SINCE THEIR INCEPTION 52 years ago, the Texas Rangers have allowed more runs than every team in Major League Baseball. Of the two dozen teams around since 1972, they have yielded the most baserunners, booked the fewest quality starts and allowed the most inherited runners to score. The Rangers have lived an ignominious, championship-free existence precisely because they cannot figure out how to successfully execute one of the game’s three core tenets: throwing the ball.

There is nothing about Texas that makes it particularly inhospitable to the starting pitcher — nothing beyond a combination of mismanagement, injuries and bad luck. It says plenty that this ineptitude includes a period during which Nolan Ryan, pitching demigod and the patron saint of Texas arms, was helping run the team. It is the Rangers’ curse with no hint of accompanying blessing. If Nolan couldn’t do it, who can?

Chris Young hopes he is the answer to that question. The Rangers general manager is himself an anomaly: one of just two former major league players running a baseball-operations department. He carved out a 13-year big league career as a one-of-a-kind: the enormous finesse pitcher. At 6-foot-10, Young subsisted not on his frame and power but on guile and intellect, conjuring an 85-mph fastball into a swing-and-miss weapon.

Because he forged a career making something out of nothing, perhaps Young is the perfect person to shepherd the Rangers as they try yet again to put together a respectable pitching staff. Considering where the Rangers found themselves at the end of last season — with arguably the worst starting rotation in baseball — doing so this offseason seemed less the task of a magician and more that of a miracle worker.

Over the winter, Young went on a more than quarter billion dollar spending spree, bringing in Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney after re-signing Martín Perez. He hired manager Bruce Bochy, who won three championships with the San Francisco Giants on the strength of their pitching, and summoned Mike Maddux, a pitching coach who has turned around staffs in three previous stops. Then he asked an old teammate to serve as a special instructor during spring training.

Few can call upon Greg Maddux — Hall of Fame right-hander, universally respected pitching mind and younger brother of Mike — to spend his mornings lending wisdom to the next generation. But few in the game possess Young’s gravitas, which is how Maddux wound up meandering through the Rangers’ spring clubhouse, players gawking rather unsubtly.

“Greg Maddux was my idol,” Rangers right-hander Dane Dunning said. “I watched him, and I used to watch Nolan go out every fifth day, and that’s always what I tried for. But I think the game has changed now to the point where every single inning, pitch, every game is played with so much intent — everything’s max effort the whole time. You put your body through so much stress. And pitching just isn’t the same.”

Dunning’s distillation of modern baseball speaks to a problem that is not just Young’s but all of his contemporaries’. Since Maddux’s retirement 15 years ago, baseball has evolved into a different game altogether — one of shorter outings, higher velocity and more skilled batters than ever.

In this era of the game, still, pitching wins: Of the clubs with the five best earned run averages in the league each of the last five full seasons, 24 of 25 have made the playoffs. Expand it out to the top 10, and it’s 34 of 50. But in order to compete, pitchers are throwing baseballs harder and spinning them faster. In doing so, they are exposing themselves to greater injury risk and potentially hamstringing their team in the process. Young’s approach to this Catch-22, while not necessarily novel, has gained traction in recent years.

“The game has gone to a quality-over-quantity type approach,” he said. “I don’t think we value quantity as much as an industry. You look at the starters we have, that quality is super high. But in order to get that quality, we’re going to have to be cognizant of not pushing them too far and throwing too many innings on them. Protecting those guys is critical, and that was part of the strategy of our offseason and how it played out.”

It’s wildly pragmatic, a nod to the fallibility of pitching: an emphasis on depth — saying out loud that for a five-man rotation, a team needs at least six starters. About half the teams in baseball, including the Rangers, entered spring training with six or more solid major league starters. Injuries already have waylaid some rotations and gnawed at the effectiveness of others. For Young, all of it goes back to one guiding principle, the sort he knows well.

“It’s really freaking hard to be a major league starting pitcher,” Young said. “There are very few starting pitchers who go out and make 30-plus starts a year and do that every year. The reality is, you’re gonna need eight, nine, sometimes 10 deep in your starting pitching.”

