This mini-series continues with the next big question that the Texas Rangers will have to answer this off-season. If you missed the first installment about Josh Hamilton, you can read it here, part two on how to fix the Michael Young conundrum is here, and part three about who will be the team’s catcher can be found here.
The next item on the list for review is the bullpen situation in Texas. The Rangers have worked hard on their bullpen each of the last two seasons, attempting to build the kind of force that shortens ballgames and slams doors. Those attempts have been met with mixed results.
In 2011, the Rangers bullpen finished 12th in the American League in ERA, third-worst in the league. However, thanks to some mid-season trades to acquire Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, and Mike Gonzalez, it improved during the year and ended up being a big part of the Rangers making it to the World Series. However, in the actual World Series, the bullpen stumbled at critical times that could have swung the series in the Rangers favor.
Entering 2012, the Rangers upgraded their bullpen by signing veteran closer Joe Nathan, and bringing in the homegrown Robbie Ross. The bullpen began the year as the dominant force the Rangers hoped it would be, posting a 1.98 ERA in the month of April. However, down the stretch, the bullpen struggled mightily. Whether it was due to injuries, fatigue, or pitching slumps, it reached a point where it seemed only Nathan and Uehara could be trusted to get outs in the team’s final games, an ask too large for just two pitchers. Perhaps that lack of trust in the bullpen could be seen most clearly in the AL Wild Card playoff game, in which Ron Washington turned to starter Derek Holland in relief of Yu Darvish, despite Holland being unaccustomed to working out of the pen, and had just thrown 50 pitches in relief two days prior.
In each of the last two seasons, the bullpen has looked as though it would be a strength for the Rangers, but in the end it faltered. In reality, that shouldn’t be too surprising. Bullpen performance is wildly unpredictable by nature. Take, for instance, the Tampa Bay Rays, who had the best bullpen in baseball in 2012. Their top relievers, by innings pitched, were Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis, Joel Peralta, Burke Badenhop, Jake McGee, and J.P. Howell. None of those names on their own have a reputation of a dominant reliever, but as a unit they posted a 2.88 ERA. Of those seven, only Peralta held a similar role for Tampa Bay from 2011 to 2012. Rodney won the AL Comeback Player of the Year award because he had been so bad as an Angel in 2011, Davis was a starter-turned-reliever, Badenhop was a Marlin, and McGee and Howell pitched half the innings in 2011 with more than twice the ERA.
The turnover in personnel in the Rays bullpen is not a new trend. Tampa Bay has been following that strategy for the past several years, with excellent results. From the Rangers 2012 bullpen, only Nathan, Ross, and Alexi Ogando have a high probability of returning. Uehara and Adams are free agents, and the remaining spare parts were too spare to be considered a lock to be a part of the future. This creates an opportunity for the Rangers to seek out fresh blood and live arms to add to their arsenal at the end of the games.
One thing that successful bullpens are doing a lot of in recent seasons is striking batters out. The Rays bullpen led the league with 9.3 SO/9. The Rangers bullpen was fourth in the league, but at 8.6 SO/9. With that in mind, I expect the Rangers to make a push to re-sign Uehara, but not Adams, this offseason. Uehara was supremely dominant to close the season, and remains one of the game’s best relievers. Adams suffered from thoracic outlet syndrome symptoms, and his performance dragged with that, but even before then he has steadily regressed in the past two seasons.
Putting Nathan, Ogando, Uehara, and Ross as the foundation of the bullpen gives the Rangers a good base to build on. For the remaining slots, they ought to be looking for players who can miss bats with regularity. Sometimes, finding those guys means picking someone up off a trash heap (like Rodney), or increasing a player’s value by moving him from the rotation to the bullpen (like the Rays did with Davis), or it could be from a whole new source entirely. Apart from perhaps Tanner Scheppers, the Rangers don’t appear to have the types of pitchers they need in-house to finally maintain the bullpen they’ve always wanted.
Bullpens are always changing, and their success doesn’t follow a predictable pattern. The Rangers have a great chance this offseason to be the team in 2013 with a group of surprises that comprise the best bullpen in baseball, but it may take a few new fresh faces.
Stay tuned this week to the answers for further important questions for the Rangers:
Who Will Be the Shortstop, and Who Will Be the Second Baseman?
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