Position Battles: Bullpen

In 2006, one area that rivaled possibly only the infield as far as their effectiveness was the Texas bullpen. The club fought through a major change in the closer department to maintain a 3.74 earned run average, good for fourth in all of the American League. How will the club respond to another big change at the back end of the pen? Rangers Insider breaks it down.

2006 - The Highs

In the years prior to 2004, the Rangers have had the misfortune of featuring a bullpen full of retreads and busts on the major league level. From Pat Mahomes to Mark Petkovsek to Todd Van Poppel, I could go on and on. But over the last few years, the focus has shifted further away from searching for players from the outside and more towards building from within. Players like C.J. Wilson and Wes Littleton both had the kind of burst onto the scene type of seasons everyone in the Rangers organization wanted to see. Wilson was dominating against left-handed batters, holding them to a .155 batting average. Meanwhile, Littleton shut down just about everybody he faced and his 1.73 earned run average was the lowest in Rangers history for a relief pitcher with 30 innings or more. Both figure to be large parts of the bullpen in the coming season with Wilson likely to step into the role of set-up man against lefties. Littleton, on the other hand, could eventually find the role of closer fall into his lap. Used mainly out of the long relief role, Rick Bauer and Joaquin Benoit also put up some commendable performances for the Rangers.

Meanwhile, Akinori Otsuka was responding from his role as the club's set-up man all season long. Then, after the demotion and subsequent trade of Francisco Cordero, Otsuka slipped into the closer role and dialed it up a notch. It was on April 29th of last year that the club made the call to move Otsuka into the role of closer, and he put together a 2.04 earned run average with 35 strikeouts and saved 31 games for the Rangers over the remainder of the season. His efforts landed him Pitcher of the Year honors by the Rangers for 2006. Although he now finds himself returning back to the role of set-up man, Otsuka is not ashamed of making it known that he just wants to contribute. But one thing that hasn't changed baseball-wise for the 36 year-old native of Chiba, Japan is his pure, unadulterated love for the game.

The Lows

Very unexpectedly, the role of closer became a big problem spot for the Rangers last year. Almost nobody expected Francisco Cordero to go through the trials and tribulations he suffered through trying to close out games. His confidence appeared to evaporate before our very eyes, and eventually found himself out of a job with the Rangers. The hopes also were that after missing a great deal of time due to elbow reconstruction surgery, Frank Francisco would be back in action in 2006. He was, but for a short time in September. Having his usual, fireball throwing self back in the bullpen this season will be essential if the Rangers want to mimic the successes their bullpen had in 2006.

2007 Camp - Who's Invited?

Eric Gagne
Akinori Otsuka
Wes Littleton
C.J. Wilson
Ron Mahay
Joaquin Benoit
Rick Bauer
Frank Francisco
Scott Feldman
Franklyn German
Willie Eyre
Mike Wood
Scott Rice

Who's In?

Eric Gagne

It's been well-documented that from 2002-2005 Eric Gagne was arguably the most dominating closer in all of baseball. But the dreaded injury bug has held him to 15 innings pitched over the last two seasons. It's still a good fit here and, in a way, a win-win situation of sorts for the Rangers. If he's healthy, you've got one of the most outstanding closers in the game working his magic once again. If he gets injured, you've hopefully got the talent behind you to pick up the slack. It all comes down to his health.

Akinori Otsuka
The trade rumors involving his name seem to have subsided almost altogether, so it's safe to say that if Gagne gets injured the job will be handed over to him once again. But as long as the new closer for the Rangers is healthy, Otsuka stays the main set-up man on the team. It instantly makes the one-two combo of Gagne and Otsuka one of the most potent in the league.

Wes Littleton
Littleton will look to expand on what will likely be his first full season as a major leaguer. He needs to improve on his 17/13 K/BB ratio, but he still has a nasty sidearm motion that hopefully continues to give right handed batters fits.

C.J. Wilson
Wilson has the inside track to be one of the two southpaws the Rangers want in the bullpen. He may also see action as an 8th inning set-up man against left-handed hitters as well, a role he settled into nicely after the All-Star Break last year.

Ron Mahay
Barring something unexpected, Mahay likely has the role of the other lefty in the bullpen all to himself. However, he's got some company in John Rheinecker also possibly being looked at as a candidate to fill the role.

Joaquin Benoit
Where there's right-handers in the bullpen is where things begin to get a crowded. Benoit has always left an impression on the Rangers and will likely win one of the spots as he usually does. He'll probably continue to be used as a middle reliever although he wasn't as successful in that role as he was back in 2005. But with such an array of talent loaded in the bullpen, it wouldn't be wise to rule out a possible trade involving Benoit at some point before things get rolling this year.

Rick Bauer
He started to wear down a little in the waning weeks of last season, but Bauer was solid in his first year as a Ranger with a 3.55 ERA. He'll likely be back as a middle reliever this season.

On The Bubble

Frank Francisco

This time last year he was getting primed to make a big comeback in the bullpen. Now, he may find himself on the outside looking in. But if Francisco can prove his velocity is back to where it used to be for good he won't be on the outside very long.

Scott Feldman
Feldman is another tough sidearmer that the Rangers have the possibility of using out of the bullpen. Over his last 10 outings of 2006, Feldman didn't allow a run and lowered his earned run average to 3.92. He's also good at inducing the groundball which is key to pitching in Ameriquest Field. Unfortunately for him, there's just way too much talent surrounding him and may not make the club out of spring training.

Long Shots

Franklyn German
With the Marlins organization last season, German dealt with some pretty substantial shoulder issues that limited hm to only 23 1/3 innings between Triple-A and the majors. He's got some control issues to work out and will likely begin the season in Triple-A, but could earn a promotion by putting together a strong month or two.

Willie Eyre
As a Twin in 2006, Eyre really was knocked around during the first half of the season in mop-up duty but pitched better later in the season. If there's an injury to a middle reliever on the major league level, Eyre will likely be given a call. Otherwise, he'll spend most of the year at Triple-A.

Mike Wood
The Rangers had originally claimed Wood off waivers from the Royals last October and non-tendered him earlier this month. He'll be given an opportunity to compete for a middle relief job like everyone else, but will likely begin his year at Triple-A as well.

Scott Rice
He probably has the slightest of chances to make the squad out of spring training. Rice is good at generating a lot of grounders but it'll take either a trade or a very impressive showing during the spring to have the Rangers consider making him a part of their plans.

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