four spots has been filled, and that is with...sigh...Jordan Lyles. Okay, you’re not enthusiastic about Lyles innings in 2021. And that’s understandable! Neither am I! Signed to a two year, $16 million deal after the 2019 season — a deal that seemed questionable at the time — Lyles was bad in 2020. He led the majors in earned runs allowed — 45 in 57.2 IP — and his 7.02 ERA and 5.95 FIP, despite pitching in the very pitcher-friendly environs of Globe Life Field, make you want to avert your eyes. Woodward started using an opener for him towards the end of 2020, and early in the spring Woodward indicated that the team saw Lyles as a 50-60 pitch per game guy, rather than a traditional starter, which Lyles, understandably, isn’t happy about. He’s reportedly fixed some problems he had last year with his curveball, and who knows, maybe if things go a certain way, he will get a chance to go back to being a traditional starter for Texas this year. Or he could be released if he’s bad. There’s just no telling.

Also, I’m sure folks would just as soon Lyles be released now, given he’s a free agent after the season, isn’t going to be an enticing trade target even if he pitches well, and his roster spot could go to someone younger and with more potential. However, given the current injuries to the pitching staff, and the reality that more pitchers will go down as the season moves forward, I get not wanting to jettison someone who at least gives you a warm body you may need later in the year.

That leaves three spots for now. And those final spots are where we get the opportunity to essentially hold tryouts, roll out pitchers who may be able to be a contributor in the near future and see what they’ve got.

There’s Dane Dunning, who I would wager will fill the other righty tandem starter slot to start the season. The 26 year old, acquired from the Chicago White Sox with Avery Weems in exchange for Lance Lynn, showed up in several top 100 lists this past offseason, and was generally expected to be in the rotation to start the season. Since logging 144 innings in 2017, however, he hasn’t cracked the triple digit mark in innings in a season — his inning totals by year are:

2018 — 86.1 IP

2019 — 0 IP

2020 — 34 IP

That “0” is due to Tommy John surgery. With Dunning having barely pitched the past few years (a theme that recurs in this section), the team is looking to manage his innings this year, and so if he’s in the rotation to start the season, it will be in a tandem starter role. As the season progressed, he could move to a more traditional starters role if he has success in the tandem role. Or he may not. Who knows? We’ll have to wait and see.

The other righthander who would seem to be vying right now for a tandem starter role is Kyle Cody. The big (6’7”) righty, drafted in the 6th round of the 2016 draft out of the University of Kentucky, emerged as one of the Rangers’ top pitching prospects after 2017, his first full season as a pro. Here are his innings by season since:

2018 — 5 IP

2019 — 0 IP

2020 — 22.2 IP

Yeah, Tommy John surgery. Cody had a gaudy 1.59 ERA in his limited innings in 2020, though with a 3.90 FIP. He could beat out Dunning for the final righty tandem starter slot, or the Rangers could opt to go with three righties and a lefty, but I’m guessing Cody starts the season either in the bullpen (since, you know, the Rangers have like no healthy relievers left) or at the Alternate Training Site.

The performance of Dunning and Cody this year is going to have a pretty meaningful impact on the success of failure of 2021 from the standpoint of the Rangers’ future. They are both 26 years old, they both have six years of team control remaining, and they are the two major league ready pitchers who seem to have the best chance of being decent starting pitchers over the next half-decade. A good 2021 season from each of them, a season that allows the Rangers to feel comfortable relying on Dunning and Cody to take on traditional starting pitching roles in 2022, would be huge for this team. Dunning and Cody floundering would be a big blow, and, particularly if other young pitchers in tandem roles don’t make strides, would have the organization having to answer some really uncomfortable questions about their failure to develop pitchers.

Among those battling for lefty tandem starter roles are a bevy of young lefties who are laden with question marks. Two of them we can call “stuff” guys — Taylor Hearn and Joe Palumbo. Let’s look at their innings pitched by year recently:

Taylor Hearn:

2019 — 20.1 IP

2020 — 17.1 IP

Joe Palumbo:

2017 — 13.2 IP

2018 — 45.1 IP

2019 — 80.2 IP

2020 — 2.1 IP

Hearn and Palumbo, like Dunning and Cody, are 1) 26 years old, and 2) haven’t pitched much in recent years. Hearn, you may recall, picked up that “.1” in 2019 when he was called up to make an emergency start in Seattle,* couldn’t throw strikes, was pulled, had a shoulder issue, and never made it back on the mound that year. Palumbo, like Cody, was the team’s breakout minor league pitcher (in 2016, a year before Cody’s breakout year), then needed Tommy John surgery.

