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As we documented very recently, the Texas Rangers have done a superb job rebuilding their offense in 2008, but the pitching remains a blight on the system.

On the plus side, the team has shown a true commitment to young pitching, with 13 hurlers on its current roster under the age of 30 – five of whom are 25 or younger. This tender-aged staff, while taking its beatings, has helped lower the overall age on the Ranger roster to 27.5 years of age – tied for the second-youngest in all of baseball.

Now Ranger legend Nolan Ryan will be taking a much more active role in shaping the club’s future, and some of the changes he has planned may have a significant impact on the fantasy values of Texas pitchers over the next few years.

The number one priority Ryan hopes to achieve is to develop a stronger, more durable pitching staff. Counter to the approach of the majority of major league clubs to baby their young pitchers in recent seasons, Texas will look to create a staff of stronger arms capable of working harder and throwing more innings.

Hey, if anyone knows about what it takes to create rubber arms, it’s got to be the Ryan Express, right? Sure, you can expect a few casualties along the way, but his old school approach may just work where everything else Texas has tried to do to build a pitching staff has failed since it moved into the Ballpark in Arlington.

Some scary factoids to chew on:

  • Since 2003, the White Sox lead the majors in innings pitched by their starters with 5,963, about 6 1/3 per game. Over this period, the Rangers are dead last with 5,059 innings pitched from the rotation – about a full inning less than the Pale Hose. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the strain that puts on the bullpen, year after year.
  • Since 1994, there has been 92 times that an American League pitcher has thrown at least 220 innings in a season. Just two of those seasons have been recorded by Rangers – Ken Hill and Kenny Rogers, both in 2000.

The closest current thing the Rangers have to an innings eater is Kevin Millwood, who twice pitched at least 220 innings in a season with the Braves and hurled 215 in his first season with Texas. Injuries have slowed the normally durable Millwood over the last two seasons, but he’s looking strong now, with back-to-back complete game wins since coming off the DL for a second time this season. I recommended him last week, and it looks like some people are following that advice with good results.

The Rangers spent $4 million last offseason on Jason Jennings, gambling that he could bounce back from an awful, injury-riddled 2007 and rediscover his near-workhorse tendencies from 2006 when he was with the Rockies. Uh, wrong. A torn flexor tendon limited him to six ugly starts this year and necessitated season-ending surgery.

There are enough promising young arms in this system to stop taking crap shoots like the one the Rangers did with Jennings. There are plenty of starters worth discussing (such as Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Erik Hurley, Matt Harrison, Tommy Hunter, etc.), but today let’s look at some of the possible bullpen help that’s either already arrived or is currently at Triple-A and should be coming down the pike soon.

Although he’s not exactly a spring chicken, Bill White is still a veritable babe in the woods compared to the recently dealt Eddie Guardado. With Everyday Eddie dealt to the Twins this week, the Rangers have brought up White to fill the bullpen spot. Recently promoted to closing for Triple-A Oklahoma, the 29-year-old lefty has enjoyed a fine season, going 4-1, 3.54 with just 45 hits allowed in 53 1/3 IP. His control isn’t exactly a strong point, but with well over a K per inning, he’s been able to compensate for the walks.

A younger reliever we still believe could help the Rangers is Wes Littleton. In the offseason, we talked about the fact he has some upside, and although he was awful in his limited action with the big league club, I like what he’s done at Triple-A this year (7-1, six saves with decent ERA and basically a strikeout per inning). He could still factor into Texas’ plans down the road.

Japanese veteran Yukinga Maeda has pitched well enough in his first season in North America to deserve a look in The Show. The control specialist has been particularly brilliant this month. He just turned 38 on Tuesday, so doesn’t have much of a future, but I’d like to see what he can do in the majors. I’m sure NPB junkie Tim McLeod can tell you more about this dude, but he’s currently driving from the northlands to civilization, and for all I know, he’s being mauled by a bear who caught a whiff of Kathy’s famous chocolate chip cookies. Hey, Yogi, back off! Those cookies are supposed to be for me!

A more familiar name that the Rangers recently picked up is Kiko Calero. He’s trying to work his way back from a torn rotator cuff (which he did not actually have surgery for), and while his results have not been strong, he’s averaging over a strikeout per inning, so it’s not as if he can’t bring it anymore.

Another Japanese arm in the Ranger system is Kazuo Fukumori, but other than his decent control, he’s been a huge disappointment. He was rocked in his brief trials with Texas, and has been awful at Triple-A. He just came back from a shoulder injury and took a serious beating in his first outing, then bounced back the next time out with two shutout innings Monday to earn his first win of the season.

Finally, I’d like to see Brian Gordon get a chance in the majors. The former outfielder was drafted way back in 1997 in the seventh round by the D-Backs, and floundered in Triple-A for several years until being converted into a pitcher last year. He turned 30 a couple of weeks ago, so I wouldn’t exactly say there’s much upside here, but it would be a great story if this dude could somehow make it to the majors. Recently shifted into the RedHawk rotation, Gordon took his share of beatings, but has looked better his last two times out, so perhaps he’s at least earning himself at a Spring Training invite in 2009.

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