At times in 2010 the Rangers bullpen was both a symbol of strength and consistency, but yet other times it was good, old-fashion “Bite your nails off” pitching. And this was especially seen in the postseason when comparing ALCS Games 4 and 5 where the bullpen shutdown the Yanks to ALCS Game 1 when it allowed six runs in one inning.

To date the Rangers have said goodbye to relief pitchers Rich Harden (though he was initially thought to be the team ace), Dustin Nippert, Brandon McCarthy, Doug Mathis, and Chris Ray. Harden and McCarthy have signed contracts with the A’s, Mathis a minor league with the Indians, and Nippert and Ray are still looking for a 2011 home.

The Rangers have added four relief pitchers and each of them could see some Major League time in 2011: RHP Mark Lowe (trade – along with Cliff Lee), LHP Arthur Rhodes (free agency), RHP Mason Tobin (Rule 5 Draft), and RHP Yoshinori Tateyama (Japanese signing). Side note – I know that Lowe saw some time at the end of the season and postseason, but I don’t believe he was fully healthy and expect the 2011 version to be more like the 2008 version of Lowe.

Now before I even begin to breakdown the Rangers bullpen outlook for this season we have to assume that Texas doesn’t make any other major signings (i.e. Manny Corpas, Scot Shields, Chad Durbin, Alfredo Aceves, etc.), which is doubtful, trade for another bullpen arm (i.e. Jonathan Papelbon), also doubtful, or trades away any of the current 40-man roster arms, this one is possible during Spring Training.

Assuming Texas stays with the standard 13 hitters (9 starters, 4 bench players) and a 5-man rotation, that would leave 7 spots in the bullpen available. Those spots, with the exception of a few locks, will be up for grabs come Spring Training to upwards of 17 possible pitchers.

Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter, and Michael Kirkman will likely be competing for the #4 and #5 spots in the rotation with the odd man out potentially becoming the Rangers long reliever / spot starter. Their roles were broken down in last week’s piece by my colleague regarding the rotation, so I will not re-analysis these three.

First off, I want to take a look at some of the “locks” in 2011:

Neftali Feliz, RHP

The 2010 AL Rookie of the Year, the new MLB record holder for saves by a rookie (40), and still one of Texas’ most explosive arms is looking to continue on where he left off in 2010.

Neftali is only 22 years old and though he was a huge success closing in 2010, his future is still in question as the Rangers move forward. Manager Ron Washington has spoken a little bit lately about Feliz future in regards to the potential that he could become a starter. Last week Wash said, “We’re going to bring [Feliz] into camp and give him an opportunity to stretch himself out. And if he shows us he’s better fitted with out ball club to start, then we’ll go in that direction. If not, we know he can close ballgames and we’re very happy with that.”

Initially I think they give him this chance, but eventually have him return to closing duties. Feliz is a huge addition to this team and an unbelievably powerful arm, he proved between 2009 and ’10 that he can handle the increased workload and can pitch on back-to-back days. But I must qualify my belief with the fact that I also thought CJ Wilson should have remained in the bullpen, so the thought of Feliz starting could be a HUGE move in the success of the rotation if he does what Wilson did last year.

Frank Francisco, RHP

The Opening Day closer in 2010 before a lack of consistency and injuries all but ruined his 2010 season. Though he pitched in 56 games and finished with a 3.76 ERA, Frankie was 2-for-6 in save opportunities and didn’t pitch again after August 27th.

Going into 2011, Frankie is likely slated for the 8th inning setup role, if he can stay healthy. And when healthy he is a great option as a setup man, as a closer if Feliz has gone back-to-back games, and as the closer if Feliz is moved to the rotation.

I have had my doubts about him more than once, but if Frankie is the regular setup man he could be huge for the bullpen, especially since it is a much more reduced pressure situation.

Darren Oliver, LHP

The first of two fairly seasoned, 40+ year old arms. Darren was a tremendous find for Texas in 2010, signing away from the Angels and returning to Texas for his third stint of his career (1993-98, 2000-2001, and now 2010-2011).

In 2010 Oliver was the team’s most efficient and relied upon lefty. His consistency and veteran nature lead to a workload of 61.2 innings pitched with a 2.48 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP. But it was this heavy workload that ended up costing Oliver down the road as he struggled in both the Divisional and Championship Series.

If Texas can keep his innings down there is no reason to not believe that Oliver again can and will be the most effective lefty out of the bullpen.

Arthur Rhodes, LHP

The second of the two fairly seasoned, 40+ year old arms was signed in free agency away from the Cincinnati Reds. True that Rhodes is 41 and entering his 21st season in the Majors, but he is also coming off his best season of his career.

Last year as the left-handed setup man for the Reds, Rhodes threw 55 innings in 69 games, had a 2.29 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and held opponents to a .196 AVG. Not to mention that he was also elected to his first career All-Star game.

