Saturday, April 26, 2008

Welcome Back Pontoon.

The Texas Rangers pitching staff is in dire straits - a phrase that has become as commonplace in the recent years, as accepted as saying "there's turmoil in the Middle East". Aside from the veteran Kevin Millwood (3.32 era in 38 innings pitched) and the young Red Sox groomed Kason Gabbard (2.18 era in 20.1 innings pitched) the Rangers have suffered through futile innings provided by Vicente Padilla, Jason Jennings, Luis Mendoza and Scott Feldman. These arms are a substantial drop-off from the previous two. The front two are 2-2 in their 10 starts while the other four are 2-8 in their 14 starts. Of that last group, Feldman leds with a 4.50 era in his one start this season.

The free agent market has been brutal on the Rangers as of late - Chan Ho Park being the poster child for foolish investments as the Korean hurler failed to yield an era below 5.00 in his four seasons in Arlington - so the front office made a series of trades attempting to rebuild a starting rotation, a task that proved as easy as repairing Baghdad. The Rangers traded for Vincente Padilla in 2005 and then resigned Padilla to a lucrative contract in December 2006 in a thin free agent market. This back-loaded contract ($11 million + in 2008, 2009 and 2010) for the second-best pitcher of Nicaraguan decent (Denny Martinez being the best from the Central American country) has not returned the dividends that was expected following his initial 15-10 2006 season. In 2007 injuries led to only 23 starts and a 6-10 record (9-14 in total appearances) with a 5.76 era. This season in five starts Padilla is 2-2 with an era flirting with 5.00 (4.97).

Jason Jennings was signed this offseason to a 1-year, $4-million dollar contract after being a bitter disappointment in Houston (2-9 with 6.45 era in 18 starts), an organization that sacrificed Jason Hirsh, Tyler Buchholz and centerfielder Willy Taveraz. The hype that surrounded Jennings after his 2006 season with the Rockies was based on the idea that Jennings' pitching had "solved" Coors Field. Jennings had only allowed 9 home runs at home that year and his 3.78 was the lowest among the staff while throwing 212 innings. Still this season was a significant outlier in comparison to his previous three season where he had an era above 5.00. Following his debacle in East Texas last season, Jennings has taken the mound five times only to lose all five of them with a 7.46 era.

Feldman and Mendoza, 25 and 24 years old, have been fillers in the rotation. Feldman has dabbled in the Rangers bullpen since 2005 with various results and Mendoza made three starts in 2007 with the Rangers and maintained a 2.25 era in his 16 innings. This season in his three starts Mendoza has thrown 9.1 innings and has an era over 9.00. In his past two starts, he threw three innings in one and failed to get out of the second inning in his most recent outing. He has been, at best, a work in progress it would seem.

True, injury setbacks to Brandon McCarthy have clouded general manager Jon Daniel's vision for the 2008 season, however past transactions involving rising prospects such as John Danks and Edinson Volquez has left major league-ready pitchers barren in the Rangers system. Danks, one of the trading chips in the Brandon McCarthy trade, is enjoying a good start to the season with the White Sox. In four starts he is 2-1 with a 3.04 era over 23 innings and has yet to give up a home run. While Volquez's trade to Cincinnati brought Josh Hamilton to the Rangers but Volquez so far has thrived in southern Ohio. The hard-throwing righty is 3-0 in his 4 starts with a 1.21 era and 23 strikeouts in 22 innings. The three victories constitutes 33% of the total wins on a 9-win Reds team. Needless to say, these two arms, Danks and Volquez, would certainly be welcomed back to Texas if trades were able to be nullified. The outcome of this long history of pitching staff mismanagement has led to Sidney Ponson in the starting rotation.

This is the epitome of 'desperate times call for desperate measures'. McCarthy isn't expected to throw until the All-Star break and the Rangers are placing Mendoza on the disabled list (mercifully). When Daniels, new team president Nolan Ryan and Ron Washington went to the farm system, they found it, for the most part, void of major league pitchers. Currently 25-year-old Doug Mathis leads the triple-A Oklahoma staff with a 3.12 era and a 4-0 record in his four starts. In his 26 innings, he has struck out 19 while walking just 4. His 1.04 whip is the best in the rotation. Like the Twins' Nick Blackburn last year, Mathis is getting an absurd amount of groundball outs (64%). In a venue like the Ballpark at Arlington, this would seemingly be an appealing statistic considering the rate of which flyballs tend to leave the yard. Instead, the Rangers have opted to recall Ponson, a 31-year-old enjoying marginal success in the Pacific Coast League. In 5 starts, Ponson is 1-2 with a 3.47 era over the course of 23 innings. Ponson has struck out just 12 in that time while walking 9 leading to a whip of 1.47. Though some would argue there is negligible difference between a 3.12 era and a 3.47 era when you see that Mathis's FIP is 3.98 while Ponson's bloated 5.23 FIP reflects his girthy waistline it is apparent that Mathis has been pitching that much better.

Regardless of why the Texas brain-trust decided to bring Ponson back to the majors (the need for the omnipresent veteran in the rotation?), it should bode well for the Twins tonight.