Words to the effect of today’s headline are often used on Twitter as a crude laugh while also drawing attention to a sad fact of life for the baseball team.
It is, in fact, a fitting description of the Texas Rangers bullpen. Weak may even be an understatement.
In April, there was much consternation over the lack of punch in the Rangers offensive attack. As we approach the end of the season’s second month, we find the Texas offense is actually not too shabby and may soon improve further with the arrival of Josh Hamilton. Sadly, outside of a brief four game winning streak, the results in wins and losses haven’t improved appreciably and the bullpen carries a lion’s share of the blame.
Through May 16th, the Rangers bullpen was carrying an anemic 6 plus ERA for the month. For the season, the Texas relief corps has more blown saves than saves. In Saturday’s loss to the Cleveland Indians, the relief staff managed two blown saves in the same game.
The bullpen is now in flux. Neftali Feliz, while still officially the closer, did not close out Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Tribe, Shawn Tolleson did. After just two appearances, Kyuji Fukikawa got released. The same fate earlier befell Stolmy Pimentel and Logan Verrett. Spencer Patton has come and gone, as has Jon Edwards. The newest additions to the pen are Tanner Scheppers, who started the season ineffectively in Arlington, and Ross Ohlendorf, who Sunday made his first big league appearance in two years.
If the latter two prove effective, it provides Texas a potent late inning triumvirate. What would still be missing, though, is a closer. If Feliz can’t hold down the job, and his last few outings have shown that as a distinct possibility, there is no proven option to replace him. Plenty of teams have caught lightning in a bottle with an unknown closer coming out of nowhere. The Rangers haven’t had a lot of success in that area, with one notable exception: Neftali Feliz in 2010. Five years ago, Feliz unseated Frank Francisco and helped lead the Rangers to their first World Series. Five years later, Feliz may soon suffer the same fate as Francisco.
The Texas offense is recovering. Now it’s the bullpen’s turn. If they don’t turn it around, all the offense in the world won’t help the Rangers.
Two weeks into the season, the Texas Rangers stand at 5-8, in last place in the AL West, albeit just a game and a half out of first. The season is still early but it’s not too early to give a State of the Team address. Here are the takeaways from the season’s first 8% of the schedule:
Thank God For Nick Martinez
It could change rapidly but the big league sophomore has been the Rangers’ best pitcher, starter or reliever. Martinez has gone seven innings in each of his first two starts and has yet to surrender an earned run in getting off to a 2-0 start. Without Martinez, the Rangers pitching staff would be lowly indeed. Colby Lewis has been OK, Yovani Gallardo slightly below average and Ross Detwiler abysmal to the point you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Rangers fan in favor of letting him make another start ever. On top of that, no sooner had fans resigned themselves to being without Yu Darvish for the year then the new expected ace, Derek Holland went down for two months with a shoulder issue. Anthony Renaudo wasn’t the answer in one start. The chorus of fans singing for promoting Chi Chi Gonzalez is growing.
The Bullpen Is A Mess
Despite bright spots like Anthony Bass in long relief and Shawn Tolleson in the 7th inning, nobody else in the pen is rising to the challenge. Nowhere was that more evident than Sunday’s gut-wrenching 11-10 loss to the Seattle Mariners. Tanner Scheppers, in his second game back from the DL, couldn’t find the strike zone in the 8th, walking the bases full. Rookie Keone Kela, seen by many as the heir apparent for the closer’s role, showed he’s not ready for prime time, walking in one of the runs after relieving Scheppers. Closer Neftali Feliz was forced to try to get a 5-out save and couldn’t get the job done, giving up a 2-run single in the 8th, then two more runs in the 9th to blow the save and get the loss. The Rangers firemen have acted more like arsonists.
Thank God For Prince Fielder
The big guy doesn’t have a single home run and leads the AL in singles of all things. He’s also been the Rangers’ steadiest hitter. He’s beating the shift by going the opposite way, which is why he’s getting a lot of singles. He’ll eventually get the power stroke going but it’s going to require Adrian Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo to start hitting the way they can. Fielder won’t see better pitches until the guys hitting behind him start giving pitchers something else to think about.
New Year, Same Problems
2014 was a record-setting injury year for the Rangers and 2015 isn’t starting much better. Derek Holland is out for two months, left fielder Ryan Rua sprained his ankle, then discovered he has a stress fracture in his foot, which will keep him out for a while. Choo and Mitch Moreland have missed games already with minor ailments, Scheppers just returned from the DL. Texas is a slightly deeper team than they were a year ago but can still ill-afford many more injuries.
Is Elvis In The Building?
What’s happened to Elvis Andrus? Never a scary offensive presence, now his defense seems to have regressed. Elvis makes his living being a brilliant defender first, a decent running threat second. Thus far, he’s not hitting, he’s not running and he’s not fielding. As of yesterday, he was the lowest rated position player by WAR in baseball. This HAS to improve.
