The Rangers are fully stocked when it comes to starting rotation candidates. That has a ripple effect in that the pitchers who don’t make the rotation can slide into the bullpen and help there.
Today's position: Long/middle relief
As spring training begins, we can take some pretty good guesses at what might happen should the pitching staff stay healthy (a big if when you consider some of the injuries in spring the last few seasons). Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Yu Darvish certainly appear locks for the rotation. The club is committed to giving Neftali Feliz a chance to start. That leaves one spot open.
It seems likely that Matt Harrison would keep his spot there and Alexi Ogando would head to the bullpen. That scenario would not impact long relief, as Ogando would be more of a late-inning weapon like he was in the postseason. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he won’t pitch in the sixth inning. The beauty of Ogando, as the baseball world discovered in the 2011 playoffs, is that he can pitch in just about any inning in relief.
So what about long relief options? The No. 1 candidate is Scott Feldman. First, he’s making a hefty sum of $6.5 million in 2012 thanks to the contract he signed after winning 17 games in 2009. He had microfracture surgery on his right knee after a disappointing 2010 season and missed the first half of the 2011 season. The Rangers wanted Feldman to agree to pitch in the minors once he was healthy enough to return, but he had enough service time to make his own choice and decided to stay in the majors. He said he wanted to help the big league club, and to his credit, he did. He made two spot starts to help give some pitchers some extra days of rest down the stretch and also pitched in relief, though a blister hampered him a bit. Feldman gives the Rangers someone who can certainly handle multiple innings and has the mindset of a starter.
Michael Kirkman is another option. He began the 2011 season in the Triple-A Round Rock rotation (after spending some time with the big league club in spring training), but was 0-3 with a 6.40 ERA in seven starts and moved to the bullpen. Once there, Kirkman was 3-0 with a 3.98 ERA in 20 relief appearances. The Rangers come into spring trying to sort out their left-handed relief options, and Kirkman figures into the mix. But he’s also a multi-inning guy and could help in that middle relief role.
That left-handed spot will be one to watch this spring. The Rangers had Darren Oliver and Mike Gonzalez last year, but neither is on the roster now. Oliver will pitch for Toronto and Gonzalez, who had knee surgery, is still on the market. The Rangers have signed a couple of lefties to minor-league deals with invitations to big league camp. Among those are Joe Beimel and Mitch Stetter, who have major league experience.
Injuries could clearly alter what happens in the bullpen, but so could the fact that a slew of folks will be in camp with a chance to show something. One guy to keep an eye on is Tanner Scheppers, who is hoping to prove that he can become a solid reliever. He comes to camp knowing that’s the role the club sees for him, rather than starting right now. Cody Eppley, who appeared in 10 games last year, will also be in Surprise, as will some of the club’s high-level prospects who might not quite be ready for the majors yet. Yoshi Tateyama, who could have a big impact on Yu Darvish and his transition, can also pitch multiple innings, though he needs to get better against left-handed batters.
Watching how it all shakes out will be part of the fun of spring.