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Thursday, July 7, 2011
Updated: July 14, 12:09 AM ET
Intensity, bullpen on Rangers' fix-it list

By Jim Reeves
ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- There was a special feeling about the 2010 Texas Rangers that went far beyond the crowds and the claw-and-antlers momentum that would eventually carry them to the World Series.

Some might call it destiny or fate. It was even much more basic than that for Nolan Ryan, though.

What he saw a year ago was a team at the top of its game for months on end, playing its best, night after night after night. It was a team balanced on a razor's edge of excellence, mentally, physically and emotionally.

Ian Kinsler
The Rangers have struggled on defense, but Nolan Ryan is more concerned about the tone set by everyday veterans like Ian Kinsler.

So when someone asks the Rangers' club president about his 2011 team's first-half inconsistencies, whether it's the bullpen or the team's surprisingly poor defense, he's quick to acknowledge that both areas need major improvement. But when he starts talking about what has disappointed him most about this Rangers team compared to last year's American League champions, bullpen and defense aren't even close to being his No. 1 concern.

It's the difference in his team's overall attitude in the first half that has saddled Ryan with too many sleepless nights as the Rangers rolled into the All-Star break.

"It concerns me," Ryan said when asked to assess the state of the Rangers at the break and as they move toward the trading deadline at the end of the month. "I see the same thing, that they haven't had the same intensity. I worry about that."

Ryan was speaking before the Rangers completed their sweep of the Oakland A's, running their winning streak to seven games, and was hopeful that his team is regaining that edge that made it so amazing in 2010.

"I truly believe that repeating is the hardest thing to do in sports," Ryan said. "I think when you see organizations that repeat like the Big Red Machine and Oakland in the '70s, they had unique individuals who played every day and they had the intensity and the pride that they wouldn't let their team slip. You'd like to see that in our organization."

If that sounds a wee bit like finger-pointing ... well, if the cleats fit, somebody has to wear them.

"It has to start with the everyday position players," Ryan said. "It starts with the Ians and the Michaels and the Beltres, because they're out there every day, they're the veteran guys."

Now don't go overboard and start ranting that Nolan is calling out Ian Kinsler and Michael Young and Adrian Beltre. That's not the intent. What he's saying is that those three everyday players constitute the veteran core of the team. That's where the leadership has to begin.

Yes, Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels need to do something to shore up the bullpen, but that's going to have to come via trade. They're not even close to considering moving Alexi Ogando back to an eighth-inning role, nor should they. He has become a top-of-the-rotation starter and an All-Star, and you don't move a valuable commodity like that to the bullpen.

"My hope and expectation is that he pitches the whole year in the rotation," Daniels said. "One of the big things coming into the season that will determine a lot, both this year and in the future, is our ability to develop starting pitching.

Alexi Ogando
Both Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels expect Alexi Ogando to ride out the season in the Rangers' starting rotation.

"We've seen Ogando take a step forward, [Matt] Harrison take a step forward. Derek Holland at times, though he hasn't been as consistent as the other two. But we have to be able to develop our own starting pitching and to take Alexi out of that spot, something he's earned, is not something that's in our best interest."

Ryan couldn't agree more and he's not overly worried about Ogando venturing into uncharted territory in innings pitched, either.

"Early in the year everybody was saying that last year's innings were going to jump up and bite C.J. [Wilson]," Ryan pointed out. "He hasn't looked back. He went from 70 innings [in 2009] to 200 innings [in 2010]. I think Ogando is in the same boat. That sucker is strong.

"I think he went through a little dead-body, dead-arm stage when he had those three subpar outings. That doesn't alarm me. That's what you see when you look at someone who's been in the rotation all year. So his innings aren't something I'm concerned about."

It was just more than a year ago that the Rangers shocked baseball by acquiring Cliff Lee from Seattle. They won't hesitate to strike again this year, but there's no sight of a Lee-caliber starter out there this time.

"Last year was a pretty unique year in that you had Lee, [Dan] Haren, [Roy] Oswalt, some marquee upper-rotation starters, that became available," Daniels noted. "Most years there might be one or two impact players but mostly it's bullpen guys, role players, players for specific spots."

At the moment, the Rangers are doing their due diligence, working the phones to find out what's available and, in the meantime, keeping their options open. If there's a starter out there who could provide a rotation spark, that's the direction they'll go. More likely they'll eventually zero in on a bullpen piece, preferably a power right-hander for the eighth-inning setup role that has plagued the team all season.

Veterans such as the Cubs' Kerry Wood, San Diego's Mike Adams and Chad Qualls or even Oakland's Michael Wuertz might become available by the deadline.

Ryan knows how difficult it is to win a championship if a team's late-inning bullpen guys are struggling.

"From a club standpoint, for the offense to put you in position to win in the eighth and ninth innings and you don't close the door, that's a real morale-killer," he said.

All the more reason to believe that sometime between the break and the deadline, Ryan and Daniels will put a package of prospects together to land an impact bullpen piece. What they shouldn't do, and I don't think they will, is mortgage the future for a rent-a-pitcher like San Diego's Heath Bell. The Rangers aren't in the market for a closer and the price for Bell for three months would likely be too high.

"It's early but I'd say, yeah, I think there's some possibilities out there, depending on what they're going to request from us," Ryan said. "The Lee deal would not have been made and wouldn't have been made if we hadn't decided to put [Justin] Smoak in there. It looks like a good deal for [the Mariners] now because Smoak's playing every day and now [Blake] Beavan's up and pitched a good game for them last week.

"But we went to the World Series because of that deal and look what it's done for us. Sometimes you might have to overpay for the right guy."

The front office, in other words, will do its part. Now the players have to somehow rediscover that magical zone they played in for so much of last season.

We can only hope they're beginning to remember how they got there.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.