It’s amazing how things change in the span of a few months in the offseason.
Today's position: Late relief
When the 2011 season ended, Neftali Feliz was the Rangers’ closer. He was in that spot after the club tinkered with putting him in the rotation, but the club ended up leaving him in relief because the bullpen needed him and Feliz needed another season to refine his secondary stuff. The 2010 AL Rookie of the Year wasn’t able to replicate his memorable debut campaign. But he was solid in 2011, posting a 2.74 ERA with 32 saves in 62 1/3 innings. The season didn’t end the way he wanted, especially in Game 6 of the World Series with the club one strike away from a championship. Feliz was on the mound when the Cardinals tied the score in the bottom of the ninth and eventually won in extra innings.
Now, Feliz is in the rotation. Shortly after the season ended, general manager Jon Daniels made that declaration, saying he didn’t want Feliz to feel distracted with all the questions in the spring. That move was made after the club signed Joe Nathan, who takes Feliz’s spot as the closer.
Nathan gives the club some veteran experience and will show up in Surprise with something to prove. He had Tommy John surgery and struggled initially last year when he returned to the mound in the majors. But after a brief disabled list stint, Nathan’s second half was much more indicative of his usual numbers. He converted 11 of 12 save chances and had a 3.38 ERA with 28 strikeouts and five walks after returning from the DL in late June through the end of the season. The Rangers are banking that the Nathan they league saw in the second half of 2011 is the one that shows up in 2012.
Of course, other pitchers have to get the game to Nathan in the ninth. Mike Adams will be one of those. The Rangers acquired Adams at the trade deadline last year from San Diego, shipping the Padres a couple of good, young arms in the process. The advantage to the deal for Texas was it got a pitcher under contract for 2012, too.
Adams also comes to spring with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. After putting up impressive numbers in the National League, Adams didn’t make as smooth a transition to the AL as he hoped. He’s vowed this offseason to learn the hitters and be even more prepared in 2012. His top priority is making sure he’s 100 percent healthy. Adams seemed to get fatigued at the end of the season and even after it ended, experienced some back pain. It turns out he needed hernia surgery. He expects to be ready to go by the time spring training games start.
Mark Lowe also returns after an up-and-down season. Just when he appeared to be in a groove, he suffered a Grade II left hamstring strain in September in Oakland and missed the rest of the season. He did return for part of the playoffs (and was on the mound when David Freese won Game 6 with the homer in the 11th). Lowe was 2-3 with a 3.80 ERA in 45 innings in 2011. He could end up as a seventh-inning type guy for this club.
Once all the dominoes fall with regards to the rotation, the bullpen will take clearer shape. But if everyone in the rotation stays healthy, there’s a good chance Alexi Ogando will factor into the late-inning mix. Ogando was a force in the bullpen in the playoffs and showed some versatility, as he was used in all kinds of innings and situations. He can pitch multiple innings if needed or could be used to get some key hitters out.
Pitching coach Mike Maddux, bullpen coach Andy Hawkins, manager Ron Washington and the coaching staff and front office will be watching and evaluating this spring as they look to put that relief corps together.