Texas-sized impact of Oswalt’s move
Ted Lilly had hit the disabled list. Roy Halladay was headed there. So is Jered Weaver. On a day when it appeared Roy Oswalt’s leverage was at its absolute maximum due to a sudden wave of injuries to key starters on contending teams, the 34-year-old free agent chose the path of least resistance, signing with the Rangers Tuesday afternoon for $5 million in guaranteed salary plus another $1 million in incentives.
In doing so, Oswalt joins the team with the AL’s best record (31-18, for a .633 winning percentage), the majors’ best run differential (+99, 30 ahead of any other team) and its largest division lead (6 1/2 games up in the AL West, tied with the NL West-leading Dodgers). The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report, which uses run differentials, PECOTA player forecasts and rest-of-season schedule as its inputs, estimates Texas’ chance to reach the postseason at an astronomical 98.8 percent, 11 percentage points higher than any other team, and 33 points higher than any other AL team.
Oswalt’s addition can improve those odds only minimally. But this isn’t about simply reaching the postseason, either for the Rangers or for the longtime Astro, who gets the added benefit of returning to the state where he’s spent most of his career, one relatively close to his Mississippi residence. Texas has won back-to-back American League pennants, but fallen to first the Giants and then the Cardinals in the World Series; last October, the Rangers were one pitch away from a dogpile before David Freese’s two-run triple tied Game 6 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Oswalt has never won a world championship; he pitched for Houston in the 2005 World Series and joined the Phillies in 2010 — a point when they were coming off back-to-back pennants — with an eye toward that elusive ring, but Philadelphia was bounced by the eventual NL champions in both years. By hitching a ride with the 2012 Rangers, he’s poised to take what may be his last shot.
Though he ranked among the NL’s top pitchers for most of his 10-year run with the Astros, Oswalt isn’t the ace he once was. Last year, he spent nine weeks on the disabled list due to a lower back strain and a bulging disc, and finished with just 23 starts and 139 innings, his lowest totals since 2003. His 3.69 ERA was his highest since 2009, with a steep drop in his strikeout rate — to 6.0, down from 8.2 in 2010 — offering an ominous sign, backed up by an erosion in his average fastball velocity, from 94.0 MPH in 2009 to 93.5 in 2010 to 92.3 in 2011. In 2010, 47 percent of his strikes came either looking or swinging, while 27 percent of them came via balls in play; last year the looking and swinging dipped to 39 percent, while the in-play ones rose to 32 percent. Accompanied by a jump in BABIP from .276 to .321 — something that may have been related to the quality of contact made by opposing hitters — his ERA rose by nearly a run, from 2.76 in 2010 to 3.69 in ’11.
At the outset of the season, the Rangers enjoyed enviable rotation depth. With the signing of Japanese free agent Yu Darvish and the shift of closer Neftali Feliz to the rotation, they had repeated the formula that helped turn them into pennant winners two years ago, stockpiling starters who could miss more bats than the pitchers they were replacing. With Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison also holding down jobs in the starting five, the team could afford to offset Feliz’s move by returning Alexi Ogando to a setup role, and keeping Scott Feldman, who made a solid late-season return from microfracture surgery, in a swingman role.
That depth took a serious hit when the team lost Feliz earlier this month due to a sprained ulnar collateral ligament, which could sideline him until the All-Star break. For a team that dragged its feet when it came to moving the youngster out of the bullpen — a transition that took two seasons — it was hardly a surprise to see the Rangers lacking the will to dismantle their late-game relief corps by restoring Ogando to the rotation, where he posted a 3.56 ERA in 29 starts last year.
Without Oswalt, the Rangers’ rotation wasn’t exactly broken. The unit’s 3.78 ERA ranks third in the AL, no small accomplishment for a team pitching in the league’s top hitting environment, but it’s ahead of their peripherals. They’re fourth in strikeout rate (7.8 per nine), but just eighth in home run rate (1.1 per nine) and 10th in unintentional walk rate (3.2 per nine) — the areas over which pitchers have the most control.
Oswalt won’t be the staff ace in Texas, but at least he’ll bulk up the Rangers’ rotation. Individually, while all five of their starters have been acceptable, none have dominated. Feliz’s high walk and homer rates (4.9 and 1.1 per nine, respectively) and low BABIP (.213) made his 3.16 ERA unsustainable. Darvish has the rotation’s best ERA at 3.25, but his gaudy 9.7 strikeouts per nine are offset by an astronomical walk rate of 5.2 per nine, and his 50 percent quality start rate is the lowest on the staff, one percentage point below the league average. Lewis is walking a minuscule 1.2 per nine en route to the league’s best strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.7, but his 14 homers (1.9 per nine) are a league high. With four homers in his last two starts pushing his homer rate to 1.1 per nine, Holland is suddenly dealing with a gopher infestation of his own, while Harrison has by far the unit’s lowest strikeout rate at 5.8 per nine, a potentially serious problem unless his staff-high .322 BABIP regresses. Feldman has allowed nine runs in 12 1/3 innings over three starts while striking out fewer than he’s walked, which isn’t a recipe for success.
It will be late June before Oswalt is ready to pitch in the majors, meaning more Feldman, or perhaps a Triple-A starter, though none of the rotation regulars at Round Rock has an ERA below 4.67, and the two with ERAs below 5.00 (Zach Jackson and Greg Reynolds) have been blowtorched for a combined 6.59 ERA in 199 1/3 major league innings. Once he does join the Rangers, Oswalt will be pitching in the AL for the first time in his career, and in a ballpark where he’s hardly thrived; in eight starts totaling 52 2/3 innings from 2001-2010, he was lit up for a 4.78 ERA while allowing 1.5 homers per nine. That’s a small sample, roughly a quarter of a season, but it doesn’t change the fact that Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is a homer haven for both lefties and righties, increasing big flies by 31 and 23 percent, respectively, over the past three seasons according to The Bill James Handbook 2012.
Meanwhile, the combination of Oswalt’s decision and Halladay’s injury leaves the Phillies’ rotation depleted and without its most obvious outside option for reinforcement. Halladay was diagnosed with a Grade I/Grade II strain of the latissimus dorsi, and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks, meaning that he won’t be back until after the All-Star break. With Vance Worley sidelined due to inflammation caused by bone chips in his elbow and not expected back until late next month, the Phillies are already calling Kyle Kendrick’s number every five days; the 27-year-old righty has 104 career starts under his belt, but he’s homer prone (1.2 HR/9 career), doesn’t miss many bats (4.2 K/9 career, 5.2 this year), and has a massive platoon split (.263/.303/.410 against righties, .304/.372/.506 for lefties). Retreads waiting in the wings at Triple-A, namely David Bush, Pat Misch and Scott Elarton, pitched their way out of the majors years ago, while their top minor league starter, Tyler Cloyd, is more suspect than prospect, having failed to crack the Baseball America top 30 list in an organization that ranked 27th out of 30 itself.
Thus it’s quite possible the Phils will need to go outside the organization to patch the rotation, and even then, they’ll face the dual problems of a system depleted by big trades in recent years — including, ironically, ones for Halladay and Oswalt — and a payroll that began the year as the game’s third-highest at $172.1 million, not far from the $178 million luxury tax threshold. Pending free agents on noncontenders such as the Cubs’ Ryan Dempster – to say nothing of Zack Greinke or even Shaun Marcum, should the Brewers wave the white flag — won’t come cheap, while lower-upside options such as the Diamondbacks’ Joe Saunders don’t offer much bang for the buck. In a crowded NL East fray where they’re already running fourth, the Phillies are suddenly in serious trouble.