Rangers Review: Relievers

The bullpen for the Rangers is supposedly one of the strengths of the team.  The team relief ERA ranked fifth in the majors.  And with an ERA of 3.69, it is certainly a lot better than the 5.50 that the rotation put up.  However, the same situation occurred last year, and somewhere during this year I read an article (that might have been on The Book blog, but I’m not sure of that) which said the Rangers bullpen was over-rated, because they had a lot of appearances in low leverage situations, where the team was already behind by several runs and so there was no pressure on them.  You could argue the same happened this year, because the team performed the same way.  You could also point out that the team was 26-18 in one run games, which some consider to be a pointer to bullpen quality, as they need to perform at a higher level in close games.

In 2007 the Rangers bullpen pitched more innings than any other team, because the rotation was so bad.  As the season wore on, so did the players, and with trades and injuries the bullpen was worn out by September, which led to a loss of performance and even more players being brought in to shore up the gaps.  This also led to the criticism by Ron Washington that the Rangers need a real closer, ignoring the fact that he had worn down Joaquin Benoit and CJ Wilson to the point of ineffectiveness.  This should be a major worry for the team, because if they ever get to contention they need to be concerned that he has ridden his top guys into the ground, and come September (or October) they may be unable to get the job done.

The team started the season with two closers, Aki Otsuka and Eric Gagne, and ended the season with two others, Benoit and Wilson.  Gagne began the season on the DL, had another stint there during the season, and was traded at the deadline.  Otsuka was closing at the start of the season, because Gagne was down, but when he came back Aki was moved to the setup role, where he stayed until his own injury problems began in June.  He missed the rest of the season, so by a process of elimination Benoit and Wilson moved up in the pecking order, eventually taking turns closing in August and September, until they were both shut down after having a heavy workload.

The back of the bullpen had it’s usual fluctuations, with the Rangers mixing and matching any warm bodies they could find.  Frankie Francisco did an average job filling in the 6th and 7th innings at various points, and a long string of others pitched in, taking some spot starts here and there and generally just taking innings when needed.  Arguably the team took a hot-hand approach, picking whoever they could to get those innings in, and once someone faltered, throwing them aside and trying someone else.  As the old saying goes, plans only survive until contact with the enemy, and whatever plans the Rangers had only survived until they started having injuries.  You can’t easily plan for that, you can only hope to have decent replacements waiting.

Eric Gagne summary:  Traded to Boston at the deadline, he managed to fall apart for their pennant drive.  The Rangers got Kason Gabbard and David Murphy for him (plus a minor leaguer), and they’ve already given the Rangers more than Gagne gave the Red Sox.  At this point you’d have to say the Rangers won the trade, and the returns can only improve.  Gagne was very good while he was in Texas, and even talked about how he enjoyed it here and was interested in coming back after he was traded.  He got 16 saves with a 2.16 ERA while here, but since the Rangers were going nowhere, ultimately, apart from the trade return, his biggest accomplishment was in enabling my three year old to go round the house singing “we will, we will rock you”.

Joaquin Benoit summary:  Pitched more than he ever had before (in number of games, not innings), and it showed as he wore down in September.  As the season went on he moved from the 7th to the 8th to the 9th inning, ending up with just 6 saves but an excellent 2.85 ERA, and 87 strikeouts in 82 innings.  I personally think he was a better closer than CJ Wilson, as he didn’t give you that edge of the seat feeling when he came in to end games.  If the Rangers go into 2008 with the pair of them sharing the closer duties, they’ll do fine, although they might want better defined roles.  Whichever way they go, I think they’ll end up being an excellent shut-down after the seventh inning.

CJ Wilson summary:  Like Benoit, he moved up in importance as the season wore on.  Like Benoit, he ran out of gas in September, having been used more than ever before.  Unlike Benoit, he has a history of arm problems, and it was a little foolish to use him so much.  Unlike Benoit, he didn’t give you an easy feeling, unless it was a tight game.  Time and again he’d come into the 9th with a multi-run lead and start giving up runs left and right, and it seemed like more often than not he’d complete the save with the bases loaded.  If he came in with a one run lead, he’d knock them down, but more than that and you knew it’d be a rocky ending.  If he can curb that tendency, he could be a superstar closer one day.  As it is, right now when used in the right places he’s outstanding.

