Juxtaposing Eras: The Bullpen


May 22, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Texas Rangers relief pitcher Shawn Tolleson (37) pitches in the ninth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Texas won 9-2. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ten years ago the Rangers were a far different team than they are today. They also had very different seasons. Led by an infield consisting of the then 27 year old Michael Young, 28 year old Alfonso Soriano, 24 year old Mark Teixeira, and 23 year old Hank Blalock (all of whom had OPS’s north of .800 and hit more than 20 HR’s) the Rangers finished with 89 wins, more than a healthy majority would have expected from them.

But, like in 2014, the 2004 AL West was thick with competition and 89 wins secured just third place. But third place was a serious improvement for a Texas squad that had finished last in the then-four team AL West each of the previous three seasons. The Rangers Achilles Heel was, unsurprisingly, the pitching. The 2001, 2002, and 2003 Rangers all finished dead last in the MLB for team ERA and the pitching was again expected to hold the Rangers back. But what helped the Rangers vault to contention most was a breakout season from the teams’ bullpen.

2004 Rangers’ starters owned a 5.15 ERA, good for 25th in the MLB. Opposing hitters cumulative OPS was .821; such production resulted in a 1.51 WHIP from the starting corps as a whole. A rotation consisting of Chan Ho Park, Joaquin Benoit, R.A. Dickey and Kenny Rogers didn’t exactly inspire fear in the opposition after all. Despite the starters struggles, the bullpen pitched well enough to have the fourth lowest ERA in baseball at 3.51; that number becomes more impressive considering the short number of quality starts the starters provided (61, tied for last in baseball with the then-Devil Rays) thus adding additional burden to the ‘pen in the form of extra innings and fewer off days.

With the help from the back end of the pitching staff, the Rangers produced a team 4.53 ERA, respectable enough for 18th in baseball wedged between the Phillies and Yankees. The relief’s emergence provided the Rangers offense with something they had rarely received: mediocre pitching. And mediocre was enough for a young and versatile offense to help keep the Rangers in the win column with regularity. As a Ranger fan following the 2004 Rangers, I felt glad to be in a playoff race and was willing to except the season as “progress” at its finality.

The 2014 Rangers have played differently as a whole, all the while under a drastically altered set of expectations and opinions. 2014 was “supposed” to be the year Texas went all in, got the final strike, and celebrated making “belated” history. Obviously, that outcome will not be so, but I cannot help but see glimpses of similarities in the two teams whose composition and direction are so varied. Most of that similar production, in my eyes, originates from the oft-overlooked bullpen.

Francisco Cordero, Carlos Almanzar, Ron Mahay, Frank Francisco, and Brian Shouse led the 2004 bullpen; together, they owned a 20 and 8 record. Ron Mahay had the highest WHIP of the group at a still respectable 1.33. Opponents were held to a meager .246 average and struck out more than twice as often as they were walked by the Rangers bullpen in 2004. Controlling the game in the late innings with a bullpen, in addition to a high-octane offense, led to a winning record in Texas for the first time since 1999.

If 2014 has given me anything, it’s the optimism that the 2015 Rangers are more likely than not to again have a trenchant bullpen capable of arresting rallies, quelling comebacks, and put the Rangers in a better position to win games using all nine innings like Ron Washington requires. Additionally, the 2015 bullpen looks to have an advantage in youth too, of the five aforementioned relievers beginning last paragraph, only Frank Francisco was younger than 29. The 2015 bullpen looks to be fresher and possibly deeper too.

Neftali Feliz, 26

Shawn Tolleson, 26 – 1.34

Roman Mendez, 24

Phil Klein, 25 – 1.87

Tanner Scheppers, 27

Alexi Ogando, 30

Alex Claudio, 22 – 2.05 L

Robbie Ross Jr., 25

The Rangers bullpen possibilities for next year appear to have a high ceiling, but go with their share of risk too. Scheppers and Ogando are coming off years with dead arms; Feliz has (as has been discussed lots) seen his velocity fall off following his elbow surgery; Robbie Ross has struggled to recapture what made him so effective early on in his Major League career; the remaining names have little Major league experience together.

Still, should the Rangers be even a shred luckier next season in terms of injuries, these eight names should all have a serious chance to perform their way into significant playing time next season. The upside also helps silence doubters. Tolleson, Klein, and Claudio have career minor league ERA’s of 1.34, 1.87, and 2.05, respectively. Ranger fans have seen significant stretches where Ogando, Scheppers, Ross, and Felix have put up nearly as impressive numbers here in Texas, it is simply a matter of them coming to play focused, healthy, prepared… and healthy. Mendez has had a great start to his ML career but is still a bit erratic. Regardless, names like Corey Knebel, Keone Kela, Spencer Patton (traded for Jason Frasor by KCR), and Ben Rowen remain solid optioned to have compete and push for what ideally is a crowded pen.

Additionally, the possibility of Neal Cotts and/or Jason Frasor returning is not so tiny. Frasor enjoyed his time in Texas and Jon Daniels might have had the more-than-immediate future in mind when he didn’t force a deal for Cotts. Frasor’s production might begin to fade but I believe Cotts probably could rebound in the direction of his 2013 ERA (1.13) considering how much his BABIP his shot up from last year. Either player would have a good presence along with quality production to match their experience.

The Rangers have benefited from quality closers for the last few years in Neftali Feliz (2010, 11), Joe Nathan (2012, 13), and Joakim Soria (apr-july 2014) but the 2015 group looks capable of really shoring up the  invaluable bridge to the closer.  Ranger fans will not soon forget Alexi Ogando’s performance in October 2011 up until the World Series, and they will also keep in mind the lack of depth in the pen when Ogando’s arm ran out of gas at the end.  The role of a bullpen over the course of a 162 game trek is more often than not overlooked, but the bullpen finishes almost every one of those 162+ games, and having that depth is crucial to any team aiming to finish the job.