Rangers weigh options for struggling bottom of rotation

June 26th, 2022

ARLINGTON -- If there was any time for the Rangers to roar back to a .500 or better record, it was this weekend against the Nationals.

Washington came into the three-game set with the worst run differential in MLB, and entered Sunday’s series finale at -113. But the Nationals came into Globe Life Field and took two of three against the Rangers, including a 6-4 win on Sunday afternoon to cap it off.

While Texas’ bats notably went silent for stretches throughout the series, the starting pitching was a far more concerning trend.

The Rangers have an elite 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation in Jon Gray and lefty Martín Pérez. Pérez, with a 1.96 ERA, has solidified himself as a top American League pitcher, while Gray has hit his stride after a rough start to the season. Gray now has a 2.64 ERA across five June starts, lowering his season ERA to 4.18.

But while the top of the rotation has the potential to be one of the best in the league this season, there’s a bit of uncertainty at the bottom of it. has been a serviceable third starter, with a 4.17 ERA on the season, but elsewhere is murky.

Manager Chris Woodward announced prior to the series that Taylor Hearn would be moving to the bullpen for the time being, and he was subsequently optioned to Triple-A Round Rock following four shutout relief innings in Saturday’s win over the Nationals. The lefty has a 6.25 ERA in 13 starts.

“When we bring him back, and he'll be back, the biggest thing is to put him in a multi-inning reliever role,” Woodward said. “We just want to see the power and velocity come back. I don't want Taylor to look at this as a negative thing, as far as going to the bullpen. I think he'll thrive in that role. He's always pitched better in those short stints. I think it would be a really, really valuable championship asset for us.”

, recently off the COVID-IL, made his first start in two weeks, but struggled in the loss to the Nationals on Sunday. The right-hander only completed two innings, allowing six runs on six hits and three walks, bringing his season ERA to 5.31.

While Otto has been solid since getting recalled on April 22, his underlying stats are all less than ideal. Per Statcast, Otto’s xERA and xwOBA are both in the bottom six percent of the league, while his xSLG is in the bottom 10 percent.

In the Nationals’ three-run first inning against Otto on Sunday, five out of six batted balls had over a 100 mph exit velocity.

Woodward noted he does still have confidence in Otto’s abilities on the mound, even after the rough outing he had, and despite some of the underlying stats.

“I think this is obviously a small sample today,” he said. “We’ve gotta get him back on his feet a little bit [after the COVID stint]. He's obviously pitched decently for us this year. I don't think he felt great during the time off. He’s still getting his legs under him. The next start, I think, is gonna be really important for him to get back out there and right the ship.”

Minor League options?
Otto is likely to get a little bit of leash to figure things out at the big league level, while Hearn is expected to return to the Rangers’ bullpen from Triple-A within the next week or two. So that fifth rotation spot needs to be filled soon enough, but with who?

Woodward emphasized that none of the starters in Triple-A have seized the opportunity just yet. No. 24 prospect A.J. Alexy has an ERA over seven with the Express and No. 2 prospect Cole Winn has struggled with his command more this season than ever before to post a 5.43 ERA.

The remaining option seems to be Spencer Howard, who was sent down in April after some struggles at the big league level. Woodward noted he seems to be hitting a stride and could eventually slot into the rotation, but not immediately.

Howard pitched five innings and allowed just two runs against the Oklahoma City Dodgers in Triple-A on Saturday, but he hasn’t gone more than five innings at either level all season.

With an off-day this upcoming Thursday, the remaining four starters can pitch on regular rest one more time through. After that, it’s up to somebody -- whether that’s Howard or not -- to step up.

“With Spencer, I hope he takes that next step and forces our hand,” Woodward said. “We want our guys to provide us with solutions. For our hand to say, ‘I deserve that.’ That’s what we’re all looking for.”