Richard Justice

Rangers seeking No. 1 starter to be final piece

Justice: Rangers seeking No. 1 starter to be final piece

Rangers seeking No. 1 starter to be final piece
ARLINGTON -- To understand why the Rangers are working furiously to add a bona fide No. 1 starter, let's run down the names of the past five pitchers to win Game 1 of a World Series.

2011: Chris Carpenter

2010: Tim Lincecum

2009: Cliff Lee

2008: Cole Hamels

2007: Josh Beckett

It's a list Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has run through a few dozen times the past few days, as he attempts to position his team for a third straight World Series appearance.

Carpenter, Lincecum, etc., were No. 1s in every way the label can be defined. They all have great stuff, but they were about more than just stuff.

They accepted the responsibility of being the leader of a pitching staff and setting a tone for every other pitcher. They were all absolutely unflappable.

At the moment, the Rangers probably would give 26-year-old left-hander Matt Harrison the ball in Game 1.

He appears to be on his way to being a No. 1, but he's not there yet. For one thing, he has never had that responsibility.

Until Colby Lewis injured his right elbow, he was the Rangers' No. 1 guy. He has a 2.34 ERA in eight playoff starts and a 2.29 ERA in three World Series turns.

As the July 31 Trade Deadline approaches, no team is in a more interesting position than the Rangers.

At 57-39, they are tied with Washington for the second-best record in all of baseball. They've been alone atop the American League West since the third day of the regular season. Their five-game lead is the second-largest in baseball.

These Rangers are about as complete a team as there is in the big leagues, with quality arms in the rotation and 95-mph heat at the back of the bullpen. Their everyday lineup is as good as any in the game.

In ways large and small, the Rangers are the model organization. No GM has done a better job than Daniels, who transformed a losing franchise into one of the game's most consistent winners.

Daniels has taken the Rangers to such a level that simply getting to the postseason isn't going to be enough, and that's his burden. In fact, losing a third straight World Series would be bitterly disappointing.

So in the final days before the Trade Deadline, Daniels is working furiously to add "a difference-maker" to his rotation. His team has no other needs.

His problem is that with the Phillies apparently re-signing Cole Hamels, there could be just two of them on the market: Zack Greinke and Josh Johnson.

(The Phillies seem willing to listen on Lee, but he has a staggering amount of money -- $87.5 million over four seasons -- remaining on his contract.)

And the Brewers haven't completely given up on re-signing Greinke. They're close to that point. They're fielding offers. But a deal could still get done.

So it appears Johnson is the best hope for the Rangers. He's 28 years old. When healthy, he has top-of-the-rotation stuff.

Johnson has made 30 starts just once in his career and hasn't pitched well lately (a 5.56 ERA this month).

In a perfect world, Daniels probably would prefer Greinke, but the world may not be perfect.

Daniels has assembled so much talent in his farm system that he could probably swing a trade for almost anyone.

How far is he willing to go? Would he trade 19-year-old shortstop Jurickson Profar, Texas' top prospect, to get one of the big three?

The Rangers have made Profar untouchable in virtually all their discussions, but if a bidding war develops, Daniels may have no choice.

He'd probably like to do a deal that includes 23-year-old first baseman Mike Olt and 21-year-old left-hander Martin Perez (who allowed one run in six innings in a 2-1 loss to the Red Sox on Tuesday).

In the 33 seasons before Daniels became general manager in 2005, the Rangers had won a total of one playoff game.

They'd been to the postseason only three times and were swept twice. Daniels has built a clubhouse with both talent and a winning culture.

But he may not be confident about a playoff matchup that would have the Tigers handing the ball to Justin Verlander in Game 1 or the Yankees giving it to CC Sabathia. Likewise, two of the National League's best teams -- the Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw) and Giants (Matt Cain) -- have true No. 1 starters.

The Rangers have come so far and done so many things right the past few years that very few opposing general managers will have much sympathy for Daniels. Yet this window of opportunity for the Rangers won't be open forever. If one of those franchise pitchers changes teams, Daniels hopes to be first in line.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.