The season is not off to a good start. Texas is once again resembling a last place team. They will hit better. There are too many pieces with good track records who have started out slowly. Pitching is another issue altogether. The Rangers need more innings from their starters and a couple more bullpen pitchers to step up. Otherwise it’ll be another long year in Arlington.
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.
SO LONG AND WELCOME BACK
Another week, another Ranger lands on the disabled list. Alexi Ogando is the latest to join the walking wounded. Things have gotten so bad I’m fully expecting to hear that Luis Ortiz, the Rangers #1 pick in Thursday’s MLB
Draft, will need to undergo Tommy John surgery the day after he signs with the club.
Still, the overall news of the week for the Rangers health is positive. Tanner Scheppers returned from the disabled list Thursday and got thrown right in the fire during the 8th inning of Texas’ 8-6 win over the Baltimore Orioles. Scheppers didn’t look particularly good, giving up a home run to Adam Jones, but he induced a double play to end the 8th with only the solo home run as damage. What was heartening to see was the bullpen line-up after Colby Lewis got pulled following five meh innings: Robbie Ross Jr., Scheppers and Joakim Soria. It was the first time this season the pen had a familiar ring to it. Ross Jr. pitched his best outing in weeks, throwing two shutout innings with no hits and picked up the win when Texas broke a 5-5 tie in the 7th.
Another piece of good news on the health front. Fifth outfielder Jim Adduci is likely to return from his DL stint this weekend against the Cleveland Indians. Adduci was off to a great start in 2014, going six for his first 13 with two doubles and three RBI when he broke his finger on the bag while sliding (or diving). While only the “fifth” outfielder, Adduci is definitely a step up from Daniel Robertson, who failed to tag up at third on a fly to right in Thursday’s game and cost the Rangers a run.
Word has it Neftali Feliz is close to returning to the bullpen as well so, believe it or not, the Rangers are actually getting healthier for a change.
ANOTHER SERIES, ANOTHER FORMER RANGER RETURNS
Tuesday marked the return of Nelson Cruz to Arlington. Cruz hit a home run in Tuesday’s win over Texas but the Rangers held him in check the rest of the series. This weekend another favorite from the World Series teams returns. David Murphy was the fourth outfielder for most of his time in Texas but was the starter in left field in 2013. Now he’s back to being a 4th outfielder with the Indians and once again he’s thriving, hitting .280 with 5 home runs and 34 RBI. To put that in perspective, if Murph was still a Ranger, those numbers would lead the club in RBI and rank third in home runs.
CHOICE HEATING UP?
In the second inning of Thursday’s game against the Orioles, I tweeted that a Michael Choice hot streak would help the Rangers immensely. With Prince Fielder out for the season and Mitch Moreland stuck at two home runs, the Rangers have very little power outside of Adrian Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo. Choice is that potential power bat but he’s been hitting right around the Mendoza line all season long. As if he’d read my time line, Choice went deep for his fourth home run within minutes of that tweet and he added a double for good measure late in the game. Choice is not a great defensive player in the outfield so if he isn’t hitting he really isn’t doing much to help the club win. If Thursday’s game is any indication, Choice just might be getting the hang of this major league hitting thing. If so, the Rangers offense might start scoring runs more consistently.
This should probably wait a few days because there is likely a lot of movement in the Rangers minor league system coming over the next week or two. Still, I feel the need to point out the incredible season being put up by a couple of Rangers’ prospects. Joey Gallo is tearing up the High-A ranks with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Gallo is currently hitting .330 with 21 home runs and 50 RBI. Myrtle Beach is not a hitter’s park. In fact, the entire Myrtle beach roster hit only 64 home runs in the course of the entire season. Gallo is on a pace that would net him 2/3 of the entire 2013 team if he stayed with the Pelicans the whole season. That isn’t going to happen. Gallo may not even play in the Carolina League All-Star game. In just a matter of weeks if not days, expect Gallo at the AA level with the Frisco RoughRiders. The same could be said of Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez. Last year’s top draft pick is 5-2 with a 2.62 ERA in helping lead the Pelicans to a league best 40-18 record.
On the AA level, looking to get promoted soon is Luke Jackson. The righthander checks in at 7-2 with a 2.55 ERA and could find himself in AAA Round Rock soon. On the hitting side, if Gallo gets promoted as expected to play third base in Frisco, the current third baseman, Ryan Rua, already has a case for promotion to Round Rock as well. Rua is hitting a robust .313 with 10 home runs and 32 RBI. Round Rock would certainly welcome Rua and Jackson. The Express are easily the worst team in the Rangers minor league system record-wise, posting a 26-34 mark despite having a roster full of talent with major league experience. Maybe they’re mostly utility player/back of the rotation major league experienced but still, they’ve been to the Show and fans expected more from them.
