The Texas Rangers starting rotation will not be your traditional one-through-five to begin the season.
The Rangers have about a dozen candidates in camp that are competing for spots in the rotation, which plays straight into their desire to increase internal competition. Another key variable in the rotation equation is several pitchers will have their innings limited to begin the season, whether it’s because of health or trust.
So what will the Rangers rotation look like exactly?
As of now, it looks like Kyle Gibson, Kohei Arihara, and Mike Foltynewicz (more on him in a second) will be traditional starters to begin the season. Dane Dunning and Kyle Cody aren’t guaranteed spots in the Rangers’ rotation, but it seems they have a leg up on the other candidates for the final spots in the rotation.
The Rangers have already ruled out a six-man rotation. Instead, manager Chris Woodward has indicated the final two rotation spots will be “tandem” roles, where one guy starts with a certain limit (innings, pitches, times through the lineup, etc.), and is then followed by a “piggyback” who will also pitch multiple innings.
With the season just around the corner, here are where several pitchers stand in the tandem competition in a stock up/stock down fashion.
Of the pitchers that want to put 2020 in the past, Kolby Allard is near the top of the list. After being the first candidate to fill Corey Kluber’s void in the rotation, he was not able to keep the job for the remainder of the already shortened 2020 season.
Both the Rangers’ pitching coaches and Allard dedicated a lot of work this offseason to make some adjustments — most notably, moving to the first base side of the rubber — to help him hit another level. So far, those adjustments seem to be working.
Allard has thrown six scoreless innings with nine strikeouts, one walk, and three hits in Cactus League play. While you can’t take too much stock in spring training results, Rangers manager Chris Woodward has seen the process be just as good as the results.
The only thing the Rangers want to see is Allard get strike one more often, but he has definitely launched himself into current consideration for at least a tandem role.
Every time Chris Woodward is asked about Wes Benjamin, it’s difficult for him to say anything but good things about him.
Benjamin checks off two crucial traits of what the Rangers are looking for in their pitchers: The ability to throw strikes and log innings. Benjamin has done just that in his six innings of work this spring, only giving up one run on five hits and zero walks.
Benjamin won’t blow hitters away with velocity, but he has a knee-buckling curveball that can throw off hitters. His command on the corners, along with his ability to adjust when hitters are aggressive, make him a prime candidate to be the starter or piggyback in the Rangers’ tandem plans.
The Rangers took a flier on Mike Foltynewicz after the Braves cut ties with him last season after he dealt with a massive drop in velocity.
All indications thus far is Foltynewicz is closer to the version of himself that made him an all-star and National League Cy Young candidate in 2018. His velocity is back up, throwing 95-96 mph in his most recent “B” game outing.
“I’m usually never throwing this hard this early,” Foltynewicz said. “I’m usually topping 92-93. Just the certain strides I took this offseason, changed things up a little bit, kept throwing, started working out a little sooner. We’re in a very good spot right now.”
The relationship between the Rangers and Foltynewicz is off to a great start. The regular season has yet to begin, but all signs point to “Folty” being a key figure — and traditional starter — in the Rangers rotation.
After spending last season as a traditional reliever in the bullpen, Taylor Hearn came into camp ready to prove that he is still a starter.
Hearn is at a little bit of a disadvantage because of a lack of innings over the past two seasons. His 2019 season was derailed by injuries, and everyone’s 2020 season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That doesn’t mean Hearn can’t begin the season as another member of the piggyback tandem this year, and he’s made as good as a bid as anyone in camp with 5 1/3 scoreless innings this spring.
More importantly, his slider has improved and he is getting a better feel for his changeup. The Rangers are also very satisfied with how his secondary pitches are playing off his mid-to-upper-90’s fastball, which gets on hitters even quicker than the speed indicates. He’s making it very difficult for the Rangers to relegate him back to a traditional relief option.
While Cotton has started in the Oakland A’s organization in the past, Chris Woodward said on Saturday that Cotton is currently being considered for a multiple-inning relief role out of the bullpen, not a tandem role.
The Rangers need to see more “effectiveness” from Cotton in order to jump up into tandem candidacy, but with so many pitchers showing well for that role, it may be too late.
After a rough 2020 season, the Rangers told Jordan Lyles earlier this spring that he will start off in a tandem role this season. In his first meeting with the media, Lyles expressed his displeasure of the decision.
The Rangers and Lyles worked together on some adjustments, most notably tightening up his curveball to play better off of his fastball. The Rangers are satisfied with those adjustments this spring, and are prepared to give Lyles a traditional role in the starting rotation if he performs up to standards.
Those standards seem pretty high, but after the season Lyles had last year, the Rangers have been clear that he will have to “earn every inning that he gets.”
The Jury’s Still Out
As the Rangers are taking stock in who’s leading who in the tandem competition, Chris Woodward indicated that Hyeon-jong Yang is currently being considered for the “second tandem spot or a multiple-inning reliever role.”
“He’s right there,” Woodward said. “Knowing that he’s pitched a ton of innings the last however many years, we don’t have to worry about innings on this guy. He can pitch any role we basically put him in.”
Yang does have the advantage of innings over just about any pitcher on the Rangers. However, given how they’ve evaluated him thus far, the Rangers may need to see more of how Yang succeeds against big league hitters.
Images of Jordan Lyles, Taylor Hearn, Kolby Allard by Kelly Gavin / Courtesy of the Texas Rangers