* You may also recall that the Rangers started once and future shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa behind the plate for Hearn’s debut, rather than Jeff Mathis, the fabled Pitcher Whisperer. That was a decision that didn’t make sense then, and doesn’t make sense now. Hearn may have still been awful in his major league debut, but pairing him with the greybeard whose primary value is in his pitcher handling, rather than the guy who only started catching a few years earlier, seems like it would have put Hearn in a better position to succeed.

Hearn and Palumbo both have quality stuff and questions about their command. Palumbo has also been dogged by a variety of ailments, most recently a serious bout of ulcerative colitis that hospitalized him in 2020 and cost him the final month of the season. Both are guys who are seen as potentially better suited for the bullpen, where their repertoire would play up and their command issues would be less of a problem, but both seem likely to be given the opportunity to work as a starter for now before any switch is made.

Hearn seems like the more likely of the two to be in the tandem starter mix to start the year. Hearn got impressive reviews in 2020, both in spring training and summer camp, and put up a 3.63 ERA in 17.1 IP over 14 relief outings in 2020, striking out 23 of the 76 batters he faced (though while walking 11). Hearn has also garnered praise this spring, and seems like a lock to make the Opening Day roster, with the question mainly being if it will be in a tandem starter role, or as a member of the bullpen (where he may be needed more, due to lefty relievers Joely Rodriguez and Brett Martin likely starting the year on the injured list, though they are not expected to miss significant time).

Palumbo, at this stage, seems to be behind Hearn in the pecking order, and given his tumultuous 2020, it seems like the Rangers would prefer that he get some reps at the Alternate Training Site and, once the minor league season starts, work as a starter in the minor leagues for the time being. He could end up in the bullpen on Opening Day due to the injury situation, but I would not expect to see him logging many major league innings in the first half of the season.

Then we have the young “finesse” lefties — Kolby Allard and Wes Benjamin. Allard has the pedigree — he was the 14th overall pick in the MLB Draft in 2015, selected by the Atlanta Braves, and was a top 100 prospect his first few years as a pro, peaking at #37 on the pre-2017 BA list and at #24 on the pre-2018 BP list. As Allard’s fastball velocity dropped, however, his stock has dropped, and he ended up being dealt to the Rangers for Chris Martin at the 2019 trade deadline. Immediately put in the Rangers rotation, he showed an uptick in velocity and had some impressive starts, though still not much in the way of whiffs.

Allard came into camp in 2020 as the young starter seen as the most ready to be in the majors, and he got the opportunity once the regular season finally got underway and the Rangers immediately lost Corey Kluber. The success he had in 2019 wasn’t duplicated in 2020, however — Allard had a 7.75 ERA (albeit with a 4.71 FIP), and while he was striking out more batters, he was also walking more, giving up more home runs, and giving up a lot of hits on balls in play. After allowing in his first two starts just a single run in a combined 9 IP, he had two disaster outings in a row, giving up 6 runs in three innings at Colorado and then not making it out of the first inning in San Francisco. Things seemed to be back under control in his next two starts, when he was using his changeup much more, allowing 4 runs in a combined 12.1 IP, but after two more disaster starts — 8 runs in 3.2 IP at Seattle and 6 runs in an inning-plus at home against Oakland — Allard was relegated to the pen the rest of the way.

Allard’s velocity fluctuations by year in the majors are unusual — per Fangraphs he was at 89.4 mph on his fastball in 2018, 92.5 in 2019, then down to 91.6 in 2020 (another FG data set has him at 92.5 in 2019 but 92.0 in 2020, for what it is worth, though that is still down). Even at 92.5 mph, however, he’s not overpowering and needs really good command in order to have success. That was lacking in 2020.

There’s some reason to think he wasn’t as bad as the surface numbers look in 2020, as can be seen by the spread between the 4.71 FIP (not good, but not terrible) and the 7.75 ERA (very terrible). When a pitcher is struggling with commanding his pitches he will often see a spike in his batting average on balls in play, and that can be an indicator that the FIP is not capturing how hard he is getting hit, since FIP assumes a pitcher has no control over balls in play going for hits. Allard’s BABIP was only .284, however — balls in play were converted to outs more often than would be expected.

If we look at the slash line of hitters facing Allard in 2020, the mystery deepens. Here’s Allard’s slash line allowed in 2019 and in 2020:

2019: .281/.353/.389

2020: .238/.342/392

Lower batting average allowed, which makes sense as his BABIP dropped from .327 in 2019 to .284 in 2020, while his K rate rose. OBP and SLG stayed the same since he walked more guys and some doubles in 2019 turned into homers in 2020. But those are pretty similar lines. The Statcast data bears that out as well — a .322 wOBA in 2019 compared to a .324 wOBA in 2020, and a .326 xwOBA in 2019 compared to a .333 xwOBA in 2020. Exit velocity? 88.5 in 2019, 89.1 in 2020.

