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Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Texas' starting rotation armed with 'ifs'

By Jim Reeves
ESPNDallas.com

When it comes to spring training, I'm generally as giddy as the next person. I've spent a major portion of my life at whatever site the Rangers have been encamped for each of the past 35 years, and that's not going to change this year just because my work habits are a little different.

Spring training is just too fun to miss. There's no better time of year to be around a baseball team, because nobody's lost a game yet and everybody can believe they have a real chance to be a winner. It's so easy to get caught up in the fresh, new spirit of a spring training camp. I've been guilty of that plenty of times.

Rich Harden
Rich Harden, touted as the Rangers' staff ace this season, has been on the disabled list seven times in the past five seasons.

In every camp that isn't home to at least a division champion, one thought prevails: This year is going to be different.

So why do I have this sinking feeling that Rangers manager Ron Washington is being set up to fail?

It's not just that the Rangers' new ownership, its players, its fans, are optimistic. If they can't be optimistic right now, they never will be. But there's a huge difference between expecting to win the division -- everybody says that right now -- and having a chance to win.

The Rangers definitely fall into the latter category, but the former is another matter entirely. Club president Nolan Ryan is on record as saying he's going to be disappointed if the Rangers don't win the AL West.

That's interesting, because Nolan, better than anyone, knows that pitching is what wins in baseball. And last time I checked, the defending division champions -- the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim -- still have far and away the best rotation in the West. And frankly, I'm not even sure if Texas' pitching is second-best.

What the Rangers have, if we're honest with ourselves, is a rotation loaded with "ifs." If they all hit right, sure, the Rangers could and probably will win.

• IF Rich Harden gets remotely close to 200 innings for the first time in his career and somehow stays off the disabled list. Dang, he's good when he's healthy, but he visits the DL -- seven times in the past five years -- like the rest of us drop by the post office.

• IF the amazing numbers Colby Lewis posted during a two-year sojourn in Japan don't get lost in translation. Remember, he has a 6.71 ERA in the big leagues.

• IF Tommy Hunter doesn't eat his way out of baseball. Hunter only started in Texas for about half the season last year but showed signs of fatigue in September with a 6.28 ERA in seven starts.

• IF whoever wins the fifth starting spot -- Brandon McCarthy, C.J. Wilson, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz -- is not a liability to the bullpen every fifth day.

That's a lot of "ifs" we're crossing our fingers over.

Pineiro
Joel Pineiro won 15 games in 2009 for the Cardinals, and he'll be the No. 5 starter for the Los Angeles Angels this season.

The only member of the rotation who doesn't worry me at least a little bit is Scott Feldman. He'll be fine.

It's not that the Rangers don't have lots of options for a change. They have plenty. It's just that each comes with its own caveat.

The Angels, meanwhile, will trot out a veteran rotation of Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders, Scott Kazmir and Joel Pineiro. That's right, the Angels' fifth starter won 15 games last year in St. Louis. Weaver was 16-8 in 2009. Santana was a 16-game winner in 2006 and '08. Saunders is coming off 17- and 16-win seasons. Kazmir has been a double-figure winner for five straight seasons.

In fact, the Angels' five starters are 83 games over .500 in their combined careers with a 4.14 ERA. If we pencil McCarthy -- the most experienced of the candidates -- into the Rangers' fifth slot, Texas' five starters are 18 games over .500 with a 4.88 ERA.

Each of the Angels' starters has either exceeded 200 innings pitched in a season at least once or, in Saunders' case, come darn close (198 and 186 in each of the last two years). Not a single Rangers starter has ever done that.

Now let's take a peek at Seattle. If Erik Bedard is healthy and can join Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee at the top of rotation, is there a better Big Three in baseball? It's certainly worthy of debate.

Is Hunter better than Seattle's projected No. 4 starter Ryan Rowland-Smith? Is whoever wins the Rangers' No. 5 job better than the Mariners' No. 5, Ian Snell? Maybe, maybe not. I don't think any of us know the answers to those questions right now.

Hernandez
Felix Hernandez was 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA last season for the Mariners. He'll be joined in the rotation by Cliff Lee, who has won 36 games over the past two seasons.

What I do know is that the numbers and the experience say the Rangers' rotation, for all its perceived improvement, might not be any better than No. 3 in the division, and I really don't want to look too closely at Oakland for fear of what I might come up with there.

The Rangers are paying Harden a lot of money to head up their rotation, while keeping their fingers crossed that this is the year he finally stays healthy. Feldman earned his spot with last year's sterling 17-8 campaign.

I hope, for the Rangers' sake, that Lewis is for real this time and will be the innings-eater they think he can be, and that Hunter won't run out of gas after a dozen or so starts. But to be quite honest, it wouldn't break my heart if Wilson, Harrison and Holland were so lights-out this spring that they flipped this rotation topsy-turvy and the Rangers had no choice but to start the season with all three left-handers in the mix. Now that's a curveball that might capture some attention in the AL West.

Honestly, I'm not trying to throw a bucket of ice water on all this spring training optimism. On the contrary, I love the fact that every spring each team believes it can win. But when a team president/owner says he'll be "disappointed" if his team doesn't win, it carries far-reaching implications, especially when the manager is in the last year of his contract and his job hangs in the balance.

What Ryan and Chuck Greenberg should do once the sale is complete is immediately tack a year onto Washington's contract, at least giving him a parachute if optimism does indeed turn into disappointment and it costs him his job. He's earned that, at least.

It's fine to put on the rose-colored glasses in the spring. We all do that, and we should. It's the best time of year. As long as we're smart enough, from time to time, to peer over the top for a glimpse of truth.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.