We now shift our attention to the back end of the bullpen, a critical component of any contending team. This is another spot on the team that depends on what happens to the final starting rotation spot.
Right now, C.J. Wilson and Neftali Feliz are stretching out as starters and competing for the No. 5 position in the rotation. Should one of those hurlers earn a spot in the rotation, it would greatly alter the bullpen.
Wilson must be one of the top two starters in camp to earn a spot, and the club has to decide if Feliz is ready for that role right out of the gate. If neither makes the rotation, Wilson slides into his eighth-inning setup role to get the game to closer Frank Francisco. And Feliz can be a seventh-inning (and eighth-inning at times) setup guy or even a two-inning pitcher in a close game.
Pitching coach Mike Maddux said Wilson "was the bullpen" last season. He was versatile enough to get a lefty out if needed (though that's not a preferred role for him), pitch a full inning late in a close game or close when Francisco was injured. It's difficult to assume that Francisco will stay healthy a full season in 2010 given that he had three disabled list stints last season. So it's a luxury to have someone like Wilson ready to go. Feliz could also grow into that role as the club hasn't decided if he's a starter long-term (I still want to see him start and think he could certainly do it) or a closer. It seems he could do either.
Wilson was 5-6 with a 2.81 ERA last season. He had 19 holds and 14 saves with84 strikeouts and 32 walks in 73 2/3 innings. Fans sometimes jump on Wilson because he has a rough inning here and there, but the reality is he was the club's most consistent pitcher in the bullpen from start to finish and stayed healthy, pitching in 74 games.
Francisco heads into the 2010 season as the club's closer. He's also in the final year of his contract. Francisco must show he can stay healthy after some issues in 2009. He had 25 saves last season, with 15 coming before the All-Star breeak. Francisco had a 2.28 ERA in 27 2/3 innings before the break and a 5.82 ERA in 21 2/3 innings (during most of his injury time) after the break. He's got great stuff and the mental makeup to handle the closer's job.
He told me last week that he was most proud of learning how to handle the rough moments. He gave up six earned runs and blew a game against Boston in August, but went back out to the mound in a one-run game against the Red Sox two days later and got the save.
"The manager gave me another chance and I did the job," Francisco said. "That was important for me. I'm going to have bad games. I have to come out and pitch better right away when I do."
Darren O'Day is another reliable setup man that manager Ron Washington has at his disposal. O'Day had a strange entrance to the Rangers, arriving in Toronto and having to pitch in an extra-inning game (and giving up the game-winning double) wearing Kason Gabbard's uniform. But after that, he settled in and gave the club some important late innings. O'Day had a 1.94 ERA in 55 2/3 innings with the Rangers, including 20 holds and two saves. He had 54 strikeouts to 17 walks. O'Day's sidearm (submarine-like) delivery fooled batters and was made even more effective once Maddux had him move to either side of the rubber depending on what side the hitter was on.
A familiar face join the Rangers' bullpen this season in Darren Oliver, another critical late-inning lefty. Oliver gives the club a guy who can get out lefties, but also has the ability to pitch multiple innings if needed. Too often, Washington didn't have enough viable lefties in the bullpen. Oliver is a veteran leader and a guy that can help bolster that back end. He had 20 holds and a 2.71 ERA in 73 innings for the Angels last season.
The Rangers also traded for Chris Ray, who came over from Baltimore in the Kevin Millwood deal. Ray says he feels healthy and confident that his arm slot is in the right place after coming back from surgery (more on that later this week). He had a 7.27 ERA last season and is hungry to reclaim the form that saw him save 33 games with a 2.73 ERA in 2006.
Other pitchers could find their way onto the team at some point. Some of those include: LHP Ben Snyder, a Rule 5 pickup, Tanner Scheppers, who has solid stuff and could push his way toward the majors, and Geoff Geary is in camp as a non-roster invite.
The Rangers believe this bullpen and its depth can be a true area of strength this season. It was a big focus of general manager Jon Daniels' offseason.