That gust of wind you just felt came from Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington upon learning that starting pitcher Derek Holland will be out until midseason after injuring his knee (via Hardball Talk). 

According to Gerry Fraley of The Dallas Morning News, Holland’s injury occurred during a fall at his house and he underwent surgery to repair the damage. 

Jon Morosi of Fox Sports shed a little more light on the situation, saying the Rangers don’t plan on getting Holland back until the break. 

It’s already been a busy offseason for the Rangers, who signed Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year contract and traded Ian Kinsler to Detroit for Prince Fielder, but one area that Daniels and Co. didn’t seem keen on addressing was their starting pitching. 

The top of the rotation is set with Yu Darvish, who finished second in American League Cy Young voting last season.

Holland took a huge leap forward in 2013, fulfilling a lot of the promise he had shown in bursts throughout his career. He posted career bests in innings (213.0), ERA (3.42), strikeouts (189), strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.89) and Fangraphs‘ wins above replacement (4.8). 

Video via MLB Advanced Media

The 27-year-old gave the Rangers a much-needed No. 2 starter after Darvish. It also provided a necessary bridge to the back of the rotation, which has some question marks. Martin Perez has huge upside, but is still just 22 and learning to turn that potential into performance. 

Alexi Ogando has a great arm, but he seems better suited to pitch in short bursts out of the bullpen. He’s got a max-effort delivery that pitching coach Mike Maddux has worked to quiet down in recent years, though it’s still not ideal for handling 180-200 innings per season. 

Matt Garza was acquired from the Chicago Cubs last season, but he’s a free agent now and the Rangers have shown no significant interest in re-signing him after an uninspiring 4.38 ERA in 13 starts. 

So Holland’s injury, combined with some holes in the back of the rotation, leave the Rangers with one big question that they have to answer before spring training starts in February. 

The good news for the Rangers is there are plenty of options to choose from. But which one makes the most sense?


The Tanaka Situation

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first, shall we? Masahiro Tanaka is making a tour of the United States to speak with clubs in person.

T.R. Sullivan of reported on Friday that the Rangers are “at least exploring the possibility of fitting Tanaka into their budget and future plans.” That’s about as vague and generic a way of saying that the Rangers might have interest in Tanaka if the price is right without actually using those words. 

Under different circumstances, I would say the Rangers aren‘t going to be in the market for Tanaka. They currently have $116 million in 2014 salary commitments, which doesn’t include players eligible for arbitration. 

However, the Rangers will start getting an extra $80 million per season in revenue thanks to a new television deal that starts after the 2014 season. All of this new television money throughout the league changes everything we think we know about free agency and what teams can spend. 

I would still be surprised if the Rangers go all-in on Tanaka, especially if the bidding gets over $100 million as most analysts expect it will

If the Rangers were going to put all their eggs in the Tanaka basket, they probably wouldn’t have given Choo $130 million. 


Cheaper Free Agents

After Tanaka, the free-agent pitching market doesn’t offer a lot that would entice the Rangers. Ubaldo Jimenez has a straight fastball that can be elevated with ease when he’s not spotting it, which is not what you want to happen in the Rangers’ hitter-friendly ballpark.

Ervin Santana has never been the model of consistency. Matt Garza is…well, we saw how that worked out already. 

There are, however, some bargains to be found that could interest the Rangers on a cheap one- or two-year deal. 

While I wouldn’t advocate betting on him to make it through an entire season, Johan Santana could be a solid option. He hasn’t pitched since 2012 due to shoulder surgery last March. The 34-year-old lefty only threw 117 innings two years ago, but he did strike out 111 with just 39 walks. 

There is a big market for Santana, as Andy McCullough of the Newark Star-Ledger reports the Yankees are “one of several teams” monitoring the former Cy Young winner’s recovery. We don’t know if the Rangers are one of those several teams, but it wouldn’t hurt to look now.

Joe Saunders is like a poor man’s version of Ervin Santana. He had the highest ground ball rate of his career in 2013 (51.2 percent) and has followed an every-other-year pattern of being effective. 

If you believe in that sort of trend, Saunders is coming off a bad year with a 5.26 ERA and woeful 107-61 strikeout-to-walk ratio with Seattle in 2013. One thing he did do was take the ball every fifth day, throwing 183 innings over 32 starts. 

The Rangers could plug someone like Santana or Saunders in the back of the rotation and take whatever production they can get as a gift. Neither pitcher would make a significant impact, at least on the positive side, but they just need a body to get them through the first three months until Holland returns. 


Internal Options

Even though the strength of Texas’ farm system is up-the-middle talent and, mostly, at the lower levels of the minors, it’s not without help in the upper levels to use for three months. 

Nick Tepesch didn’t have a great rookie season in 2013 overall, and he only pitched 7.2 innings after the All-Star break, but his 76-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio wasn’t bad for 93 innings of work. He’s a control guy who can eat up innings without overpowering stuff. 

I don’t think the Rangers would push him to the big leagues right out of spring training after just 27 innings at Double-A, but Luke Jackson made great strides with the quality of his stuff and pitchability last year to at least be on the radar for some kind of MLB impact in 2014. 

Colby Lewis is also an interesting sleeper candidate. He signed a minor league deal with an invite to spring training with the Rangers in November after missing the last 1.5 seasons due to elbow surgery. The 34-year-old was effective in Texas prior to the injury, with a 3.43 ERA and 93-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 105 innings during the 2012 season. 

Alex Gonzalez, a 2013 first-round pick, has great polish, four above-average or better pitches and should move quickly, but if he pitches in the big leagues this year, it likely won’t happen until the end of the season. 

It’s also possible that Jon Daniels could explore the trade market by dangling prospects in a trade, though don’t count on anything major. Second baseman Rougned Odor and catcher Jorge Alfaro aren‘t going anywhere right now. 

Shortstop Luis Sardinas, who has long been a favorite of mine thanks to plus-plus potential with the glove, could be on the move. Elvis Andrus is locked into shortstop for a long time, with Jurickson Profar taking over second base and more than capable of filling at shortstop should Andrus get hurt. 

Given the questions about his bat and consistency in the field, Sardinas isn’t likely to net a hefty return. He could bring back a quality back-end starter, which is all the Rangers need right now. 


Survey Says…

When you factor in all the money Texas has committed to its roster for 2014, how unwilling the front office has been to part with top prospects in the past, and readily available options in the minors, I would be stunned to see something major happen in Holland’s absence.

Between Lewis, Tepesch, Jackson and Gonzalez, some combination of those four should be able to handle 80-90 innings of work in the big leagues until Holland returns. Alexi Ogando could make a few starts here and there, in between bullpen stints. 

Even though the Rangers are weaker today than they were yesterday, this team is in no way buried in the American League West. The offense figures to be much better than it was in 2013, with Fielder, Choo and Profar adding dimensions that have been missing. 

There are going to be more games the Rangers have to win 7-5 and 8-6, like the good old days when Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez were winning MVP awards, but it’s not a permanent problem that requires drastic action. 


Note: All stats and contract info courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs unless otherwise noted. 

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