Editor's Note: We continue our look at 10 issues facing the club as it approaches the start of spring training.
Today's issue: Who will take over the setup role in the bullpen?
There’s one question the Rangers don’t have to answer this spring: Who’s going to close? The answer to that is clearly veteran Joe Nathan, who had an All-Star season in 2012.
But just about everything else involving the Rangers bullpen is a question mark. Who’s the long reliever? Who becomes the primary eighth-inning setup man? How will the bullpen spots line up between the starter and Nathan?
There are plenty of candidates for those jobs. One major candidate won’t be ready to go for Opening Day. Joakim Soria, who would likely be the primary eighth-inning setup man if he were healthy, won’t be ready until late May or early June (if the timetable holds). Soria was an All-Star in 2008 and has 160 saves in his career, including 28 in his last season (2011). So if he returns healthy and ready, he could be a real boost in that eighth-inning spot. And he's more than willing to handle that role. It would also give the Rangers some insurance on the back end knowing they've got a guy who can close if Nathan needs or break or gets injured.
In the meantime, Jason Frasor has the most experience of those in the running. He had a 4.12 ERA in 43 2/3 innings last season, but has a 3.77 ERA in his career. Frasor has played most of his career (nine seasons) in Toronto, though he appeared in 20 games for the Chicago White Sox in 2011. Frasor provides a veteran presence and is someone who understands a setup role.
But others could work their way into the discussion. Josh Lindblom, 25, was acquired in the Michael Young trade and has some upside. He knows he needs to reduce his walks and lower his home-run rate, but he pitched very well early in 2012 with the Dodgers and looks capable.
Maybe Tanner Scheppers comes to spring ready to show his stuff. The 26-year-old did improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio (had four walks to 31 strikeouts in Triple-A Round Rock) and appears healthy. Watch for him this spring. He could be a pleasant surprise for the Rangers.
But it’s more than finding the late-inning guys. The club also needs long relief. If Kyle McClellan doesn’t force his way into the fifth starter mix, maybe he becomes the guy that takes the role that Scott Feldman once had. The Rangers believe McClellan is versatile enough to handle a variety of roles, but Feldman was able to spot start at times and handle some long relief. That's an important part of any bullpen.
Maybe Neal Cotts gets a chance to be one of the team's left-handed relievers. He was in the running late in camp last year before an injury ended his bid. We'll see how Coty Woods, Cory Burns and Jeff Beliveau do in spring training, as well.
Remember that this is a bullpen that lost Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Feldman from a year ago. Roy Oswalt isn’t coming back, either. Robbie Ross could end up as a reliever, but he’s also competing for the fifth spot in the rotation. Alexi Ogando, a big piece of the bullpen late in 2011 and all of 2012, is back in the rotation.
So it’s going to be a completely different bullpen. How it all shakes out is something to watch this spring.