ARLINGTON -- Josh Hamilton's free agency will be the most discussed issue facing the Rangers this offseason, but pitching is always a high priority for the organization. It will be again this offseason, as the Rangers sort through the rubble of their once-promising season.
As the Rangers try to figure out what happened to a team that went from having the best record in the American League to getting knocked out in the AL Wild Card game, they are faced with putting back together a rotation hit hard by injuries and a bullpen about to be depleted by free agency.
The Rangers are in position to build another strong rotation around Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland. But there are two spots open behind them, as Ryan Dempster is a free agent and the Rangers will not pick up Scott Feldman's $9.25 million option. Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz, both recovering from surgery, will not be back until midseason or later. The Rangers have some interest in re-signing Dempster, but he will likely end up elsewhere.
"I know during the season, with the absence of Colby Lewis, that really, really showed its head," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "We tried to fill in that five-hole as the year went on. Sometimes it was good, sometimes not. We do have to re-inventory our rotation and get some more depth, see what's out there. I know we got a few free agents on the roster. We're going to have to get some people that can lead us and keep us out on top and lead us out front until we get totally healthy."
Harrison (18-11, 3.29 ERA) and Darvish (16-9, 3.90 ERA) both had All-Star seasons, but Holland did not take the step forward that the Rangers expected after signing him to a five-year contract extension in Spring Training. Holland went from 16-5 with a 3.95 ERA and 198 innings in 2011 to 12-7 with a 4.67 ERA this past season while spending a month on the disabled list.
"I thought he had a pretty good campaign," Maddux said. "Sometimes really, really good, and then there were those quick exits. I think that makes him hungrier to go out and prove that was a fluke, and he did that. And to his credit, he did that. I think that, in time, Derek is going to be more consistent, and our peaks and valley are going to become more of a flat line. Not too high, not too down, just pretty steady. I guess you could use Colby Lewis as a flat line."
Lewis had surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon on July 27. The Rangers re-signed the right-hander to a one-year contract, but he will not be ready for Opening Day 2013.
"Hopefully I can start throwing bullpens at the end of Spring Training, but I really have no idea," Lewis said. "It's all going to depend on how it feels."
Feliz had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery at the beginning of August and will need a full year of recovery. There is a strong possibility that he could come back as a reliever, which would delay his return to the rotation until 2014, if it happens at all.
"I don't want to get ahead of ourselves," general manager Jon Daniels said last week. "We haven't sat down and mapped that out. I'm just thinking that, to build someone up as a starter coming off Tommy John surgery is going to take a lot longer. We'll see where we are, and hopefully his rehab goes without issue. I know what our observations are. I don't know what his feelings are or what he wants."
To fill those voids, the Rangers could spend significant money on free agents, and the market is deeper for starting pitchers than it is for position players. Zack Greinke is at the top, but the list also includes Kyle Lohse, Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Jake Peavy, Dempster and others like Dan Haren and James Shields (if their options don't get picked up).
The other option would be to look within the organization and decide if they are ready to commit to left-hander Martin Perez. The young left-hander will be in the mix for a rotation spot next season, but what other moves the Rangers make will determine whether he's a serious candidate or a long shot.
The Rangers could also move Alexi Ogando back into the rotation. Ogando was a 13-game winner as a starter in 2011 and could potentially give Texas four proven pitchers to build its rotation around.
"We'll probably meet here shortly as an organization, as a staff, and decide which fork in the road we're going to take," Maddux said. "I think that's going to impact some of our personnel, what will their role be. That's where the business side of the game comes in. We'll try to see which of the players we can plug into roles, and the best way to put the best team out there."
Moving Ogando into the rotation would weaken the bullpen, but the Rangers already have work to do there. Closer Joe Nathan will be back, but Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Roy Oswalt, Mark Lowe and Feldman are all headed for free agency. Adams said he would like to return but is dealing with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and headed for surgery. Lowe, Oswalt and Feldman will not be back. Uehara, the Rangers' best reliever in September, could return but will be 38 next year.
Left behind are right-handers Tanner Scheppers, Justin Grimm and Wilmer Font, and left-handers Robbie Ross and Michael Kirkman. Scheppers, Ross and Kirkman will likely be part of the Rangers' bullpen, but the club will look hard at the free-agent market for veteran relief help.
"Those guys showed poise and did what they really needed to," Nathan said. "I think this first year gave them confidence. That first year, you always feel like you obviously are on the team, but you're still learning a lot. I think the Robbies, the Schepps, Kirkman, I think these guys really came in and solidified themselves and gave themselves some confidence that they belong here going into next Spring Training."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.