Frank Francisco summary:  Another pitcher with an injury history, another pitcher used too much, and another pitcher who ran down at the end of the year.  He didn’t perform as well as you’d like, in fact he was arguably one of the worst regulars in the bullpen.  He had his moments, but his biggest problem was with control, as he walked 38 in 59 innings.  A couple of years ago you felt he was going to be dominant (a couple of years ago he was – in 2004, before his arm injury, he had 60 strikeouts in 51 innings), and he’s still only 27 so could certainly improve.  Still the only ballplayer my son has ever talked to in person, so we’re rooting for him to get it going.

Wes Littleton summary:  Up and down to AAA, he actually performed better in the majors.  He had done very well in his debut in 2006, but was kind of jerked around by the team this year.  He seems to be one of those guys who needs to be settled and comfortable before he performs well, and with his going back and forth, and then his random usage when up in Texas, never really got into a groove.  Only 24, so he has it all ahead of him, but his peripheral numbers are a little worrying (16 walks and only 24 strikeouts in 48 innings).  If the team can commit to him as the 6th inning guy, he’ll do fine.

Willie Eyre summary:  Had a couple of spot starts where he was hammered, but as a reliever he was pitching very well up until he was given those starts, at which point he quickly wore out.  Presumably due to being stretched in those starts, he injured himself, had surgery and will miss all of 2008.  Compare his splits as a starter to those as a reliever: 4.28 ERA in relief, 12.86 as a starter (but in only 7 innings).  More crucially, he had a 3.00 ERA prior to his first start, and a 7.59 from then on.

Mike Wood summary:  Had four starts in his 21 games with the Rangers.  In AAA he had dominated as a starter (9-3, 3.24), and he pitched well when starting in Texas, but just happened to be filling in as about the 6th or 7th starter, so got more time in the pen.  Deserves a shot at starting, which is why he chose free agency at the end of the year, and will look for another shot at a rotation somewhere.  Should be a decent 4th or 5th starter somewhere.

John Rheinecker summary:  Another good starter in the minors, but blew it when he got his seven chances to start with the big club.  Went to the bullpen and performed very well, and may have found his niche there.  If he will accept the role (he made some comments in the middle of the season that if the Rangers didn’t use him, he wanted to go somewhere he was wanted), he should be a good longman, although the Rangers might have an excess of those next year.

Ron Mahay summary:  Had several good years in the bullpen for the Rangers, but finally left in the Teixeira trade.  I doubt you’ll find a bad word about him from anyone on the Rangers.  You can expect to see him on a roster somewhere for the next several years, he’s 36 but seems to be the type who could pitch well into his 40s.

Scott Feldman summary:  Another young guy who split time between Arlington and Oklahoma.  This year he was not very effective in either place.  His 32 walks and 19 strikeouts while with the Rangers are a very bad sign.  He’s only 24, so he should get more opportunities, but he needs to go back to his 2006 form if he wants to stick around.

Akinori Otsuka summary:  Pitched well while he was here, but spent the last three months on the DL (after one of the more ridiculous injury management scenarios I’ve ever heard of).  Ended with just four saves, which was in part caused by Gagne’s being ahead of him, but also by the fact that the team was terrible in the first month, while Gagne was on the DL.  He may or may not be ready for 2008.  If he is, he may or may not get the closer’s job, in fact he may not even be with the team.

AJ Murray summary:  He had 41 games (1 start) for Oklahoma, with a 3.10 ERA.  He had 14 games (2 starts) with Texas, with a 4.50 ERA.  Coming off a couple of years of injury, he was stretched just a little, but by the end of the year the Rangers were suggesting he’d go back down to AAA in 2008 and work on being a starter.  He’s 25, so he’s got time, but right now his role is confused, and you have to question his health a little.

Jamey Wright, Armando Galarraga and Luis Mendoza both had relief appearances, but were covered in the starters review.

Bruce Chen summary:  This is how desperate the Rangers were, they actually got five games out of Bruce Chen before realizing what the rest of the league already knew:  he’s done.

Bill White summary:  Career minor leaguer brought up to fill a hole in September, ended up with a 4.82 ERA in 9 games.  He had spent the entire season being pretty ineffective in AA, so I think this was a case of a) someone from the Rangers saw a game in Frisco where he did well, and decided they wanted him up, b) they didn’t want to start the clock running on someone who might actually help the team in future, or c) he has nude pics of someone in the front office.  Whichever one it was, don’t expect to see him again.  He might be up, but only if all the other arms fall off first.

