With spring training games set to begin today, we’ll take a look at the Rangers bullpen to finish off the team breakdowns heading into the season.
Despite the much talked about addition of Neftali Feliz and CJ Wilson to the competition for the Rangers rotation, both players are likely to resume their roles from a year ago; setting up closer Frank Francisco.
With that assumption the Rangers bullpen is all but set with Francisco closing, Feliz and Wilson setting him up and Darren O’Day, Darren Oliver and Chris Ray providing middle relief as needed.
The only competition left is for the long man, which is very important considering the potential health risks in the rotation.
Going off last season’s performance, Dustin Nippert has a leg up on the competition, but keep an eye on Doug Mathis. He didn’t have as good a season as Nippert in ’09, but can win a spot in the bullpen with a good spring.
Once again it appears the Rangers roster is practically set before the first game of the spring, a point not lost on both local and national writers following the team.
Frank Francisco is entering a contract year as the Rangers closer looking to rebound from an up and down season last year. Largely due to health related issues, Francisco battled with consistency but was a dominant force when healthy.
CJ Wilson returns as the primary setup reliever for Francisco and first in line to close a game out if Francisco can’t go. Wilson rebounded from a rough start last season to become one of the Rangers’ most reliable relievers despite a ridiculous lack of confidence from the fan base.
Neftali Feliz exploded onto the scene late in the season and produced a body of work that was just plain sick for most veterans, much less a rookie. The Rangers will continue to protect Feliz’s arm and limit his innings, but don’t expect them to use the same rules as last season when Washington couldn’t pitch the kid back to back days.
With O’Day and Oliver in the fold, the Rangers have four relievers capable of taking an inning late in the game giving the Rangers the potential to have the best bullpen in both the AL West and the American League.
The only unknown at this point is the true value of Chris Ray who was the principal player involved in the Kevin Millwood trade to Baltimore. Ray was developing into a solid closer before running into arm trouble a couple of years ago. Ray is healthy and at a stage in his recovery where fastball command comes back, but he’s still an unknown commodity the Rangers will watch closely this spring.
If he struggles competition will open up for Warner Madrigal and Pedro Strop to make the team.
The long man will likely be Dustin Nippert given his performance last season and ability to spot start in case of a late scratch in the rotation. Nippert went 5-3 with a solid ERA of 3.88 last year in 20 games, including ten starts. The ability to serve a variety of roles throughout the season likely puts Nippert on the Rangers roster.
However, don’t discount the possibility one of the guys competing for a spot in the rotation takes over as the long man; one of the many luxuries of having so much depth in the rotation.
The Rangers bullpen could be the X-Factor in the American League West race this season. Four quality set-up relievers, including two potential dominant relievers, setting up closer Frank Francisco have the ability to shorten games to 5 or 6 innings every night.
With the improvements to the Rangers rotation, the ability to shorten a game by so many innings could be the final piece to a championship puzzle.