So do the Rangers expect the same thing out of Rhodes this year…No, not at all. But his addition to the staff should not only directly lower Oliver’s workload, but Rhodes’ workload as well. The two are both in their forties, but they are professionals, they keep themselves in great shape, and if their game appearances and innings can be held down, they both could be very effective weapons near the end of the season and beyond.

Alexi Ogando, RHP

After dealing with visa issues the past five years, Ogando finally made his Major League debut as a 26-year-old last May 15th. And from then on and throughout the postseason he was a huge boost to the Rangers bullpen.

Ogando appeared in 44 games, throwing 41.2 innings with a 1.30 ERA, a near 2.5:1 K:BB ratio (39:16), and was able to hold opponents to a .208 AVG in his first season. Ogando was solid in the postseason as well, which included a spectacular World Series (3.2 innings, 0 runs, 1 hit, 0 walks, and 6 strikeouts).

Ogando, like Feliz, is a potential future candidate for the rotation, but I believe his 2011 season will again be increasing his workload and working through his continued development. There is no reason to think that he will take some steps backward and not be a solid arm in the 2011 bullpen for the Rangers.

 

These five pitchers are the “locks” in the bullpen going into Spring Training, leaving two spots available to be fought over by the remaining candidates: Holland/Hunter/Kirkman, Scott Feldman, Matt Harrison, Omar Beltre, Fabio Castillo, Eric Hurley, Mark Lowe, Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop, Yoshinori Tateyama, Mason Tobin, and Tanner Scheppers.

Now before I go into detail of the final two bullpen spots, one of which will be long reliever / spot starter, I have to say that all of these pitchers will be in Spring Training and each will get a legit look as a Major League option. However, I believe some of these pitchers will in fact start the season in the minors, but could and some will see Major League action in 2011. Omar Beltre, Fabio Castillo, Eric Hurley, Pedro Strop, and Tanner Scheppers will all eventually start 2011 in the minors, unless they have an unbelievable Spring Training. This leaves us with seven pitchers competing for the final two spots.

I believe that out of Spring Training Holland and Hunter will earn spots in the rotation and that Kirkman will “start” the year off at Triple-A Round Rock as a starting pitcher. He will join both Hurley and Scheppers in that starting rotation. Now I also used the word “start”, because I believe he will end up being a difference maker for the Rangers pitching staff in 2011, remember that Ogando and Holland didn’t start 2010 on the active roster.

Scott Feldman and Matt Harrison will both compete and one will eventually be named to the Major League roster as the long reliever / spot starter, with the other accepting a minor league assignment to start 2011 (as both still have one minor league option remaining). A lot can happen between now and April 1st, but if I had to predict, I think that Feldman will eventually earn that spot. But I’m not entirely confident in that as his past two seasons have been a vast contrast of each other, going from 2009 team leader in wins with 17 to 2010 Opening Day starter and finally to a rough and all but devastating 2010 season (7-11, 5.48 ERA, .313 opponents AVG.).

This leaves one final spot available in the bullpen for Opening Day. Mark Lowe (RHP) has to be one of the two leading candidate as he has the credentials to be a solid, hard-throwing arm in a bullpen. Lowe is not necessarily a frontline bullpen arm, but Texas doesn’t need him to, all they would need from him is to step-up and eat up innings as he has done in the past, 2008 – 63.2 innings and 2009 – 80 innings pitched for Seattle. The other leading candidate for this role is the man who has filled it the past two seasons, RHP Darren O’Day. In two seasons with the Rangers, O’Day has posted 1.84 and 2.03 ERA seasons and thrown a combined 120.2 innings over that time. Though he struggled mightily in the postseason, O’Day has been and continues to be a legit bullpen arm. The final two pieces are Japanese import Yoshinori Tateyama (RHP) who is similar to O’Day in style of throwing and numbers the past three seasons in Japan and Mason Tobin (RHP) who was selected in the Rule 5 draft. If Tobin does not remain on the big league roster for the entire season, he would then be subject to league-wide waivers, and if passed then have to be offered back to his original team (Cubs). This move is similar to Yoshi as the Rangers are taking a chance on a player stepping out and earning a spot, thought unlikely, you can never rule anything out before Spring Training.

I know that Texas still might have some moves that could be made before Opening Day, but my prediction is that the Texas Rangers open the AL Pennant title defense with a bullpen featuring Neftali Feliz, Frank Francisco, Darren Oliver, Arthur Rhodes, Alexi Ogando, Scott Feldman, and Darren O’Day. But remember this is just where we start, expect each and every one of the other names I have mention to either see some Major League time or at least be in the conversation for the call-up at some point this season.

Check in later this week as my colleague Bo Reed is going to take us around the Rangers entire infield.