2016 Position Preview – The Bullpen

bullpen

Times, they are a-changing in the game of baseball. It’s okay, it happens. Baseball used to be a game of power hitting – monstrous home runs, swatted into the next county, abetted by the use of steroids. Once the decision was made to clean up the game, the focus turned to starting pitching. Pitching has always been said to win championships, but what once was a game centered around starting pitching, with starters going deep into ballgames, has refocused around the later innings of the game. For the Kansas City Royals, an unstoppable bullpen helped lead them to a World Series. For three years in a row, a completely dysfunctional bullpen caused “The Yankees of the West” L.A. Dodgers’ greatest weapon in Clayton Kershaw to be negated. For your AL West Champion Texas Rangers, the bullpen saved their season.

In 2015: Coming out of Spring Training, the bullpen was already going to be one of the biggest question marks for the Texas Rangers. Former Rookie-of-the-Year closer Neftali Feliz had finished 2014 decently enough to go into the season as the 2015 closer (addendum: “I guess”), although he certainly had to earn the job.

Shoring up that bullpen? The Rangers had signed former Chicago Cub and Tommy John rehab pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa to a major league deal in the hopes that he might become a Mike Adams type, high-leverage reliever. The club also pulled Rule-5 Draft Pick (yes, there were actually two Rule-5 picks last year) Logan Verrett from the Orioles who had been taken from the Mets. Also members of the first-half bullpen that seems like it existed eons ago – Stolmy Pimentelthought to have an inside edge on being a swing starter because of his Pirates ties to Jeff BanisterAnthony Ranaudo, who was the swing-man after being traded for from the Red Sox, Ross Detwilerwho started the season in the rotation until it was revealed that that was a very bad idea, and Tanner Scheppers…oh, yes…Tanner…Scheppers. Scheppers was broken by a bad attempt in the rotation the prior year and never figured it out. Ever.

There was the rest of the cast of characters who came up from the minors to help out in times of need, but those guys aren’t going anywhere and aren’t as integral a part of the 2015 bullpen story. Fujikawa proved highly ineffective over two games and was released in late May. Verrett was returned to the Mets, his original team, after posting a 6.00 ERA in nine innings, Pimentel was able to help finish blowout games before being sent down to the minors. Ranaudo started two games and relieved in two games before being sent down. Detwiler was jettisoned later instead of sooner, and Scheppers landed on the DL, as a somewhat convenient way to explain his inconsistencies. And Neftali Feliz? Neftali Feliz was designated for assignment, released and found a home in the land of failed former Rangers closers – Detroit. In short, the bullpen looked like a complete mess before the All-Star break.

Perhaps taking a cue from the Royals, perhaps just realizing how ineffective his bullpen was, Jon Daniels decided to take a gamble on two bargain basement relievers while relying on a Neftali-Feliz-style closer story in Shawn Tolleson. He also had a stone-cold high-leverage arm in the farms in Keone Kela; Kela had been with the team from the start of the season and spent a period of rest in Frisco after being a heavily-relied upon arm through the first half. The break-out emergence of lefty Jake Diekman and Miami Marlins cast-off Sam Dyson proved to be a revelation. These four relievers, along with occasional appearances from local native and former St. Louis Cardinals’ lefty Sam Freeman and one-time rotation competitor Ross Ohlendorf transformed the Rangers pen into its most formidable weapon. With everybody but Colby Lewis and Cole Hamels struggling to go deep into a ballgame, the dominance of the revamped bullpen saved the Rangers during games on more than one occasion.

But it wasn’t just the stats side of things that made the bullpen so formidable. The icy stares of Diekman and Dyson as they mowed down hitters with either fireballs or grass-cutters, along with the unflappable demeanor of rookie Keone Kela added a definitive swagger and confidence, not just to the presence of the man on the mound, but the entire team. The bullpen was quite literally lights out when they got into a game.

In 2016: The bullpen you saw at the end of last year will be similar to the one you see this year. There are two notable additions, however.

Shutdown Inning went to the Rangers Winter Caravan at Dr. Pepper Ballpark in Frisco and was able to talk to a couple of key cogs in that Rangers bullpen. We also got manager Jeff Banister’s take on how his usage might change.

Out of the big pieces in the bullpen, the most inexperienced of the high-leverage arms, Keone Kela was used most frequently in the first half of the year, leading to elbow soreness in the second half…but was it really elbow soreness?

SDI: How has the elbow been holding up? Have you had to alter any of your off season workouts to compensate for it?

 

KK: Actually, as far as elbow issues, in regards to that, I haven’t had any. Just pretty much after the season, I just needed some rest. I was able to get a sufficient amount of rest, and I’ve been on the same routine with everyone else, going to the ballpark, going to Southlake Carroll High School and working out. I’ve been on my throwing program about a month and a half now. I’m ready to go.

That makes sense. Having had the least amount of Major League innings going into the season and being thrust into things from the get-go, Kela had to have been suffering from general fatigue. Now, with a full season under his belt, expect him to know a little better how to condition himself for the long haul.

One of the major additions the Rangers made this off-season was to sign Nippon Professional Baseball’s Yakult Swallows’ closer Tony Barnette to a two-year contract worth a relatively minuscule $3.5 million (potentially $5.5 million total). After struggling in the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system as a starter, Barnette took his talents across seas to the Swallows. There, after one more year of attempting to start, he found his stride as a reliever. Barnette finished last season with 41 saves in 59 games at 62.2 innings, posting a 1.29 ERA and 0.894 WHIP. He becomes an immediate high leverage reliever for Banister to call upon right out of the gate.

