Roy Oswalt in 2012

It is being reported that the Texas Rangers have won the Roy Oswalt Sweepstakes, a not-too-shocking result on the heels of the Neftali Feliz injury, the ineffectiveness of Scott Feldman in his stead and the reticence of the Rangers to put Alexi Ogando back into the rotation in light of how excellent he has been as a bullpen asset.

The Rangers were always a frontrunner for Oswalt and while the Feliz injury may have expedited the process to get him signed, the Roy Halladay injury and subsequent DL’ing may have been the final push to get something done officially.  I don’t necessarily believe the Phillies would’ve made a big push for Oswalt, though.  Their staff can withstand a two month absence of Halladay as it is their abysmal hitting that leaves them tied for last in the division, four games behind the Washington Nationals.

What should the Rangers expect in an abbreviated season from the 34-year old righty making his foray into the American League?

They are getting a pitcher coming off of his worst season in a lot of respects: ERA, WHIP, fastball velocity, strikeout rate and innings pitched.  His xFIP of 3.95 was just 0.02 better than his career-worst mark set in 2007.  From 2002-2008, Oswalt was one of the most reliable starters in the game averaging 32 starts and 211 innings per season with 2003 standing as the only season that saw him throw fewer than 209 innings or make fewer than 32 starts (127 IP in 21 starts losing time to a recurring groin injury).

The 2009 season was the first time that back issues cropped up costing him some time and snapping his streak of five straight 200+ inning seasons (181 in 30 starts).  He bounced back with a vengeance in 2010 splitting time between Houston and Philly and posting his best ERA (2.76) and strikeout rate (8.2 K/9) since his rookie season (2.73 ERA & 9.1 K/9 in 142 IP).

Then last year he was limited to just 139 innings as the lower back issues returned and put him on the disabled list two separate times.  It clearly hampered his production as pointed earlier with the diminished velocity and suppressed production compared to his career marks.  He was still above average, but definitely vintage Oswalt.

A 34-year old Oswalt returning from back issues and trying his hand in the American League for the first time isn’t likely to be vintage Oswalt, either.  Having pitched in Houston for so many years, he was guaranteed interleague time against the Rangers so he has a sizeable in that ballpark.  The obvious caveat is that he had to face the Texas lineup which has seemingly always been good even when they were a third or fourth place team in their division.

A snapshot of his stats in Texas, against the AL as a whole, for his career and in the last three years shows the disparity in production in that ballpark.

Oswalt has always been a groundball pitcher with career 1.5 GB/FB and 47% groundball rates, however there has been a shift in recent years as his flyball rate has crept up a bit.  He still has a discernible groundball lean, but more flyballs than ever, too.  After ranging above 32% with his flyball rate just once from 2002-2008, Oswalt has been at 36% each of the last three years.  Meanwhile his groundball rate, which used to sit high-40s/low-50s, has been between 43-46% the last three years.

It is hard to even foster a guess what kind of peripherals we will see from Oswalt given the wide range of his recent track record and the great unknown of his back issues. Last year’s 6.0 K/9, if a new level for aged Oswalt, will likely erode some transitioning to the AL leaving him only marginally better than Feldman.  His 2.1 BB/9 from last year is significantly better than anything Feldman has ever posted, though, and the limiting of free passes has long been a calling card of Oswalt’s.

It will come down the command of his stuff.  With last year’s walk rate as good as ever, but the strikeout and hits allowed rates at their nadir, Oswalt was clearly displaying plenty of control but not much command as he pounded the zone with too many hittable pitches.  This isn’t Andy Pettitte/Roger Clemens hired gun stuff, rather it is a pitcher who likely knew he couldn’t make it through an entire season so he sat out the first two months in order to save some bullets.

Keep that in mind as your rush to place your FAAB bid or pick up Oswalt off of your waiver wire.  His name alone will draw attention and likely has him scooped off of any fastest-finger waiver wires, but I would be cautious in my expectations, especially in weekly transaction leagues.

Is he really more than a spot starter at best in 10 and 12 team mixed leagues?  How much of his struggles in Texas were the lineup and how much were the ballpark?  Getting starts in Oakland and Seattle helps mitigate the Texas starts, but I think we need to see something from him before trusting him fully.  I realize that will take you out of the running for him in most leagues as the FAAB bids will come long before he suits up, but that might not be such a bad thing if you can’t get him at a price commensurate with a 34-year old coming off of an injury-addled 2011.

In a 12 team mixed league where I could’ve scooped him on the open wire, I passed as I didn’t feel he was any better than my current staff that includes Dan Haren, James Shields, Matt Garza, Jordan Zimmermann, Jake Peavy, Max Scherzer, Derek Holland, Erik Bedard and some closers.  With names like Ervin Santana, Daniel Hudson, Tim Hudson and Brandon McCarthy on the wire, Oswalt doesn’t stand out as a “must have”.  If he doesn’t regain his velocity and thus his strikeout rate, can he really be expected to be anything other than Paul Maholm/Mike Leake circa 2011?  A solid performer likely to have some gems, but not a season saver for your fantasy team.

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