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.
Every Monday, this space names the Texas Rangers Stars of the Week. These are the guys who went above and beyond during the previous week. Each week two position players and one pitcher get special mentions. For position players, there’s a Star of the Week for a full week’s performance and one recognizing an outstanding single game. The pitching Star of the Week could be either.
Position Player Star of the Week (Single Game): Elvis Andrus Texas had two walk-off wins in as many days against the Philadelphia Phillies. Adrian Beltre came through with the game-winning hit in the first walk-off win, while Shin-Soo Choo coaxed a bases-loaded walk to decide the following game. Still, nothing topped the dramatics of the 7th inning Sunday in Tampa Bay. Yu Darvish and Alex Cobb had matched seven innings of scoreless baseball. Texas hadn’t even seriously threatened to score the entire game. In the top of the 8th inning, with two outs, Shin-Soo Choo managed an infield single off the glove of pitcher Joel Peralta. Elvis Andrus then worked the count to 3-2 when Peralta threw him one more fastball:
It was the first Rangers home run since Alex Rios cleared the fences on Opening Day. Elvis has never hit more than six home runs in a season, so to say this was unexpected would be an understatement. The man who now resembles an Amish farmer also supplied some nifty glove work on two line drives late in the game to keep Tampa Bay off the scoreboard and preserve a Texas win.
Position Player Star of the Week (Full Week): Shin-Soo Choo One of the keys to the Rangers success this season is their new lead-off hitter. Choo has one of the highest On Base Percentages in baseball over the past few seasons, despite less than sterling numbers against left-handed pitchers. His ability to take pitches and get on base was the major reason Texas signed him to a big bucks multi-year deal. In the first week of the season, Choo did not disappoint. While a modest .273 batting average for the week with no extra base hits doesn’t sound like a lot, he’s started out strong against the southpaws: 3 for 9 plus two walks. In addition, Choo saved his best for the times it mattered most. In Tuesday’s win over the Phillies, he led off the 9th with a walk and scored the winning run on Adrian Beltre’s single. The next day, Choo battled back from a 1-2 count to get a bases-loaded walk, plating the winning run in another walk-off against the Phils. Finally on Sunday, in a scoreless tie with two outs in the top of the 8th inning, Choo worked Joel Peralta for seven pitches, finally earning yet another walk and setting the stage for the Elvis Andrus fireworks to come. Prince Fielder is off to a slow start, but Choo has already earned a lot of love from the Rangers fan base.
Pitching Star of the Week: Yu Darvish Yu Darvish originally was to pitch the first game of the season. Instead, a stiff neck earned him a DL stint and Tanner Scheppers the Opening Day start. Nothing went right for Texas in Game 1 as they dropped a 14-10 decision to Philadelphia. In fact, the first four games of the season saw not one Rangers starter last six innings, the first time that’s happened since the Washington Senators moved to Arlington to become the Rangers. Rookie Nick Martinez managed to make it through six in his début Saturday, but it was important for Darvish to set a new tone following his activation Sunday. He didn’t disappoint, going seven strong innings and picking up the win in his season début. Darvish has been victim of high pitch counts his first two seasons but got through seven innings on just 89 pitches while throwing 65 of them for strikes. At one point early on, Darvish K’d three consecutive Rays batters on just nine pitches. In the first inning, Darvish got his 500th career MLB strikeout and set a record for reaching 500 K’s in the fewest innings pitched (just 401 IP). Darvish provided the shot in the arm the Rangers pitching staff needed. As a special treat to honor Darvish this week, check out this YouTube presentation of every one of Yu’s strikeouts in 2013, courtesy of the massively talented Drew Sheppard:
Texas went 3-3 the first week. The three wins had plenty of late-inning dramatics, while the three losses featured poor pitching, poor defense and, in two of the three losses, silent bats. This week in Rangers baseball finds Texas in Fenway Park for a 3-game series against the defending World Series Champions and former Rangers Mike Napoli and Koji Uehara. After an off-day Thursday, it’s back to Arlington to start a 10-day homestand with three against the Houston Astros.
In 2012 with the Texas Rangers, Uehara threw 36 innings, allowing only 20 hits, 3 walks, 43 strikeouts, only 7 earned runs and a 1.75 ERA.
In 2013 with the Boston Red Sox, Koji tossed 74.1 innings, allowing only 33 hits, 9 earned runs, 9 walks and 101 strikeouts with a 1.09 ERA and 21 saves.
In two post-season series in 2013, the amazing Koji has pitched nine innings, allowing one run on only 5 hits with no walks and 13 strikeouts, compiling a win, a loss and 5 saves. He was the Most Valuable Player in the ALCS series against the Detroit Tigers and is now headed to the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
By all accounts, Koji Uehara has had a pretty amazing last three years of baseball. And that really irritates me.
