He wasn’t going to give the Rangers a “hometown discount,” but Cliff Lee was willing to re-sign with the Texas Rangers. According to Rangers CEO Chuck Greenberg, Lee was willing to stay with the Rangers if they guaranteed a seventh year. The Rangers, however, were not willing to meet those demands, and Lee returned to Philadelphia. Now that Lee has gone and formed the “Best Rotation Ever,” how will the move affect the Rangers?
Any way you look at this deal, it’s clear that Texas cannot replace Cliff Lee. Even though they were wise not to guarantee a seventh year to a 32 year old player, Lee was the best pitcher on the market. Following a mid-season trade to the Rangers, Lee gave the Rangers the legitimate ace they needed to wreak havoc in the post-season. Sure enough, Lee dominated the Rays and Yankees while leading the Rangers to their first World Series appearance. That type of production is going to be extremely difficult for the Rangers to replace.
With Lee in Philadelphia, there is a lot of pressure on the Rangers current starters. Both C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis need to avoid sophomore slumps after breakout seasons in 2010. Even though both players posted an identical 4.4 WAR last season, neither pitcher is a sure bet to repeat their 2010 performance. Scott Feldman’s 2010 season represents the worst possible scenario for Wilson and Lewis. After posting a breakout season in 2009, Feldman failed to live up to expectations last season. Although his BABIP ballooned to .335, Feldman’s poor strikeout rate limits his ceiling.
At the back of the rotation, the Rangers will depend on Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland. In 57.1 innings, Holland displayed strong strikeout skills and his home run rate fell to acceptable levels. Holland has a record of minor league success, and the Rangers will need him to take a step forward in 2011. Much like Feldman, Hunter’s performance will be dependent on his defense. Hunter displays good control, but struggles with strikeouts and gives up too many home runs.
If the Rangers are concerned about the back-end of their rotation, they could choose to make Neftali Feliz a starting pitcher in 2011. Although Feliz started throughout his minor league career, the Rangers converted him to a reliever to break him into the majors. Feliz has completely dominated as a reliever, leading many to wonder whether the Rangers should mess with a good thing. There are also concerns about how Feliz’s body type will hold up as a starting pitcher, making this move a risky proposition for the Rangers.
The Rangers could also choose to strengthen their rotation through free agency. With Lee finally signed, Carl Pavano becomes the top starting pitcher on the market. While the Rangers could choose to pursue Pavano, many teams expect Pavano to re-sign with the Twins. Despite some recent graduates, the Rangers still have a strong enough farm system to pursue a trade for Zack Greinke or Matt Garza.
Then again, GM Jon Daniels mentioned that the Rangers won’t limit themselves to pitching. Should Daniels choose to “beef up the offense,” Adrian Beltre could be the top target on his wish list. The Rangers have already been linked to Beltre, but may step up their pursuit of the third baseman now that Lee has signed elsewhere.
There is no doubt the Rangers will struggle to replace Cliff Lee’s production in 2011. That said, they have some intriguing options to fill out their rotation. The Rangers also have the freedom to start aggressively pursuing other free agent options with Lee off the market. Although it will be nearly impossible to fully replace Cliff Lee, the Rangers are still in a great position to contend next season.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.