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The Rangers’ missing 40%

The Rangers have had 60% of a solid rotation in 2022, but the #4 and #5 spots are even more unsettled now than at the start of the year

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Texas Rangers Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2021-22 offseason, the Texas Rangers needed...well, they needed a lot of things, coming off a 102 loss season.

But in particular, the team needed starting pitching. They ended the 2021 season with only one pitcher under team control who would seem to have had a starting rotation spot locked down — Dane Dunning. There were a number of young interesting arms the Rangers looked at in the rotation in 2021, and a number of really nice starting pitching prospects who appeared to be a year or two away in the system, but other than Dunning, there was no one who you’d expect to be penciled into the 2022 rotation.

For a team that was proclaiming itself done with rebuilding and ready to start moving onward and upward, that saw the 2022 season as a year to make progress, to improve, to be respectable, as a stepping-stone to being a legitimate contender in 2023, starting pitching figured to be an offseason priority. Quality starting pitching was a need, not just a want, this past offseason.

And so the Rangers went and got Jon Gray, right before the lockout hit, on a four year, $56 million deal. That was a deal that generally earned praise, both locally and nationally. They made it clear they wanted Clayton Kershaw, but when the lockout ended and they learned Kershaw would not be coming to Texas, the organization pivoted to Martin Perez on a one year deal*.

* It is kind of amusing that the Perez signing — which generated a lot of hostility and criticism from fans at the time — is now seen as one of the best signings of the offseason by any team.

So with Gray, Perez and Dunning, you had three rotation spots filled roughly 48 hours after the lockout ended. I figured that the team would want to add at least one more decent starting pitcher — Dunning had just finished his first full season in a rotation after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2019, Martin Perez is, well, Martin Perez, and while you’ve got a gaggle of internal arms you can sift through, you probably want that gaggle to fill the fifth spot and be available to be rotation (since we all know you’re going to probably need eight to ten starters in all over the course of a year).

But the Rangers, surprisingly, opted to stand pat. Evan Grant, over the weekend, confirmed that this was more or less the plan, rather than just missing out on guys they wanted to add to those three:

In regards to filling out those final two slots, Taylor Hearn was in the rotation for the final two months of the 2021 season, and while he was not a lock for a rotation spot, the sense appeared to be that one of those rotation spot’s was his to lose. For the final spot, the Rangers had a collection of guys to sift through — Spencer Howard, Glenn Otto, Kolby Allard, and A.J. Alexy, primarily.

Howard was not good after coming over from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Kyle Gibson trade, Otto blew either very hot or very cold in his handful of 2021 starts, Alexy walked as many as he struck out in 23 major league innings in 2021, and Allard...well, we’ve seen enough of Allard at this point, I think, to know what he is. Otto and Alexy are also guys who are seen by many as being more likely to be relievers than starters long-term. It is an interesting collection of arms, but not a group that is going to inspire a great deal of confidence in regards to finding productive major league starting pitchers for 2022.

It seemed to me that it made more sense to find another starting pitcher — not even a really good one, necessarily, just someone who could provide innings at a little better than replacement level — to plug into the rotation. Send Spencer Howard, whose 2020 and 2021 seasons were essentially lost years, to AAA to get into a routine and have success. If you’re dead set on getting a longer look at Taylor Hearn as a starter*, put him in the #5 spot. Let everyone else start in Round Rock as rotation depth, since we know that you’re going to need additional starters over the course of the year.

* As discussed in the Year in Review write-up on Hearn, I was skeptical coming into the year about Hearn’s future as a starter, for reasons set out in that write-up. I would have preferred to have been wrong.

Between the lockout and the abbreviated camp, there wasn’t going to be much of an opportunity to evaluate guys in spring training. Hearn was fine, Howard had a good camp, and the two of them claimed the final two rotation spots, joining Gray, Dunning and Perez.

So where does the rotation stand now? Gray had issues with blisters and a bad knee early on, but has been fine since — after allowing ten runs in twelve innings in his first three shortened starts, Gray has put up a 3.45 ERA and a 3.02 FIP in 47 innings over 8 games. Perez is 4th in the A.L. in ERA. Dunning has been mediocre, but acceptable for a back end member of the rotation.

Spencer Howard gave up six runs in three innings in his first start, went on the injured list with a blister, made two short appearances where he theoretically was the “starter” behind an opener but didn’t go more than two innings, was sent back to the minors to be “stretched out,” and hasn’t been heard from since.

Glenn Otto replaced Howard in the rotation, allowed eight runs to the Red Sox in his fourth start but otherwise has allowed just one or two runs in each outing, but is not missing enough bats or throwing enough good strikes. Otto has a 4.24 ERA but a 5.90 xERA, and is in the bottom 10th percentile in MLB in walk rate, xERA, and xwOBA. His slider, which is supposed to be his out pitch, is generating some swings and misses, but is also landing in the fat part of the strike zone way too often, resulting in it getting pounded when hitters make contact. Otto landed on the COVID injured list, which has cost him two starts, and will be making a rehab start for Round Rock on Tuesday before presumably re-joining the Rangers rotation.

And then there is Taylor Hearn. Hearn started the Rangers’ home opener. He has stayed healthy. He has made his starts. He went to the bullpen for the series against the Yankees due to the schedule being such that his start was being skipped, but wasn’t actually used out of the bullpen, and ended up making his regularly scheduled start 11 days later. Other than that instance, he’s pitched on four or five days rest every time out.