Because between his 2011 season with the Baltimore Orioles and his 2012 season with the Texas Rangers came the 2011 trade that brought him to the Texas Rangers in the first place. Orioles fans sure remember that trade. They got Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter out of it. Texas got what they were sure was going to be their 7th inning set-up guy to steamroll their way to the 2011 World Series Championship. They were willing to pay a steep price for it.
Nobody knows what happened. We do know Koji really loved being in Baltimore and was maybe a little stunned with the trade. If it was missing Baltimore or a physical issue, nobody knows for sure. What we do know is the Koji Uehara described above was not the Koji Uehara the 2011 Rangers got. His numbers for Texas in 2011? 18 innings pitched, 13 hits, 1 walk and 23 strikeouts. So far so good. Unfortunately, 5 of the 13 hits were home runs, accounting for most of the eight earned runs charged to him. Uehara compiled a 4.00 ERA with Texas. It got worse. He appeared in three post-season games in 2011, once against Tampa Bay and twice against Detroit. In the ALDS vs. the Rays, Uehara allowed 3 runs on a walk and two hits, one a home run. He failed to get an out. His two games against Detroit resulted in two runs allowed, both on home runs. Uehara did manage to retire four Detroit batters. Koji was so bad for the Rangers that when it came time to set the World Series roster to face the Cardinals, his name was not found, replaced by Mark Lowe.
The name of this blog is “One Strike Away…Twice!” It describes how close the Texas Rangers came to winning the 2011 World Series in Game 6 against St. Louis. After Neftali Feliz blew the save in the 9th inning (with the help of a horribly played fly ball to Nelson Cruz), the Rangers took the lead on a Josh Hamilton home run in the 10th. The Cards tied it back up in the bottom of the 10th and won it on a home run leading off the bottom of the 11th. The Rangers pitchers who faced the Cardinals in the 10th and 11th were Darren Oliver, Scott Feldman and Mark Lowe.
If the Koji Uehara at the end of 2011 was the same Koji Uehara that started 2011 in Baltimore and the same Koji Uehara that major league baseball has seen in 2012 and 2013 with the Rangers and the Red Sox, I can’t help but think the Texas Rangers would have been the World Series Champions.
If the Red Sox go on to beat the Cardinals in the 2013 World Series, Koji Uehara may very well haunt the rest of my days as a Texas Rangers fan.
- Unflappable Koji nets ALCS MVP honors (mlb.mlb.com)
- HBT: Koji Uehara is your ALCS MVP (hardballtalk.nbcsports.com)
- Koji Uehara Receives Champagne Shower During Red Sox’ Celebration After Advancing to World Series (Video) (nesn.com)
I’ll start this out by saying what I’ve said in these pages many a time before: I’m NOT a major proponent of WAR. I understand the concept of it, I just don’t totally agree with it because of the subjectivity of the defensive metrics. I don’t “speak” sabermetrics, but a great sabermetric argument for the way I feel was published today, as a free article, on Baseball Prospectus.
A way I can use WAR, though, would be as a comparison tool that doesn’t involve delving into a lot of different stats. I thought it would be interesting to see, at the 1/4 point of the season, how the Texas Rangers might look, record-wise, had they decided to keep everyone from last year’s Rangers team, instead of adding the pieces they added. To do that, I examined the respective WAR of the departed Rangers to their counterparts from this year’s team.
For this study, I’m using essentially the Texas Rangers team that essentially comprised the Rangers following the July 31st trading deadline.
Here’s how the former Rangers are faring so far in 2013, based on bWAR (via Baseball Reference.com):
Mike Adams (Philadelphia) 0.4
Ryan Dempster (Boston) 0.5
Scott Feldman (Chicago Cubs) 0.8
Josh Hamilton (Los Angeles Angels) -0.6
Mark Lowe (Los Angeles Angels) -0.3
Mike Napoli (Boston) 1.0
Koji Uehara (Boston) 0.5
Michael Young (Philadelphia) 0.3
Now let’s look at this year’s Texas Rangers counterparts:
Jeff Baker 0.7
Lance Berkman 0.6
Jason Frasor 0.0
Leury Garcia 0.1
Derek Lowe 0.0
Leonys Martin 0.7
Joe Ortiz 0.0
A.J. Pierzynski 0.6
Nick Tepesch 0.0
The two biggest things that jump out at me: Leonys Martin‘s defense (the subjective part) has led to a much higher WAR figure than I thought, while, of the former Rangers, Ryan Dempster and Scott Feldman have both far exceeded what I most Rangers fans would have expected of them. Overall, the former Rangers out-WAR the current Rangers, but only by .2. If you’d like to extrapolate that to an actual record, WAR suggests the Rangers would be just where they are, at 24-14 or maybe one game better at 25-13, had they just stood pat with last year’s team. Of course, they’d have that record for a significantly higher payroll than they currently have, which would be a discussion for another day.
