The Texas Rangers enter 2012 as the two-time defending American League champs, with enough pitching depth and offensive firepower to repeat a 3rd time. However the 2 most recent Ranger teams each possessed much more proven top of the rotation starters than the 2012 edition will. In 2010 Cliff Lee ran rampant through American League hitters, guiding Texas to the pennant, while in 2011 CJ Wilson had an All-Star level regular season before fading in the playoffs. Texas does have the benefit of having a terrific stable of arms to pick from, which includes Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, the recently signed Yu Darvish, and two converts from the bullpen in Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando. This group appears to have excellent potential but none of the pitchers have ever been tested as a top of the rotation ace for a team with legitimate title aspirations.
The American League contenders all boast elite aces fronting deep rotations. The Yankees have proven ace C.C. Sabathia, a Cy Young winner in 2007, followed by lots of depth. The Tigers have a pitcher coming off of the best season in a decade, Justin Verlander, and considerable rotation depth as well, especially if Doug Fister picks up where he left off after being acquired by Detroit at the deadline. Los Angeles has a 4-headed pitching monster in its rotation, led by 2011 Cy Young runner up Jared Weaver. Other contenders like the Red Sox, with Josh Beckett, as well as the Indians, who have Ubaldo Jimenez if he bounces back, even have strong aces leading their rotations. Texas is going to need to figure out their top of the rotation in order to finish atop the American League a third year in a row. Previous World Series winners have all had legitimate aces, especially recently and the list includes Carpenter, Lincecum, Sabathia, and Hammels among others. Its important for a major league team to possess one of the elite 12-15 pitchers in baseball. True aces win titles and Texas is expecting either Colby Lewis or Yu Darvish to take the mantle.
Colby Lewis is currently slotted at the top of the rotation but he is just 2 seasons removed from pitching abroad in Japan and was, as recently as last season, considered a reclamation project. Even last season he posted an ERA+ of 101, just a hair above league average. Lewis possesses 4 pitches with his slider being his go-to strikeout pitch, and rates above league average in his ability to miss bats. But when contact is made, hitters tend to tee-off with Lewis leading the league HR’s allowed, giving up 35 a season ago. In the last 2 postseasons however, Colby Lewis has been a stopper. In 50 innings he has a 2.34 era, or basically half of what his career era is. It would be a mistake on the Texas’ part to read too much into that number as Lewis profiles as more of a middle of the rotation starter for a team with playoff aspirations. He is a quality arm but is not dominant enough to be at the front of a champion’s rotation.
So if Colby Lewis isn’t the answer in Texas’ search for an ace, then the $100 million dollar import Yu Darvish must be. Darvish has won the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young award for the past 2 seasons and has posted a career ERA of 1.72. He has dominated every aspect of the Nippon Pro League and should transition nicely to American baseball. He has been said to possess upward of 6 total pitches, including 3 variations on his curveball. His fastball hits between 91-94 mph and he seems to have the ability to be the most successful of the Japanese pitching imports. If his remarkable success in Japan transfers to the United States the Rangers will have their ace and the rest of the staff will fall in line.
Overall the best case scenario for Texas would be quick acclimation to the American game by Darvish, followed by him dominating hitters while the Rangers offense piles up runs and wins. This would also relieve the pressure on Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando when they move back into the rotation. If Lewis is forced to be the rotation’s leader, Texas may win fewer games than last season. Combined with the improvement of the Angels, the Dallas area team could find themselves sitting at home in October rather than defending their AL crown.