And Hearn has not been good. His disaster outing against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday, when he allowed eight runs in 3.2 IP, jumped his ERA by almost a run (5.37 to 6.25), but Hearn took a 5.87 xERA into that start. Hearn’s xERA is now 6.17 - in the 4th percentile among MLB pitchers. His xwOBA and average exit velocity is also in the 4th percentile. His barrel rate is in the 3rd percentile. He’s also walking too many batters — Hearn is in the 25th percentile in walk rate. And he’s not missing enough bats — he’s in the 30th percentile in K rate, the 19th percentile in whiff rate, and the 23rd percentile in chase rate.

If you look at Hearn’s heat maps, his fastball and sinker are both left over the heart of the plate way too often, which results in pitches being crushed. The fastball command has not been acceptable. Maybe if he were pitching out of the bullpen, used in a multi-inning role the way Brock Burke and Matt Moore are, where he has to face hitters one time and can squeeze out more velocity with his command issues maybe not being as much of an issue, he’d be an asset.

Right now, though, Hearn isn’t a major league caliber starting pitcher.

After Saturday’s ugly 14-7 loss to Detroit, talk started about whether Taylor Hearn was going to stay in the rotation. While that’s warranted, based on his performance, the Rangers’ alternatives aren’t necessarily any better.

Spencer Howard just struck out nine in five innings while allowing one run, and he threw five scoreless innings in two of his three starts prior to that. Howard gave up six runs in the other start, however (albeit all in the first inning, after which he mowed everyone down, striking out five in five innings and walking one), and appears to be getting limited to five innings and around 80 or so pitches right now. The value of trying to reach your long term goal of getting Spencer Howard to a place where he can be a viable major league starting pitcher would seem to be greater than what incremental improvement he might offer the current rotation — the “might” being the operative word, because it isn’t clear he would offer an upgrade.

A.J. Alexy has not been good. He’s not been good all season, but in particular, he’s been lit up his last couple of outings, giving up 13 runs in 7.2 IP while allowing seven home runs. Opponents are slashing .301/.393/.620 off of Alexy, who has a 7.51 ERA, this year, including .342/.405/.790 in his last four outings. He’s more likely to be looking at a move to the bullpen than a move to the major league rotation.

Kolby Allard? You know what you’re going to get from him. He’s going to battle and throw strikes and give up a bunch of home runs. After giving up 29 home runs in 124.2 IP in 2021, he has allowed five home runs in 16 innings in the majors this year. You can put him in the rotation just so you aren’t using Hearn or Otto anymore, but that’s a lateral move.

The other options in Round Rock — the guys who you saw as possibly taking a step forward and being in the mix at this point of the year if you needed a starter — are underwhelming. Jake Latz has a 5.24 ERA and is walking too many batters. Cole Winn started the year strong but has seen his command abandon him of late. He’s also someone who isn’t going to be called up unless you’re confident he’ll be up for good, and we aren’t there right now. Kohei Arihara has a 4.63 ERA and is a lot like Kolby Allard, only righthanded and not as good. Tyson Miller was pulled up to replace Otto when Otto went on the COVID injured list and isn’t likely to be back anytime soon.

I’ve seen Cole Ragans’ name thrown out there as a possibility, based on his strong start to the 2022 season. Ragans put up a 2.81 ERA in 51.1 IP over 10 starts for Frisco before being promoted to Round Rock, where he threw seven innings of two run ball in his first start. Ragans may actually be the best option at some point — now, even — but I tend to think that the Rangers are going to want to have him get more exposure to AAA hitters before they throw him to the major league lions. Ragans also, as we all know, missed all of 2018-20 due to two Tommy John surgeries, and only threw 80 innings in 2021, so how he will hold up over the course of the season is an open question.

So the Rangers have rotation issues, and if they are in contention come July they are definitely going to have to go find at least one someone to plug into the rotation, even if it is a Kip Wells/Miguel Gonzalez type deal where they give up a fringy-fringe prospect for a veteran mediocrity (Drew Smyly, anyone?). And if they aren’t in contention, well, they still are going to have to figure out some way to get innings absorbed, particularly if they opt to deal Martin Perez.

It is enough to make one ask, why didn’t Texas do more to solidify the starting rotation this offseason? I understand not trading for a Sonny Gray or a Chris Bassitt or someone similar, a pitcher with one or two years of control remaining who wouldn’t move the needle enough to warrant giving up a meaningful prospect package, but wouldn’t it have made sense to go get another Martin Perez-type, a veteran mediocrity who would take a one year deal?

The answer to that, of course, is that the Rangers see 2022 as a year where they are trying to improve, but don’t expect to contend. Not to say they don’t want to contend — Chris Woodward has said that the time for open tryouts and long ropes has passed, and the Rangers are focusing on winning this year — but the expectation is to improve significantly on last year’s 102 loss season, with an eye towards contending in 2023.

And part of that process — part of having an eye towards contending in 2023 — is figuring out who, in the organization, can be a winning piece in 2023. Which means providing opportunities to guys in an effort to figure out who you think you can count on going forward.

The Rangers did the same thing on a the position player side. We talked about the holes in the lineup, asked why they didn’t get a stopgap third baseman and a bat for left field or someone to DH. But the Rangers wanted to evaluate their internal options. Andy Ibanez didn’t pan out at third base, but Josh Smith and Ezequiel Duran have had opportunities, and been encouraging. Eli White looked, pre-injury, like someone who could be a useful bench piece. Mitch Garver’s injury has paved the way for Jonah Heim to seize the everyday catching job, particularly now that Garver is a DH for the time being.

So this has worked out well in regards to the hitters. It hasn’t worked out so well in regards to the starting pitchers. Story of the Rangers’ history.