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TEXAS RANGERS BULLPEN

English: Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers pitcher.

Alexi Ogando

 

This year’s edition of the Texas Rangers Bullpen will be better on opening day than it was a year ago. The starting rotation has question marks with Yu Darvish and Neftali Feliz slated for two of the five rotation spots, both of whom have never started a major league game. However, last year’s rotation had even more question marks with uncertainty surrounding Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando. Holland had been inconsistent at best, almost lost his rotation spot in June, and really didn’t round into form until the second half of the season. Ogando was thought to be keeping a starting spot warm until Tommy Hunter was healthy, and Harrison had failed twice previously when earning a spot in the rotation. Feliz has been in the big leagues for more than two full seasons as a reliever, mostly in the pressure packed closer’s role, and Darvish has been a big time starter in Japan. There is uncertainty surrounding this pair, but much less so than there was about Holland, Harrison and Ogando a year ago.

The real reason though that this year’s Rangers will be better on opening day compared with last year’s Rangers on opening day is the bullpen. Last year’s bullpen was unsettled from day one with closer Neftali Feliz attempting to switch to the starting rotation in spring training. Usually, a bullpen will sort itself out given time. Darren O’Day was counted on, but early on he had surgery that landed him on the 60-day disabled list. Mark Lowe was inconsistent. Arthur Rhodes wasn’t good. Darren Oliver got off to a slow start. Does anyone remember Dave Bush, Brett Tomko, Ryan Tucker, Cody Eppley or Mason Tobin? These were pitchers that the Rangers ran through their bullpen trying to round it into shape early in the season. It just didn’t happen until late July when Daniels traded for Mike Adams and Koji Uehara. If the Rangers’ bullpen had performed anywhere near good early in the season, the team would have won more than 100 games, and there would have been no race with the Angels in September.

This year, the Rangers should start the season with not only a much more settled bullpen personnel-wise, but a much better bullpen. Joe Nathan was signed as the team’s closer to permit the move of Feliz to the rotation. Last year, Nathan was 2-1 with a 4.84 ERA and 14 saves in 17 opportunities coming off Tommy John surgery. 11 of those saves came in July, August and September, when his ERA dropped to 3.29. It simply took a while to round into form coming off the surgery, and the Rangers are counting on the Joe Nathan that pitched over the final three months of last season to be the Joe Nathan they see in Arlington this year.

Mike Adams was acquired from the Padres last July to solidify the Rangers’ bullpen over the final two months of the regular season and playoffs. It was speculated that he would be this year’s closer with the move of Feliz to the rotation; and quite frankly, he has expressed disappointment at being passed over for the closer’s role in favor of Nathan. Adams was an astounding 5-4 with a 1.47 ERA in 2011 in 73.2 innings. That includes 2-3 with a save and a 2.10 ERA in 25.2 innings with Texas after the trade. His ERA is 2.11 over his seven-year big league career. He is simply one of the most highly regarded set-up relievers in baseball.

Scott Feldman, a team leading 17-game winner in 2009, is slated to be the long man in the bullpen. He looked recovered from knee surgery late last year and made the playoff roster. Make no mistake about it, long man is an important bullpen role. An early exit by a starting pitcher can blow out a bullpen and effect results for days afterward. A long man who can step in with three, four or more innings can mitigate the problem. A good long man can shut down the opposition and give the offense a chance to come back and win a game assumed to be lost. Feldman is good enough to start for many major league teams, and having him as the long man in the bullpen is a luxury for the suddenly pitching rich Rangers.

At this point, it is assumed that Ogando will be part of the late inning mix in the bullpen too. He was very good in this role in 2010 when he broke into the majors, and he was very good in this role last year in the playoffs when the Rangers’ rotation shrunk from five to four. He should be an outstanding addition to the pen.

If there are no injuries or other situations that keep Ogando and/or Feldman in the rotation, they will be important contributors to a bullpen that could be VERY good!

That leaves three bullpen spots up for grabs. Mark Lowe, Yoshinori Tatayama, and Koji Uehara are the three leading candidates to fight it out for most likely two right-handed bullpen roster spots. Michael Kirkman and journeymen Mitch Stetter and Joe Beimel are the three leading candidates to replace Darren Oliver as the left-handed specialist. Kirkman has been groomed as a starter in the minors, but has seen action in each of the last two seasons as a Ranger reliever. He has thrown well so far in spring training, and appears to have the inside tract. However, the possibility exists that the Rangers will not have a left-hander in the bullpen as Uehara has historically been effective against left-handed batters, and his early throwing sessions in spring training have been impressive.

Virtually every spring has a surprise or two making the opening day roster. Tanner Scheppers, Mark Hamburger, and Mark West are three candidates to be that surprise in this year’s bullpen.

Certainly injuries, trades and surprising performances between now and opening day can change the composition of the Rangers’ bullpen, but it is a lock that this year’s pen will be far superior to the one that began the 2011 season. There are simply too many solid arms in camp.

And that’s the most significant reason why this year’s Rangers will be better on opening day than last year’s Rangers.

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