ENTERING THE 2022-23 OFFSEASON, the Texas Rangers did not have five reliable starters — let alone eight, nine or 10. Their ace, Perez, was coming off a career year and headed to free agency. Their next best, Jon Gray, had made 24 starts after signing for four years and $56 million as a free agent in November 2021. After that were Dunning and Glenn Otto, both of whom served as innings-eaters with below-average ERAs. The rest of the Rangers’ 50 starts in 2022 were divided among a dozen-strong menagerie of replacement-level arms and openers.

This was nothing new: No team in MLB over the last five full seasons has used more starting pitchers than the Rangers’ 59. It’s nearly three times as many as the team that used the fewest, Colorado, and more than double that of Cleveland and Houston, the next two highest.

“In order to manage a pitching staff effectively,” Young said, “you need talented pitchers. And I think that while we had a pretty decent bullpen last year, we did not have the starting pitching depth and quality that was needed to be successful. We scored some runs last year, but with our pitching, we were playing from behind constantly. And so this offseason we targeted starting pitching that we felt like provided a level of quality that we needed as an organization.”

It was an audacious plan: Pursue not only the best starting pitcher available in free agency, but at least one more rotation player with whom to complement him — and maybe more if the market allowed. It started with retention: The Rangers were relieved when Perez accepted the one-year, $19.7 million qualifying offer, but they weren’t close to finished yet.

When he’s healthy, deGrom is the finest pitcher in the world, and Young was determined that he would be the linchpin for a new-look staff. Sure, contingency plans existed, but the Rangers had spent the previous two years coveting deGrom and weren’t scared off by the injuries that limited him in 2021 and 2022. About a week before Thanksgiving, Young made contact with VC Sports Group, deGrom’s agency, to express interest in the 34-year-old.

Because deGrom was taking meetings in Florida the week leading up to Thanksgiving and Young had promised his overtaxed front office a break for the holiday, the Rangers introduced themselves to deGrom via Zoom.

The call, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, went a long way to convincing deGrom that Texas would be a good fit. Young spoke deGrom’s language because he lived it; Bochy spent nearly a decade catching in the major leagues and was fluent as well. Six days later, the sides reconnected, and the Rangers were transparent: If deGrom was interested, they wanted to accelerate talks. He was, and the race toward a deal began.

For three days, Rangers front-office officials sequestered themselves in their offices and studied deGrom like he was a capstone subject. They dove deep into his medical records. Ran biomechanical analyses on him. Asked analysts to project how he might age. Agonized over what a proper offer might be. Opportunities to land players like deGrom in free agency are few and far between. Then again, there was inherent risk in signing a recently injured pitcher in his mid-30s whose dominance stems from the sort of all-world stuff that doesn’t necessarily last.

Finally, with the blessing of owner Ray Davis, the Rangers made an offer that eventually landed on five years and $185 million. By Thursday, a week after Thanksgiving, deGrom agreed to the final guarantee language and prepared to head to Texas to be introduced as the newest Ranger. The announcement came at 7 p.m. CT on Dec. 2. Soon thereafter, Young received a two-word text message from Corey Seager, the shortstop whom he’d signed the previous offseason for $325 million:

“F— yeah.”

It was a good start, but even with deGrom and Perez in the fold, Young believed the Rangers needed more. Four days later, Texas agreed to a two-year, $25 million deal with Heaney, the 31-year-old left-hander who had struck out 97 in 64 2/3 innings over 14 starts with the Los Angeles Dodgers. With those three free agent signings, alongside Gray, Dunning, Otto and right-hander Jake Odorizzi, who was acquired in a mid-November trade, the Rangers were prepared to roll into the regular season content with their pitching depth.

Another opportunity revealed itself in late December. Eovaldi was the best player left in free agency, and with no obvious fit among the remaining position-playing free agents, Texas re-engaged.

“At the very beginning of the offseason, they were the first team to reach out,” Eovaldi said. “We were in really good conversations and talking and then they signed deGrom, and I was like, oh, I’m probably out of the picture. And then they signed Heaney, and I’m like, I’m definitely out of the picture.”

Under Young’s guidance, no one as good as Eovaldi is ever fully out of the picture. Like deGrom, Eovaldi loved the idea of playing for a team run by Young and managed by Bochy. He saw the $550 million-plus free agent commitment the Rangers had made the previous winter to Seager, Gray and second baseman Marcus Semien, and the further investment in rebuilding the rotation over the winter. He agreed to a two-year, $34 million deal Young and Eovaldi’s agent, Seth Levinson, negotiated on Christmas.

