Can rotation be key to Rangers' success in '20?

February 6th, 2020

ARLINGTON -- Every Major League team has issues and storylines to watch during Spring Training. The Rangers are no different than anybody else.

So, what’s the big story for the Rangers this spring?

Starting pitching, of course. Starting pitching is almost always the No. 1 story for the Rangers in Spring Training.

It would seem this time around would be an exception since the Rangers appear to have a set rotation. But each one of the Rangers projected five starters has something worth watching this spring and that’s why their rotation will once again be the big story going into camp.

Running down the five:

: Contract extension

Minor enters the final season of his three-year contract and will be a free agent after the season. His timing appears exquisite. Next winter’s free-agent class doesn’t appear to be remotely close to the quality of this offseason’s group that was headed by Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler.

The possibility exists that if Minor has another strong season for the Rangers, he could be the No. 1 starter in the 2019-20 free agent class. His competition right now appears to be the likes of Robbie Ray, Jose Quintana and Trevor Bauer.

Minor is on record as saying that he wants to stay in Texas. But he also knows that this could be his last best chance of landing the big contract.

The Rangers use Spring Training to consider long-term extensions for players already under contract. No doubt Minor will get consideration.

: Work load

Lynn threw 3,553 pitches last season and averaged 107.7 pitches per start. Both were the second highest totals by a Major League pitcher. The number of pitches were also the most for one season in his career and Lynn also set career highs with 208 innings pitched and 246 strikeouts.

On the positive side, Lynn’s 62.6 percent first pitch strike rate was the second best of his nine-year career. Opponents swung at 33.4 percent of those first pitches, the highest ratio of his career. His 2.55 walks per nine innings was also the best of his career.

But opponents swung-and-missed at 28.6 percent of his pitches, well above his career average of 23.7. That’s what helped drive up his pitch total.

Overall, Lynn had an excellent season and takes great pride in being a workhorse. But it will be worth watching to see if last year’s heavy load has an impact on him this spring.

: Fractured right forearm, mechanics

Everybody knows Kluber won Cy Young Awards in 2014 and 2017, and was one of the best pitchers in the game over a five-year stretch for the Indians. Everybody also knows he was limited to seven starts last season because of a fractured right forearm and a strained oblique muscle.

But Kluber was also 2-3 with a 5.80 ERA and a 1.65 WHIP before he was hit by Brian Anderson’s line drive on May 1. So, there was more going on with Kluber last season than just bad-luck injuries.

Kluber said he has been on his normal offseason throwing program this winter and will be at full strength for Spring Training. He also said he has done much work on fixing his mechanics. Rangers pitching coach Julio Rangel spent 11 years in the Indians organization, so a reunion with Kluber also could be beneficial.

: overall strength

The Rangers signed Gibson to a three-year, $30 million contract this winter after he went 13-7 with a 4.84 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP for the AL Central-champion Twins. That his offensive teammates averaged 7.14 runs per nine innings when he was on the mound certainly helped his won-loss record.

His issue is ulcerative colitis, a debilitating digestive issue Gibson had to battle through all of last season. It zapped his strength and endurance, and he was not in the Twins' rotation for their Division Series against the Yankees.

General manager Jon Daniels said the Rangers could take it slower with Gibson than the other four starters this spring. The Rangers are even preparing for the possibility Gibson might not be ready for the start of the season although he shouldn’t be too far behind.

: Is Yasmani Grandal right?

Lyles was 27-46 with a 5.28 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP over 115 starts through the first eight years of his career. His relief ERA was also 5.28 from 2011-18.

Grandal, his catcher with the Brewers last season, said that is not a concern. Grandal said Lyles is a completely different pitcher now that he has moved away from a reliance on the sinker in favor of the straight fastball. A better curve and changeup also helped.

Lyles, acquired from the Pirates on July 29, was 7-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 11 starts for the Brewers last season. Other glittering numbers included a 1.11 WHIP, .202 opponents' batting average and 8.59 strikeouts per nine innings.

That 11-game stretch, far better than his career norms, is why the Rangers signed him to a two-year, $16 million contract. In doing do, they stayed away from pitchers who were more expensive but also with longer track records like Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

It was the most unexpected acquisition by the Rangers this winter.