Based on all that, we wouldn’t expect to see such a difference from 2019 to 2020 with Allard in terms of his raw numbers. Now, he went from pitching in an extreme hitters park in 2019 to what played as an extreme pitchers park in 2020, so allowing the same slash line and same wOBA/xwOBA in 2020 means he didn’t pitch as well in 2020 as he did in 2019, but that is going to show up in the park-adjusted numbers, not the raw numbers.

But to put that slash line in context, Dexter Fowler slashed .238/.346/.409 in 2019. Allard allowed hitters last year to, in aggregate, hit like Dexter Fowler against him in 2020. Now, that’s not good — particularly given the home park he pitched in. But its not a 7.75 ERA level of godawful.

So how did Allard end up giving up so many runs? Well, let’s look at his splits with no one on compared to with runners on base in 2020:

No one on: .147/.273/.227

Runner only on first base: .273/.351/.545

Runners in scoring position: .500/.556/.727

Well, that certainly explains a lot. Allard was great with no one on base, but once he had a runner on, he was awful. This also shows up in his K rates. He struck out 22 of 88 batters he faced with no one on base. He struck out 5 of 37 batters with one baserunner on base, at first base. He struck out 5 of 27 batters with runners in scoring position.

There are three possible explanations that come to mind. One, that this was just dumb luck, the random fluctuations that happen in small sample sizes. Two, that when he was pitching poorly there was almost always a runner on base, so the data set is skewed by having so few instances of him pitching with no one on when he was bad. Three, that there was off when he was pitching from the stretch that made him more hittable.

So let’s look at the Statcast expected data for Allard in 2020, broken out by situation:

No one on: .238 wOBA/.308 xwOBA

Runner only on first base: .378 wOBA/.342 xwOBA

Runners in scoring position: .530 wOBA/.401 xwOBA

Allard’s actual results were much better than his expected results with no one on. They were worse with a runner only on first base, and much worse with runners in scoring position. The expected results, though, also show that his expected results with runners on base were worse than the expected results with no one on.

The question here is why, and I’ve already delved way more into the Kolby Allard mystery than I planned on doing. I don’t know the answer here. Maybe there was something mechanically off when pitching from the stretch. Maybe it was just random. Maybe he was trying to be too fine with batters on and getting hammered as a result. But regardless, for Allard to stick in the majors, he’s likely going to have to do it as a starter, because he doesn’t have the stuff to be in the bullpen, and he’s going to have to have really good command to be a starter.

He’s also going to have to not get rocked with runners on base.

Moving on...Wes Benjamin is, like Allard, in the finesse lefty category. Unlike Allard, however, he doesn’t have the pedigree. Benjamin, at 27 almost exactly four years older than Allard, was a fifth round pick in 2014 out of the University of Kansas who had Tommy John surgery after being drafted and missed most of 2015 as a result. Since then he has slowly worked his way up the organizational ladder, with respectable if not overwhelming results. He’s never been on the prospect map, and has generally been viewed as an organizational depth guy.

That changed in 2020. He started getting some run in camp, was part of the pool of players brought to the Alternative Training Site, and ended up making his major league debut in 2020, ultimately throwing 22.1 IP over 8 games, with a 4.84 ERA and a 4.58 FIP. The velocity was not impressive — he averaged 91 mph on his fastball per Fangraphs — but the results weren’t bad. Benjamin stuck around on the 40 man roster over the offseason, and the beats started listing him in the group of young pitchers that were in the mix for roles in 2021 along with more heralded pitchers. This was mystifying to me, as the pitcher he had been his entire minor league career didn’t suggest he warranted such esteem.

As it turns out, he’s not the pitcher he has been his entire career. Benjamin went to Driveline after the 2018 season and embraced the concept of pitch design — the idea of using analytics both to figure out what pitches would be most effective for your repertoire, and how to maximize the success of those pitches. The progress he has made has resulted in him getting to the major leagues in 2020, moving up the depth chart, and getting him to the point where he’s seen as a favorite for one of the lefty tandem starting roles.

Does that mean that Wes Benjamin is going to actually be a successful major league starting pitcher? No. Wes Benjamin could flop. He could get hammered. He could get hurt. He could struggle to command his newly designed pitches. He still has an uphill road to climb to be useful major league pitcher, as compared to a swingman or a depth piece.

But Benjamin has taken the steps necessary to give himself a shot, and I think the Rangers would like to see how the new Wes Benjamin plays at the major league level. And given all that, Benjamin is one of the guys I’m most interested in watching this year — not because he’s got the greatest chance of success, but because his path and what he’s doing is different, and I want to see how it plays out.

