In Their Footsteps: The fifth starter

The fifth starter has a tough job.  By definition the pitcher with the loosest hold on a rotation spot, he usually spends April having his turn skipped a time or two due to off-days, not getting the benefit of a five-day rhythm that his four rotation-mates have.  It’s not an ideal environment for a pitcher who is often a young player trying to establish himself and prove that he belongs in the big leagues.

Doug Davis’s rise through the Rangers system was spectacular.  The club’s 10th-round pick in 1996, the slender lefthander went 33-16, 2.82 with more than a strikeout per inning in his first four minor league seasons, reaching the big leagues briefly in 1999.  He didn’t make the Opening Day roster in 2000, but three weeks into the season he was in Texas, making two relief appearances before replacing Mark Clark in the fifth starter’s spot early in May.  

After three ineffective starts, however, Davis went back to AAA Oklahoma for a month and a half, returning to the big club in early July and spending six weeks in the Rangers bullpen (with one start mixed in).  On August 15, he replaced injured righthander Ryan Glynn in the number five rotation spot, going 3-3, 4.80 in nine starts the rest of the way, including a seven-start stretch in which he fired six quality starts and went 3-1, 2.28.  

Davis was the Rangers’ number five starter when the 2001 season began, winning two of his first three starts before going 0-4, 8.49 in his next five, a span bisected by a 15-day stay in AAA.  At that point he was a 43-19, 2.83 pitcher in the minor leagues, and a 9-11, 6.35 pitcher in the big leagues.  

But something clicked for Davis at that point.  Getting the ball every fifth day, he would go 9-5, 3.77 for Texas the rest of the way.  For the year, he allowed only 14 home runs in 186 innings.  Only Freddy Garcia, Mark Mulder, and Andy Pettitte were stingier among American League starters.  

As a result of the outstanding four months that Davis had at the back of the Rangers rotation in 2001, he opened the 2002 season as the club’s fourth starter and went 2-0, 1.88 in his first three starts.  But he struggled in his next seven starts, going 1-5, 7.07, and Texas used its final option on the 26-year-old on May 27, recalling righthander Rob Bell and sending Davis back to Oklahoma for the remainder of the season.

Whether or not the Rangers were out of patience with Davis when spring training began in 2003, they were out of options on him, and when he gave up six runs in nine exhibition innings, Texas designated him for assignment and got him through waivers, outrighting his contract to AAA.  

When righthander Ismael Valdes hurt his shoulder three weeks into the season, Texas reached back down to get Davis, who was 3-0, 3.25 in four Oklahoma starts.  New Rangers manager Buck Showalter gave Davis the ball for an April 27 home start against the Yankees, and he permitted four runs in three innings.  The next day, the club designated Davis for assignment again, clearing a spot on the roster for left-handed reliever Erasmo Ramirez.  

The Rangers didn’t get Davis through waivers this time (though even if they did, he would have been able to decline an outright assignment this time), as Toronto claimed him and gave him a two-month audition in its rotation.  Davis went 4-6, 5.00 for the Blue Jays, who then exposed him to waivers themselves.  Though he cleared, he declined an assignment to AAA, signing instead with Milwaukee, whose new general manager Doug Melvin and new director of minor league operations Reid Nichols had been in charge of Davis’s development in Texas.

After one minor league start, Davis was purchased by the Brewers, going 3-2, 2.58 in eight starts.  He went on to win in double figures in each of the next four seasons (three with Milwaukee and one with Arizona).  Now 32, Davis is a dependable, 200-inning rotation mainstay, a far cry from the number five starter that he was in Texas.  As a Ranger, Davis was inconsistent, but in stretches he showed an ability to win in Arlington.

In this exercise of projecting current Rangers prospects into eventual big league roles, I’ve tabbed one player per roster spot so far.  But with the rotation, it’s far more difficult, given the tremendous depth in pitching prospects that the organization is currently developing.  

Is it unfair to suggest that 18-year-old Dominican righthander Carlos Pimentel, who struck out more than 12 Arizona League batters per nine innings in 2007, could be a future number five, and not more?  What about 20-year-old Dominican righthander Kennil Gomez, who has had a sensational 7-1, 2.21 start for Clinton this year, holding the Midwest League to a .196 batting average, walking just two per nine innings, and just last night limiting Beloit to one hit in seven innings of work?

I’m going with 21-year-old Bakersfield lefthander Zach Phillips, who shares a birthday (September 21) and birthplace (Sacramento) with Davis, and might share even more.  While not overpowering, for every nine minor league innings Phillips has struck out an impressive 9.3 batters (Davis: 8.6) and walked 3.4 batters (Davis: 3.8), and he’s actually a far more pronounced groundball pitcher than Davis.  

Is Phillips, a 23rd-round draft-and-follow chosen in 2004, a lock to get to Arlington?  No.  Could he be more than a fifth starter in the big leagues?  Without question.  Davis showed just as varied an upside and downside even after getting to the majors.  

In his time in Texas, Davis was as promising as any fifth starter that the franchise has had.  Phillips could do a lot worse than to follow Davis’s path, perhaps earning a bit more organizational patience than the veteran of more than 100 big league starts got as a Ranger.

 

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com.  A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger.  He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.  This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs

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