With first spring training start, Jacob deGrom takes first step toward delivering on Rangers fans' hope

The team's new ace pitched his first outing of spring training Monday against the Royals minor-leaguers.

SURPRISE Ariz. — On Monday morning, the metal bleachers just beyond the chain-link fence behind home plate of the “TX 1” backfield at the shared Texas Rangers/Kansas City Royals complex in Surprise, Arizona, was the hottest … well, I actually don’t know if they make you buy tickets to watch minor-league spring training games.

In 2021, the Rangers lost more than 100 games 10 years after they last played in the World Series. The following offseason, the team committed half a billion dollars to a couple of star shortstops in a striking effort to force a new era. In 2022, they lost 94 games and finished even further back of the first-place Houston Astros. To oversimplify the issue: The Rangers’ rotation allowed more runs than 23 other MLB starting staffs.

Even before the season was over, the team fired its manager and head of baseball operations, elevating former pitcher Chris Young to that role. In the offseason, the Rangers fired two pitching coaches, replacing them with the guy who was their pitching coach when they made the World Series in consecutive years. They convinced a three-time champion manager to come out of retirement.

And they overhauled the rotation.

In a single month, the Rangers agreed to free-agent deals with: Andrew Heaney, a Dodgers reclamation project-turned-starter with the second-most strikeouts per nine innings last year (provided you set the inning cutoff low enough); Nathan Eovaldi, a member of the 2018 champion Red Sox rotation; and Jacob deGrom, the most tantalizingly talented pitcher in the sport.

Combined, those three pitched 246 innings last year, and all are in their 30s, so the health of the entire rotation will determine how far they go in making a difference in the Rangers’ fortunes. But deGrom, in particular, is like a singularly valuable, one-of-a-kind Fabergé egg — if a Fabergé egg could throw a four-seam fastball 99 mph with relative ease.

The Rangers offered deGrom $185 million to provide the team with an unparalleled ace for five seasons. They need him on the mound when the games matter, which in this case meant his not getting on the mound in a game setting for the first month of spring training.

When deGrom arrived at camp with tightness in his left side, the team decided to proceed with the utmost caution. He had debated whether he even needed to tell his new team, seeing as it’s the kind of ailment he would’ve pitched through at a different point in his career.

“And then I was like, ‘What's the smart thing here?’ We got plenty of time. We'll have plenty of time in spring,” deGrom said Monday. “I was trying to play it smart to be healthy.”

So the Rangers waited while he rested — until finally, last week he was able to face teammates in a live batting practice setting, and a few days later, he was ready to make his first start in a Rangers uniform.

Enter the Omaha Storm Chasers.

The Rangers share a spring training facility with the Royals, and their minor-league players regularly face off on the backfields. For as much as major-league spring training games are more about preparation than competition, minor-league games are an even more controlled environment. Which is why an hour and a half before the bulk of the big-league squad took on the Arizona Diamondbacks, Eovaldi, coming back from his own brief reset for a similar side strain, faced the Royals’ Double-A team while deGrom faced their Triple-A team.

“Biggest game of the year,” said a Royals minor-leaguer who had come to watch.

“You know it,” his teammate replied.

DeGrom threw 24 pitches — 20 strikes — in two innings before decamping to the bullpen mounds. The second batter he faced hit an inside-the-park home run that elicited a grin from the two-time Cy Young award winner.

“Hats off to him,” deGrom said later.

He retired the next six batters in a row, five on strikeouts. After each one, you could hear the crowd collectively exhale in awe and appreciation. (You might think all major-league pitchers look equally nasty up close until you see Jacob deGrom going for the out from just beyond the foul line.)

“Oh, that’s disgusting,” someone said after an unfortunate Storm Chaser nearly spun himself into the ground swinging through a pitch.

After the outing, deGrom reported that he felt fine — great, even. He was particularly pleased to have thrown all four of his pitches and predicted that the changeup and curveball would be plus pitches for him this season.

To deGrom, it had been just like any other game.

“When somebody steps in there,” he said, “I want to get them out.”

For nine years in New York, deGrom was a vessel for Mets fans' hope. He was an All-Star in 2015, when the team went to the World Series but fell short. While he seemed to evolve from there into something superhuman, the team languished in increasingly absurd ineptitude.

When the Mets won 101 games last season with deGrom facing down free agency, it felt like the culmination was coming. He would deliver the city, one that embraced him almost desperately in spite of the fact that he never seemed quite at home there, an iconic victory, an instant classic that would cement his status as the greatest pitcher of his generation. Mets fans don’t need anyone to be reminded of what happened next.

And now he’s here, entering his age-35 season on a new team, still without a ring to his name. Maybe someday, Jacob deGrom will mean something different to Rangers fans, and the city will contain only happy memories for him. His greatness is so evident that it’s easy to want to get ahead of yourself. He looks like a sure thing, a magic bullet on the mound. But guarantees are always a mirage, and so Monday morning on the backfields of Arizona, the Rangers took a very careful first step.