Also in the finesse lefty category — but as a veteran import, rather than a homegrown young ‘un — is Hyeon-Jong Yang. The 33 year old lefty has spent his entire career in Korea, where for much of his career he has been one of the best pitchers in the KBO. Like Arihara, he has the advantage of having pitched a regular workload in 2020, having logged 172 IP. Unfortunately, they weren’t good innings — he ended the year with a 4.70 ERA, striking out 149 batters against 64 walks, in what was his worst season in almost a decade.

Yang pitched better in 2019, with a 2.29 ERA, and with a walk and home run rate half of what he had in 2020. Reading the tea leaves, Yang has gone from a guy expected to be part of the rotation in some form to start the year, despite being here on a minor league deal, to folks anticipating him being at the Alternative Training Site to start the year. Yang only got a minor league deal because of concerns about how his stuff would translate in the big leagues, and it doesn’t appear his work this spring has put any of those concerns to rest. That being said, a former KBO MVP (back in 2017) who was posted after the 2014 season, with the winning bid (which was rumored to have maybe, possibly, have been from the Rangers) having been rejected as too low, is worth keeping an eye on. Like so many others on here, he may be good, he may be bad, but he should be interesting.

There will be pitchers aside from those mentioned above who we could see at some point in the rotation, either in a normal role or, more likely, in a tandem role — not just the Brandon Manns and Austin Bibens-Dirkxs of the world, but prospects in the system who have a real chance of being a contributor to the next good Rangers team. John King, Tyler Phillips, Jason Bahr, Jake Latz, Yerry Rodriguez, A.J. Alexy, Luis Ortiz, Brock Burke...the tandem starter system the Rangers are embracing this season, combined with the desire the manage innings after a truncated campaign and the general attrition we inevitably see in the course of a season, will likely provide for some of these pitchers to get an audition at some point. The majority likely won’t work out...but you have to think at least a couple will show enough to put you on notice about them going forward.

The other thing about the Rangers’ management of their starting pitching this season that is going to be worth monitoring is how this plan actually works in practice. Teams in recent years have finally shown a willingness to get away from doing the same-old same-old five man, 100-120 pitch system that we’ve had for the last half-century. Tampa Bay has been on the forefront, using more bullpen games and deploying an opener quite frequently, and the success they have had has resulted in some of these strategies being adopted by other teams.

It may be that the tandem starter plan is a disaster. It may be something that the team chucks 6 weeks into the season because it isn’t working, because the pitchers can’t adjust to it, for whatever reason. But there’s also the possibility that this works out — that the Rangers have success with their tandem starter spots, more success than they would have had with a traditional #4 and #5 starter.

This could also help the pitching staff in more subtle ways. Remember when I told you to put a pin in it when I referenced Chris Woodward wanting to split up the tandem starting roles in order to keep the bullpen from being overly taxed? That’s a reasonable concern — guys in the tandem starter spots would seem likely to be less successful in general than the guys you feel comfortable putting in a traditional starter slot. That’s going to mean more disaster innings, guys potentially being rocked, the possibility of a tandem starter getting yanked after recording just four outs. You don’t want to see that happen in back to back games.

However...if the pitchers have success in the tandem starter setup, if they thrive, this could potentially help the bullpen. If you have one of your tandem guys go four innings and another go three innings, you’re now just asking your bullpen to pick up one or two innings, rather than the three or four you would often have to lean on them for with a traditional 4/5 starter. That sort of workload would mean ending up around 100-110 innings on the season for a pitcher who stays in the rotation in a tandem role all year — a manageable amount for the pitchers the Rangers are wanting to be cautious with.

It is also possible that this may be an option that simply works better for the pitchers the Rangers have right now. We have talked before about how the Rangers seem to be able to do a good job of uncovering relievers. There are a number of arms in the upper minors and the majors about whom there are serious questions about their ability to be an 180 inning starting pitcher, but who could thrive in a multi-inning reliever role.

It may be that the best way to utilize a Taylor Hearn, a Joe Palumbo, a Kyle Cody, isn’t by trying to fit them in either a traditional starter box or a 20-30 pitch late inning reliever box. It may be that the best way to utilize a number of pitchers the Rangers have is to use them in a multi-inning role for games where the team foregoes the traditional starting pitcher.

Its unconventional, its weird, and yeah, it may not work. But for a team that has wholly failed in recent years in developing starting pitching — a team for which one of their defining characteristics in their 50 year history has been their inability to develop starting pitching — doesn’t it have to be considered?

More likely than not this is a one-off deal, something that we won’t see beyond 2021, that will be one of the weird footnotes of the COVID era in baseball.

But it doesn’t have to be. And seeing how this works in practice, how pitchers perform in these non-traditional roles and how it works as a way to break them into the rotation without the expectation of going 6 innings every time out, is going to be worth watching this year.

It may be an abject failure. Or it may be the vanguard of a new way of playing the game.

Only time will tell.