“You can never have enough pitching, and you have to remain open-minded,” Young said. “Maybe that’s my own personal experience weighing into my decision-making. I know the physical toll this game takes. I know we’re gonna go through injuries. It’s inevitable. And the quality of our depth needs to be replacement or slightly above.”

WHAT THE RANGERS did the past two winters is not an approach they intend to replicate. The high spending is a Band-Aid, a stopgap, a temporary solution to fuel a train stuck in a station for too long. It is also the easy way to relevancy.

“I don’t think our thought process is unique,” Young said. “We had resources that allowed us to go spend and build a rotation. But we have to develop our own. It’s critical. It’s paramount for any organization. We can’t rely on spending through free agency to address our pitching needs year-in, year-out. The pipeline of talent is critical.”

It’s why, on a February day in Arizona, the four side-by-side mounds on the Rangers’ spring training backfields are so crowded. It’s not just pitcher and catcher. Each mound is equipped with a Trackman unit that helps pitchers understand the characteristics and shapes of their pitches, as well as regular- and high-speed cameras. If that’s not enough information for any of the Rangers’ hurlers, across the street is a pitching lab frequented by curious players at all levels.

This is how pitching is developed in 2023: Players use technology to generate the nastiest pitches imaginable. It pervades all levels of Texas’ system, from High-A, where the No. 3 overall pick in last year’s draft, Kumar Rocker, just threw five scoreless innings in his first start, to Double-A, where Jack Leiter, the No. 2 selection in 2021, started the season. With Rocker, Leiter, former second-round pick Owen White and 19-year-old Brock Porter — whom Texas paid $3.7 million using money saved by paying Rocker an under-slot bonus — the Rangers don’t lack high-ceiling arms.

But the perils of pitching development are a feeling shared across the sport and why so many teams take a page out of the Rangers’ playbook and pay for arms.

“Nowadays, organizations don’t really develop starters as much,” Gray said. “That’s just how the game goes.”

The organizations best at it, though — the Dodgers, Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Guardians — are the most well-regarded postseason regulars, a fact Young knows well. It’s why he’s focuses on progress made this winter, not the Texas starters’ early season ERA (4.74, but inflated by two numbers that should regress to the mean: a big league-worst .377 batting average on balls in play and a strand rate of 66.4%, nearly 5% below the MLB average). Last season, the Rangers’ strikeout percentage minus walk percentage — a metric used in front offices because it measures two of the three elements within pitchers’ control — ranked 25th in baseball. This season, it’s second, behind only the Minnesota Twins. Even more success should be on the horizon, and considering the Rangers occupy first place in the American League West division, “the early returns have been positive,” Young said.

The evolution of the game, Young believes, will make pitchers with swing-and-miss stuff that much more valuable, which is why strikeout artists like deGrom and Heaney — and, to a lesser extent, Eovaldi — have fit so well in Texas. Complementing them with homegrown pitchers will be the ultimate verdict on whether Young can execute his long-term plan as well as he did Texas’ short-term fix.

“Heaney and I were kind of joking around,” Eovaldi said. “Thankfully we’re already established because it’s like these guys come up and their stuff looks so good. But it’s also the way the era of the game is. They understand how to make their pitches nasty, but then they’re kind of losing out on the pitching side of it. That’s where we come in and try to teach ’em that. And I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned in the big leagues is just being able to slow the game down. The better you understand it, the better you can prepare to go out there and do what you need to do. Everybody has a weakness.”

Nobody understands that better than the Texas Rangers. For more than 8,000 games and 71,000 innings, theirs has been pitching. The same issues that waylaid them in the past have cropped up this spring. A muscle strain in his side delayed deGrom’s first spring start. Odorizzi underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Otto hit the 60-day injured list with a shoulder strain. And still, because deGrom recovered in time for Opening Day and Perez and Eovaldi and Gray and Heaney all started the season healthy, Dunning — who threw 153 1/3 innings last season — started the year in the bullpen. The Rangers, forever pitching laggards, suddenly find themselves with enviable depth.

It’s tenuous. All pitching is. The fickleness of the arm knows no bounds, and as good as the Rangers feel about their rotation today, that can change in an instant. If it doesn’t, though — if the Rangers can manage to stay healthy, or even healthy enough, all season — they just may ride all the way into October.

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