By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The usual suspects were omnipresent at spring training. Optimism? Check. Lots of hitting throughout the lineup? Sure. Clear, sunny skies? Daily. Elderly fans wearing floppy hats, oversized sunglasses and driving their Cadillacs 22 mph to 5 p.m. dinner at Coco's before hitting the hay by sundown? Plentiful.
What was missing? Lee.
"We can't sit here and feel sorry for ourselves," Washington says of the off-season departure of his '10 ace. "We're going to get it done with what we have and not make excuses for what we don't have. But if you're asking me if we'll miss Cliff Lee, I'd be lying if I said no. He's one of the best in the game, and we would've loved to have had him here. Didn't work out that way. Life goes on."
With Lee, the Rangers would have enjoyed the luxury of throwing one of baseball's five best pitchers every fifth day. Without him, they are left with a starting rotation of talented arms led by pitchers who have had success for, yep, one year. Wilson and Colby Lewis will anchor Texas' staff. Each is coming off his one and only successful season as a starter, a seemingly flimsy foundation upon which to build a rotation. Last year was Wilson's first as a Major League starter and Lewis excelled in his first year back from a two-year sojourn pitching in Japan. The Rangers are counting heavily upon both, but in baseball terms they are entering their sophomore seasons.
That's not to say Wilson can't replicate last season when he went 15-7 with a 3.35 ERA in 204 innings, but after his improbable Thanksgiving Day rally over the Washington Redskins in 1974 quarterback Longley completed only seven more passes for the Cowboys before being traded. Not to say Lewis can't pick up where he left off in a dazzling playoff performance that saw him go 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA, but then again the Mavericks figured it was just the tip of the Booth iceberg when the power forward's layup beat the Utah Jazz in Game 5 in 2001 to give Dallas its first NBA playoff series victory in 13 years. He started only eight games over two seasons in Dallas.
A year ago heading into the regular season the Rangers were reliant upon Scott Feldman and Rich Harden at the top of their rotation, so you never know exactly how pitching will play out. We expected bigger, better things from Dallas-based New Bohemians after their 1988 hit "What I Am," but instead got another legendary one-and-done along the lines of Toni Basil arriving, peaking and disappearing in 1982 within her endlessly irritating "Mickey."
Lee, who spurned the Rangers and Yankees to sign in December with the Philadelphia Phillies, won Games 1 and 5 against Tampa Bay in the Division Series last year and shut out New York in Yankee Stadium in pivotal Game 3 of the ALCS. Though he did go 0-2 in the World Series (he lost decisive Game 5, 3-1, on Edgar Renteria's 7th-inning homer), he gave the Rangers a luxury they've never enjoyed—a top five, playoff-tested ace in the prime of his career.
"We made what we thought was a very competitive offer to Cliff, and he chose to go with Philadelphia," Daniels says. "We can live with that. We like our pitching. In fact I like our pitching a lot. We don't have a lot of sexy names and guys whose pictures are going to be on the covers of the preseason magazines, but I think we'll be just fine."
It is fair to point out that when the Rangers traded for Lee last July 9, they already led the AL West by 6 1/2 games. But without him, it's also safe to predict that Texas' starting rotation ranks third in its four-team division. While the Angels will throw Jered Weaver, Danny Haren, Ervan Santana, Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir and the A's have Dallas Braden, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, the Rangers trust in Wilson, Lewis...
"That's it right there," Washington says, stopping the secured spots in the rotation at two. "We've got a lot of good arms. A lot of guys who have pitched very well for us at times. But after those two, nothing's been settled, and it might not be settled until we get into the season a little ways."
While Rangers relievers—everyone from Mark Lowe to Arthur Rhodes to Darren O'Day—were bad in Surprise, the starting staff wasn't any better. After Wilson and Lewis, the Rangers are tentatively counting on a collection of starters including Hunter (who had 13 wins last season but without an "out pitch" couldn't get through five innings in any playoff start), Matt Harrison (who had the best spring of any candidate), Derek Holland (still struggling to throw his fastball for strike one), newcomer Michael Kirkman and veteran journeyman Dave Bush. Feliz was poised to land in the rotation—he has the stuff and the desire—but with the off-season trade sending Frankie Francisco to the Toronto Blue Jays for Mike Napoli, the Rangers were leery of not having a proven closer in the bullpen and kept him in his 2010 role.