Here’s a wrap-up of the week that was in Texas Rangers baseball. All stats listed are just for the previous week of play.
Rangers Record: 4-3
Overall: 16-9 (1st Place AL West) (+2.5)
Mitch Moreland .393/.393/.571 5 Doubles 3 RBI
Nelson Cruz .360/.467/.640 2 HR 9 RBI 5 Walks
David Murphy .185/.241/.222
Jalapeno Caliente (Pitching):
Yu Darvish 1-0 0.00 ERA 11 Strikeouts in 6 IP
Justin Grimm 1-0 7 Shutout Innings
Raspa Frio (Pitching):
Derek Holland 0-1, 6.39 ERA in 12.2 IP
Joe Ortiz 0-1 27.00 ERA 5 ER in 1.2 IP
Considering all the games were on the road, 4-3 is an acceptable record but Rangers fans were hoping for more after starting the week 4-1 and having Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando on the bump for the last two games of the week. Sadly, the Rangers offense went south in those two games and the Twins broke close 1-0 games open in the later innings. Still, the Rangers were easily the best of the West for the week, picking up two games in the standings on the Oakland A’s and starting week 5 with a 2.5 game lead. This assures Texas of first place when April comes to a close.
This week it’s home cooking for the Rangers as they play six games against the American League’s pair of Sox: Chicago Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday followed by Boston Friday through Sunday. The highlight will be Tuesday night when Yu Darvish takes the hill for Texas. If Darvish wins the game, he will join Rick Helling, Fergie Jenkins, Jim Bibby, Aaron Sele and Bobby Witt as the only Rangers pitchers to earn five wins by April 30th. The way Darvish has been pitching, the odds are in his favor to join that elite company.
The weekend series will be interesting as well with the return of Mike Napoli and Koji Uehara to Arlington. As bad as the initial reaction to Josh Hamilton was in his first at bat in front of the DFW crowd, expect an equal but opposite reaction to Napoli’s return. He never said anything disparaging about Rangers fans and professed love for his time with the Rangers so he’ll get a warm reception his first time to the plate. As good as Uehara was in 2012 for Texas, he probably won’t elicit much of a reaction one way or another. That’s the life of a relief pitcher.
Mike Napoli? Signs with Red Sox.
Koji Uehara? Signs with Red Sox.
Zack Greinke? Signs with Dodgers.
Justin Upton? Stays with Arizona.
James Shields? Traded to Kansas City.
Josh Hamilton? Signs with the Angels.
Just a couple short weeks ago, the word from Nashville was that the Rangers were dominating the Winter Meetings. Two weeks later, virtually every player speculated about going to the Rangers has gone elsewhere.
And such is the cycle of baseball. Jon Daniels has been the Boy Wonder of General Managers for the past five years. Today he is an also-ran, victim of his own success.
This isn’t to say that JD isn’t a good GM. He’s one of the best and has put together one of the best farm systems in the majors. Baseball, though, is a big poker game with the GM’s when it comes to trades and free agents and it’s quite likely his brethren have learned JD’s “tells”.
In the case of Hamilton, there was too much honesty for his own good. It was well-publicized that Hamilton was willing to let the Rangers top the best offer he got. The longer the process went, the more it became apparent how far the Rangers were willing to go and that was four years, so Jerry DiPoto offered Josh five.
Arizona used Daniels to get what they wanted, which was a lot. By dangling Justin Upton out there, they found so many offers involving the Rangers and other players that could help them that they cut side deals to get all those players and now have no need to trade Upton.
Greinke? Well, the Dodgers are spending like drunken sailors. That was a long-shot anyway.
As for Shields, he was Daniels’ back-up plan should Greinke not work out, but the Rays got tired of waiting so they worked out the deal with Kansas City and probably got a better return than they would have from Texas.
Now speculation is already rife that the Angels will turn around and trade one of their now spare outfielders to the Mets in return for RA Dickey, another Rangers target.
At this point, there’s very little Texas can do to respond to these moves. There’s not much in the free agent market anymore that will strengthen the team. There’s a very good chance the 2013 Rangers will contain a lot of mentions of Profar, Olt, Martin and Perez, youngsters who will be given a good shot at playing time. This is also still a very good team. They may not win the West in 2013, but putting the youngsters in now could pay huge dividends in 2014.
Still, Rangers fans have every right to think the front office should have been more aggressive than they were this off-season. Much as Jon Daniels deserves a lot of credit for building the Rangers into World Series contenders, he has been outmaneuvered at every turn this off-season.
Losing Hamilton doesn’t make me distrust the Rangers’ front office. It does make me think Jon Daniels needs to adapt his style of playing poker.