Of all the players mentioned here, I think Jackson has a shot at being in Arlington before the end of the season. He may just be a September call-up, but he should get a shot before season’s end. Don’t look for Gallo in a major league uniform until the end of next season at the earliest.
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.
When the Texas Rangers take on the Philadelphia Phillies today in the season opener for both teams, the Rangers Opening Day 25-man roster includes 17 players who were NOT on the Rangers Opening Day roster just one year ago today. The only holdovers? Tanner Scheppers, Robbie Ross, Jason Frasor, Alexi Ogando, Elvis Andrus, Mitch Moreland, Leonys Martin and Adrian Beltre.
Part of the turnover is due to the current length of the Rangers disabled list. Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Geovany Soto were all on the 2013 roster when the Rangers played the Astros on Sunday Night Baseball. Still, that’s a better than 50% turnover of the roster in just one year’s time.
Of the Rangers 2010 squad that appeared in the World Series for the first time, only Andrus, Moreland and Ogando are on the Opening Day roster in 2014.
From the 2011 World Series team, you can add Adrian Beltre to the list.
Even accounting for the players currently disabled and expected back this year (Harrison, Holland and Colby Lewis), the 2014 Rangers bear only the vaguest resemblance to the team that came within an eyelash of being the 2011 World Champions. Still, this is a team that has playoff aspirations. If the injury bug that him them in Spring Training gets fixed and remains fixed, maybe they can do it. We just don’t know. To borrow a cliché, that’s why they play the games.
#1 of 162 begins today. Time to find out what these 25 guys, including the 17 newcomers, have got.
That’s a possibility for the Rangers come Opening Day against the Phillies on March 31st. We know for a fact Jurickson Profar won’t man second base for the first game, or the second, probably not for the first 81 games. Profar got diagnosed with a torn muscle in his shoulder and will miss 10-12 weeks.
Meanwhile his middle infield partner, Elvis Andrus, is still experiencing soreness on his throwing arm. He is currently DH-ing and isn’t supposed to throw until this weekend’s final exhibition games in San Antonio, cutting the margin extremely close for the opener.
The Opening Day starter, Yu Darvish, got scratched from his last start because of a sore neck. He insisted it wasn’t an issue but the word out of Rangers camp Sunday made it sound like it hasn’t cleared up as much as he’d like.
Who will start Opening Day? For sure not Profar. Maybe not Andrus. Maybe not Mitch Moreland, still getting over and oblique strain. Maybe not Darvish. Maybe not Shin-Soo Choo, who still has left elbow soreness. Maybe not Geovany Soto, who got pulled in the first inning of Sunday’s exhibition when his leg locked up.
Let’s make matters even worse, shall we? The Rangers announced Friday Tanner Scheppers had earned a spot in the rotation and Joakim Soria will be the closer, making it a four-way battle for the last two rotation spots between Tommy Hanson, Joe Saunders, Colby Lewis and Robbie Ross. So what happens? Hanson starts on Saturday and gives up 7 runs in 5.2 innings. Advantage Saunders, right? Wrong! Saunders started Sunday and couldn’t even make it through two innings, giving up 9 runs in an inning and a third. Ross has pitched well enough to earn a rotation slot. I’ve always loved Colby Lewis but this is a guy coming off a hip replacement whose last two starts have come in minor league games. That makes the starting rotation Proven Commodity with a sore neck (Darvish), Second Year Starter who may or may not have a sophomore slump (Martin Perez), Former Reliever (Scheppers), Former Reliever (Ross) and Hip Replacement Guy (Lewis). One of them will get replaced in a few weeks by Missed All But Two Starts Last Year Guy (Matt Harrison). So there’s no concern about the starting rotation, right?
You sense a trend here? Opening Day for the first time in five seasons is filling me with dread. The optimism just isn’t there now. The Rangers have a lot of depth in the minor league system but there’s not much there now at the big league level. That’s why we have a possible starting middle infield of Adam Rosales and Josh Wilson.
A national beat writer wrote last night the Rangers wouldn’t miss a beat at second base if they start rookie Rougned Odor while Profar is on the mend. Odor is one of the Rangers top prospects, a player Rangers minor league analyst Scott Lucas says just has “that look” about him. Maybe so but he also has only 134 at bats at the Double A level. Is he ready for that big a leap? And if he succeeds, what then? Now there’s another logjam in the middle infield with three quality players for two positions.
I’m not totally against the idea of Odor playing at the big league level. He may already offer more than Rosales or Brent Lillibridge over the next three months. Or he could flame out spectacularly, which is why someone like Rosales or Lillibridge could be the stopgap measure. We know they won’t add much, but as veterans, their output is more of a known commodity. Also to be considered is if Odor hits the big stage, that accelerates his free agency timetable by at least a year. Is the front office willing to risk that year right now?
Only a week to go before Opening Day and there are still a lot of decisions to be made.