The other big addition is a slightly more familiar name in former Seattle Mariners’ reliever Tom WilhelmsenThe man known as “The Bartender,” (due to how he occupied his time during a stretch away from baseball) was extraordinarily enthusiastic about being a member of a Rangers team that has thrust itself back into playoff contention.

SDI: What was your first reaction when you found out you were being traded to the Rangers? Where were you, what was the phone call like?

 

TW: Yeah, you know, I was at home, and my wife had just come in with about $150 worth of groceries, with two kids, and that’s when the phone call came! So, “Sorry, honey, you’re gonna have to do all this stuff, I gotta take this call,” and, it was like, “You’re getting traded,” and I was like, “Oh…wow…really?” “Yeah, to Texas.” “Oh…wow…Post-Season! Boom.” Ecstatic, just really excited. And it also helps that Spring Training is also in my home, Arizona, where I live, so yeah, turned out really good.

 

SDI: What was the first thing you did when you came the D/FW area as a member of the Rangers?

 

TW: When I got here, I got to the hotel. We’re kind of on a pretty strict schedule, so, yeah, it was just got to the hotel, had a bite to eat, grabbed a beer – a Lone Star beer, yeah? – and then went to bed, woke up and hop on the Caravan.

While at the Caravan, SDI noticed that Wilhelmsen had already developed a pretty strong “bromance” with primary catcher Robinson Chirinos, who was quick to come with the answer when Banister queried exactly how many saves Wilhelmsen had amassed in his career (“Sixty something?” Banister would ask the crowd. Chirinos, without hesitation: “SIXTY-SEVEN.”).

To recap the Rangers’ Bullpen situation for 2016:

  • Shawn Tolleson: Closer
  • Sam Dyson: Closer Stuff
  • Jake Diekman: Closer Stuff
  • Keone Kela: Closer Stuff
  • Tony Barnette: Closer
  • Tom Wilhelmsen: Closer

That leaves people like Sam Freeman, Tanner Scheppers, and Andrew Faulkner among other options to fill a long-man, low-leverage situation. That’s not to say those guys are low-leverage arms, either. This isn’t the bullpen of Ron Washington, who would have certain “Winning Pieces” he would turn to in key situations. This isn’t the round-table of failed closers the Los Angeles Dodgers put together two years ago. They haven’t been evicted from their previous club because of underwhelming performances. These are all men with something to prove, coming off of productive, outstanding seasons.

What are the things that Banister is looking forward to out of his bullpen and what does he need to be aware of in his second turn at the helm?

“But again, these guys, mentally, I’ve been more impressed with what they look like, what they sound like, the workload they’ve been putting themselves through. I feel good with where they’re at. Still, they’re athletes and baseball players and they work, and the human body breaks and it breaks down. The one thing we really need to pay attention to is not only them, but we got a group of guys in that bullpen that, I think four of them or five of them had seventy appearances last year, so we gotta keep an eye on that.”

The possibilities are staggering. If you’ve got a guy like Derek Holland who winds up only being able to go three or four innings, there are several options that are capable of going more than one innings that can still keep a team in a game. This is what the mentality of baseball has come down to: lockdown bullpens. For Banister and the Rangers, the team not only has lockdown potential, but also contingency plans that aren’t just about surrendering early in a game.

Speaking of Holland, don’t be surprised if he ends up being the odd man out when Yu Darvish returns from Tommy John surgery. While he seems all but fully recovered from the shoulder problem that plagued him for most of the season, the manager let on that it’s not entirely sunshine and rainbows for the lefty.

“And as far as Derek’s concerned, I think there’s still some hurdles for him to get across, as far as just the bounce back of the finger, what it’s going to be like in a competitive situation, the shoulder seems to be really good.”

Holland was nailed by a Jose Altuve liner in the second-to-last weekend of the season. Depending on how Spring Training goes, and if he can find the grip on his secondary pitches, Holland might be the one starter bumped to the ‘pen so that he needs to use the change-up and curve less frequently.

That’s all speculation, of course, and probably isn’t the best way to end the Bullpen Position Preview Piece. For now, just know that Jeff Banister has an awesome assortment of talent to use.

From the Hot Stove: The Rangers made the two moves they thought they needed to make in acquiring Wilhelmsen and Barnette. Every other need they have can be filled internally, as several pitching prospects came up and had their first taste of Big League Pitching.

The “Richard Durrett” three questions at this position:

  1. Overall (meaning, not just the “7-8-9” guys), where would you rank the Texas Rangers’ bullpen?
  2. Does Shawn Tolleson end the season as the designated closer for this team?
  3. Who do you want to see take up that final bullpen spot? Or is there someone in the mix right now that you would bump for someone else?

We conclude our Position Previews with a look at the leaders of this team on Wednesday!

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Matt Fisher
Matt Fisher is an Editor/Staff Writer for ShutdownInning. He is a baseball lifer, preferring to use the eye test and rely on the knowledge and analysis of baseball minds greater than his, while using relevant stats to encourage situational discussions. He is also co-host of The Most Valuable Podcast on the NextWave Radio Network, talking sports, entertainment, and sports entertainment.

While Matt's favorite team will always be his hometown Texas Rangers, he knows the ongoing story lines of every team in Major League Baseball. If you sit next to him at a game, be prepared to hear him try and do play-by-play. If you're famous and reading this, just know that he's not afraid to drop names.

Matt Fisher. ShutdownInning Editor/Staff Writer

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