There is nothing harder in baseball than putting together a good bullpen. No matter what team you’re a fan of, you’re sure to remember the year the lights-out bullpen that ended up being one of the league’s worse. Conversely, many a team has gone to the playoffs when a little-regarded bullpen suddenly became dominant.
Unless your name is Rivera, closers can go from 45 saves one year to 15 the next with said closer replaced by another 100-mph fireballing phenom in mid-season.
Look at the Texas Rangers. In their World Series years of 2010-2011, the bullpen was one of the team’s strengths. Neftali Feliz replaced Frank Francisco just a week into the 2010 campaign as closer and rode that train for two years. Darren O’Day was a waiver claim who had an incredible 2010. On the other hand, Koji Uehara should have been the final bullpen piece when the Rangers acquired him at the deadline in 2011. He pitched so poorly for Texas he was left off the World Series roster. A year later he was dominant again and now he’s the closer for the Red Sox.
Year to year consistency in the bullpen is the toughest thing to acquire. Among the many ills for the Rangers in 2014, the bullpen was one of them.
Under the circumstances, one could make a case that the Rangers relief corps kept the team from finishing worse than 67-95. While not as formidable as earlier years, they were overall middle of the pack in the American League in contributing a 4.0 WAR. Much of that came early in the season, when the pen consisted of veterans like Jason Frasor and Joakim Soria, both of whom got sent packing at the trade deadline to pennant contenders. And, while the WAR was decent, the Rangers were a piddling 13th in Saves and 11th in Holds.
General Manager Jon Daniels has a philosophy when it comes to bullpens. The main mantra is “Save your money”. Outside of closer, you’ll seldom see Texas spend any substantial dollars on relievers. The aforementioned Frasor pitched two years in Texas, both times on 1-year contracts. Same with recently departed Neal Cotts. Occasionally Daniels will spring for a 2-year deal. Outside of O’Day, those get reserved for proven closers (Joe Nathan, Soria).
Daniels does like to gamble a little with the bullpen. He’s constantly acquiring relievers with big league experience but got released by other clubs due to injury. Success stories include Cotts and Soria, but there have also been busts, such as Nate Adcock and Kyle McLellan. But what the heck, they didn’t cost much money so do real harm there. Daniels mixes these low risk, high reward veterans with young bucks from the farm system whose contracts are under club control for the foreseeable future. It’s worked pretty well during the Daniels regime and it’s what the Rangers once again looking at in 2015.
What is certain for the Rangers is the closer will be Neftali Feliz, back in the role of his greatest success during the World Series years. Feliz missed most of 2013 to Tommy John surgery and moved back to closer in 2014 after Soria got traded to the Tigers. His velocity isn’t what it once was but he says he finally has most of the zip back.
Texas hopes the 8th inning set-up man will be last year’s Opening Day starter, Tanner Scheppers. Feliz, Scheppers and the departed Robbie Ross were the final nails in the coffin that was Texas trying to convert relievers into starters. It worked once with CJ Wilson but failed miserably with the other three. Scheppers and Feliz are now okay with their roles. Scheppers was the best set-up man in the AL in 2013 and the Rangers are hoping he’ll return to form.
Shawn Tolleson was one of Daniels’ low risk, high reward signings a year ago. Coming back from Tommy John, Tolleson was a respectable 2.76 ERA in 64 appearances and 71.2 innings pitched with 69 K’s. He was a little homer prone, giving up 10 dingers. Tolleson will be the 7th inning reliever. Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux is already saying Tolleson looks better in the early going of camp than he did all of last season.
Four more spots are open in the bullpen and be assured whoever starts the season is in no way guaranteed of being there in September. Among the farmhands, the hopefuls include Alex Claudio, Phil Klein, Spencer Patton and Jon Edwards, who all got a taste of the bigs with the Rangers in the last month of the 2014 season.
A young heat thrower who hasn’t reached the major league level yet is Keone Kela, but he isn’t considered a factor in Arlington until later in the season at the earliest.
Joining the competition are those LRHR players Daniels loves, including Kyuji Fujikawa, Japan’s all-time saves leader whose move to America and the Cubs resulted in yet another Tommy John surgery; Juan Carlos Oviedo who, when pitching as Leo Nunez, saved 113 games from 2009-2011 with the Florida Marlins; and ageless veteran Jamey Wright, back with the Rangers for the second time in a career that has spanned 19 years and 10 different teams.
The most thankless job in the bullpen is long reliever. A pitcher in that role might go two weeks between appearances, then be asked to make a spot start two days after throwing 2 1/3 innings in a game. Veteran Scott Baker admirably filled that role for the Rangers last year and it’s a darn shame nobody has signed him for 2015.
For the Rangers, the likely long man is whoever the last man out is in the competition for the #5 starter. At this writing, the prediction would be for either Ross Detwiler, Nick Tepesch or Nick Martinez to fill that role.
Bullpens are more works in progress than any other part of a ball club. No matter the predictions here, out of the seven member relief corps that starts the season, odds are good three of them will be gone by season’s end. If Texas can improve on last year’s 4.0 WAR pen, they’ll be a playoff contender.