2008 outlook:  Ron Washington wants a “proven closer”.  If the Rangers get someone to do that (and Gagne is possibly as good a chance as any to make it back), then the rest of the bullpen will shake out behind them.  And since the Rangers won’t be contending next year, whoever they get is likely to follow the same path, that of someone signed to bring prospects at the trade deadline, so it will probably be a name you know.  Apart from them, you can pick from Aki (if he’s not still injured, and if the Rangers give him a new contract), Benoit and Wilson as the top three.  Benoit and Wilson would form a very good 8-9 punch, and if Aki is healthy then the Rangers have a chance of having a shut-down 7-8-9 innings, which would be great if only the rotation can get it to them.  Frankie Francisco will be in the mix, as will Wes Littleton.  Rheinecker has the lead on the longman role, although Kam Loe is also slated to move in that direction.  That’s a list of half a dozen guys, likely to be the top of the bullpen roster.  After that, you’re really just gambling on injuries and ineffectiveness, and any of another ten or a dozen players will shuttle in and out trying to fill in the holes.  Big question will be whether Washington can manage to spread the load a little, so the top guys don’t wear down at the end of the year.  Bigger question is whether the starters can go a little deeper into games, so those roster fillers don’t have to pitch so much.

2009 and beyond:  Follow the bouncing ball.  By that I mean your guess is as good as mine.  Below I’ll cover the minor league relievers, you can’t count on any of them.  Fact is, if you’re pegged as a reliever in the minors, especially in the lower levels, you’re very unlikely to make the big leagues.  If you’re good enough, they use you as a starter in the minors, and you move to the bullpen when you get to the majors.  For that reason, picking a bullpen years in advance is pointless.  The best guys go to the major league rotation, a few top guys are left over, and the rest fill out the back of the bullpen.  Throw darts at the list below and your results will be as good as anything I might suggest.  So what’s below is just the guys who pitched the most in relief for each team.  And since I don’t know contract status on many of these guys, some that I mention might not even be with the organization by the time spring training comes around (let alone by the time this is posted).

Minor leagues:

At AAA:  Francisco Cruceta and Franklyn German did well in Oklahoma, leading to the possibility of numerous “let me be frank with you” jokes if they join Catalanotto and Francisco in Arlington.  The other guys who pitched a lot of relief in OKC are either old (Randy Williams) or ineffective (Ezequiel Astacio and Steven Rowe), but since they’re at AAA they may get thought of at some point when the Rangers need bodies in the bullpen.

At AA:  A successful club has a successful bullpen, and there were several guys in Frisco.  Danny Ray Herrera was probably the best of them.  Jesse Ingram led the team with 26 saves, although he doesn’t seem to get the credit he might deserve.  Kea Kometani  was decent.  There were a string of average players, including Brandon Puffer (too old to be a prospect), Scott Shoemaker, Jorge Vazquez, Bill White (as discussed above, surprisingly made the Rangers), Ken Chenard and Matt Farnum.  These are the guys that could easily step up in future, or just as easily get their release.

At High-A:  As with starters, this is where the players really start to shake out.  The Bakersfield bullpen was full of guys who didn’t perform well, and a lot of them are not likely to be heard from again.  Of the success stories, Danny Touchet did well, but had problems with a short time in AA, and Jared Hyatt did a little at three different stops, but only had 23 innings all year.  Between Low-A, High-A and AA, Brennan Garr finished with a 2.03 ERA in 62 innings, striking out 75.  Given his movement up the ladder, he might be one of those who actually succeed from a minor league bullpen.  As for the rest, a bunch of names that will mean nothing in a couple of years.

At Low-A:  Even less to get excited about.  As pointed out earlier, if you’re tabbed as a reliever this early, you probably don’t have a bright future.  And if you’re tabbed as a reliever and fail here, you don’t have any future.  The few successes in the Clinton bullpen include Brennan Garr, mentioned above, Ivan Izquierdo, good ERA (2.61) but bad peripherals (18-31 BB-K ratio, in 48 innings) and struggled in a short stint at High-A, Josh Lueke (10-31 BB-K), and John Slusarz (2.89 ERA with 62 Ks in 65 innings).

At Short-Season Rookie:  Ryan Falcon had 62 Ks in 47 innings, with just 6 walks.  That will grab some attention.  Tommy Hunter was a first round pick, and he did pretty well in a very short time (13 Ks, 1 walk in 17 innings).  Same with Andrew Laughter, 32 Ks in 31 innings and only 4 walks.

In Rookie ball:  Hardly anyone worth mentioning.  I’ll throw out Ryan Turner (1.67 ERA, 27 innings, 30 strikeouts, 1 walk) just to get a name out there.

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