Next stop, stardom: 2011 breakout picks – Derek Holland

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Cliff Lee’s departure left a huge hole in the Rangers’ rotation and they signed rehabbing former Cy Young winner Brandon Webb in the hopes he could fill the void if healthy, but 24-year-old left-hander Derek Holland emerging as a front-line starter is the more likely way for Texas to forget all about Lee.

Holland was slowed by a knee injury last spring and began the season in the minors, but earned a call-up in mid-May by posting a 0.93 ERA and 37/7 K/BB ratio in six starts at Triple-A. He pitched well through three starts, but then looked nothing like his usual self against the Twins on May 30 and missed the next two months with a shoulder injury.

Holland returned from the disabled list in mid-August and threw 38 innings down the stretch, finishing with a 4.08 ERA, .247 opponents’ batting average, and 54/24 K/BB ratio in 57 innings overall. Toss in his 1.83 ERA and 85/27 K/BB ratio in 93 career innings between Double-A and Triple-A, and it’s easy to see the young southpaw’s star potential. His fastball averaged 92 miles per hour last season and Holland’s low-80s slider is his best pitch, with a solid changeup giving him the repertoire to thrive as a starter long term.

Being a fly-ball pitcher in Texas’ power-inflating ballpark works against Holland, but he misses enough bats and throws enough strikes to succeed even while serving up some long balls. Counting on Holland to truly replace Lee is obviously wishful thinking, particularly at age 24 and with just 31 career starts under his belt, but he has the ability to emerge as one of the top left-handed starters in the league and looks capable of taking the first big step this season.

My other 2011 breakout picks: Carlos Santana, Colby Rasmus, Justin Upton, and Brandon Morrow.

Evan Longoria: “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.