The rebuilding of the Texas Rangers is about to begin. How much rebuilding will happen is anyone’s guess at this point.
The first salvo occurred Tuesday, when the Rangers decided not to pick up the options of Scott Feldman and Yoshinori Tateyama. Really no big surprises there. Tateyama, who pitched pretty effectively for Texas in 2011 (2-0, 4.50 ERA in 39 games) was a disaster in 2012 (1-0, 9.00 ERA in 14 games). Feldman, expected to fill the long relief/spot starter role, became a fulltime starting service after Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz were lost for the year with injuries and Roy Oswalt failed to do well as a starter. The biggest surprise of Feldman’s season is that his 6-11 record and 5.09 ERA was good enough to earn a 0.0 WAR. In other words, 6-11, 5.09 must be considered a replacement level starter. Wow.
The only potential minus here is if Feldman just needed longer to get over microfracture knee surgery in 2011 and posts a great 2013 for someone else. For all the good Jon Daniels has done as GM, this past season saw at least five Rangers cast-offs who performed credible jobs for their new teams: Tommy Hunter, Pedro Strop and Darren O’Day for Baltimore, Cody Eppely and Clay Rapada for the Yankees. Constructing a pitching staff is so often a crap shoot, with many relievers having an awesome year, following up with two terrible seasons, then suddenly finding lightning again. Many teams’ fortunes rise and fall on these variables. If those castaways had been able to put together those seasons for the Rangers, it might have been a post-season difference maker.
So we know Feldman and Tateyama won’t return, unless they re-up with Texas at a major discount. The next step is the free agent process.
Josh Hamilton will get the league standard $13.3 million dollar offer to stay in Texas for another year. He will turn it down and if he signs elsewhere, Texas gets a supplemental draft pick. More unknown is whether the Rangers will make the same offer to catcher Mike Napoli. Because he had a down year, Naps could accept a $13.3 million offer for another year, hoping to turn it around in 2013 and get even bigger bucks and a multi-year deal a year from now. If no offer is received, then we’ll know Texas has committed to totally overhauling the catching.
The Blue Jays are stockpiling catchers, having picked up Yorvit Torrealba after Texas let him go and, just last week, inking Bobby Wilson after his release by the Angels. Since they already had two well-regarded home-grown catchers, it’s a good bet the Blue Jays will deal some of their catching in the off-season. The Rangers have expressed interest in both J.P. Arencibia and Travis D’Arnaud.
Other Rangers getting ready to test the free agent waters include Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Mark Lowe, Roy Oswalt and Ryan Dempster. Of that group, Oswalt is most certainly gone. Since Adams’ year ended prematurely to injury, the hope is he’ll be willing to sign again with Texas, as he might not now command the dollars he could have. I’d love to see them resign Uehara as well. Down the stretch, he was one of Texas’ most effective pitchers. Texas will allow Lowe to leave and I doubt there’s much interest in getting Dempster to come back, though that could depend on other factors.
If Texas lets both Hamilton and Napoli walk, we could be seeing a pretty big revamping of the offense. There’s a lot of power that would need replacing. That’s why, with Hamilton likely to go elsewhere, I think Texas will do what they can to at least keep Napoli.
I expect Texas to go hard after Zack Greinke in the free agent market, while the Angels will go all out to try to keep his services. If Greinke doesn’t materialize, Texas could pursue a trade with Tampa Bay for David Price.
Another reason to re-sign Napoli: to keep him for a first base platoon with Mitch Moreland. Moreland can hit the ball a long way and is an adequate defender, but at best is a streaky hitter with hot spells that don’t last long enough to off-set the cold snaps. And that’s just against right handed pitchers. Against lefties, Moreland is cold and colder.
There are several directions the Rangers could go this off-season. What’s definite is they’ll make more moves between now and Spring Training than they did the past two years combined. I can’t wait to see how it all shakes out.
GOLD GLOVE AWARDS: For the second straight year, Adrian Beltre nabbed the AL Gold Glove Award for his defensive play at third base. The other two Rangers up for Gold Gloves, David Murphy and Elvis Andrus, didn’t receive the honor. Beltre was an easy choice. That’s easy to say, but judging by the actual award winners, it’s hard to back up. On the one hand, sometimes they give the award to people just because they committed so few errors, despite not having the range of other players at the position. Case in point: JJ Hardy of the Orioles. While I love Elvis, the winner probably should have been Brendan Ryan of the Mariners, who had range and only nine errors. On the other hand, some players win because of past reputation alone. Case in point: Adam Jones of the Orioles, who’s won the award before but had six errors in the field this year, a high number for an outfielder. In other words, there’s no set criteria for winning Gold Gloves. That’s why I’m happy Beltre won. With no set criteria, there was no guarantee he would.