Breaking down the bullpen: The present, the past and the future

Breaking down the bullpen: The present, the past and the future

Credit: Getty Images

Joe Nathan's getting his saves, but there's cause for concern as his missing fastball velocity carries some worrisome trends. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

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by OR MOYAL & JASON COLE

WFAA Sports

Posted on May 21, 2013 at 2:39 AM

Updated Tuesday, May 21 at 2:49 AM

Let's get this out of the way first: The Rangers' bullpen is a good one. There's no need to panic about the state of the relief corps, as that group has more than held its own this year. Prior to last night's game, the Texas bullpen had a 3.24 ERA, 11th in baseball. Only eight relievers have been used all year - the initial seven who left spring training as Rangers, and last week's callup Cory Burns.

 

They have blown one save all year (for reference's sake, Arizona has blown 11)  and successfully recorded 14. They are 7th in Fangraphs' WAR stat, which takes into account park factors (read: the difficulty of pitching in Arlington) and peripherals (strikeouts, walks and home runs). This is a good group - and for the most part a young group which should get better. 

 
With that being said, there's room for improvement. The bullpen has been anchored by three stalwarts: Joe Nathan, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross. They are three very different pitchers, but all have gotten great results in their own way. They've been relied upon heavily, combining for 60 1/3 innings before tonight's game. And there's good reason for the dependence - the trio has allowed all of seven runs in 2013.
 
Moving on down the line: Lefty Joe Ortiz has been up-and-down, beginning the season as some sort of heroic figure but going through a heavy regression in the last month that has his ERA at 3.63. Cory Burns has fared well for himself in two innings. Jason Frasor has been mediocre. Derek Lowe was shaky enough to get cut in Mid-May despite a  $1.25 Million commitment. And Michael Kirkman has been, uh, let's just go with 'bad.' 
 
 
For a thorough breakdown of the pen, I consulted Jason Cole. Jason runs Lone Star Dugout, the premier Rangers-specific scouting website and is the foremost authority on the team's prospects. He agreed with me that the unit is fine as a whole, with much of the concern being overblown. One particular concern: Closer Joe Nathan, whose loss in velocity and occasional command issues have some segments of the fanbase clamoring for a new 9th-inning man. Jason thinks the concern is probably overblown.
 
"There’s always one whipping boy," said Cole. "There is a middle ground. Nathan's not going to be the same pitcher he was last year, but very few relievers are. The way he's looked is something of a worry, but saying he should be replaced is preposterous."
 
The obvious reasons for his struggles: Nathan's fastball is missing about 2.5 MPH, on average, from where it was in 2012. He's sitting at 91-92 instead of 94 MPH, and that not only gives hitters a chance to tee off on his fastball - it also takes away from the effectiveness of the biting slider, as opposing batters don't need to sit on Nathan's fastball. The result: His strikeout, walk and groundball rate have all deteriorated some, lending cause to the concern. His ERA is still a very solid 2.12 and he has not blown any of his 13 save opportunities, but the days of dominant Joe Nathan, one of the five best closers in baseball, are likely over.
 
Tanner Scheppers is a fascinating case (look for a more thorough breakdown of his success later this week in a stand-alone article). His ERA is a miniscule 0.79 and he seemingly induces weak contact out of everyone he faces while issuing very few walks. But his strikeout rate is the lowest on the team - even lower than the recently-departed Derek Lowe. Scheppers is effectively missing barrels and sawing off handles, and while that won't keep his ERA below 1 forever, he still profiles as a solid 7th- or 8th-inning pitcher who could elevate further once he gets a better grasp of his breaking ball and sees his strikeouts return.
 
Robbie Ross is essentially the same pitcher he was last year, though to this point he's sacrificed a few groundballs for better command. Much like Scheppers, he will regress from his sub-1 ERA, but will remain a solid relief option.
 
Joseph Ortiz gave up one earned run in his first fourteen innings. He's since surrendered eight in his next eight frames. There is some concern that he was overused early in the season and his arm is paying the price right now. There's also the possibility that major league hitters' second look at the young lefty comes with bright new ideas. It's very possible he gets a DL stint/brief demotion to sort things out, but he appears to still profile as a major league arm.
 
Jason Frasor is what he is: a league-average middle reliever. He's missing the fastball velocity that made him a weapon for years and it's led to hitters occasionally teeing off on him - Frasor's home run rates have spiked in recent years. He's using his split-finger pitch a lot more this year and it's helped him get strikeouts, but he's still a risky proposition in high-leverage situations.
 
Cory Burns is an interesting study. The minor-league numbers suggest a potential closer - his strikeout rates over the last three seasons have been 10.56, 10.64 and 12.46 per 9 innings, and he's done that while keeping his walks at around 2.5 per 9 innings and effectively limiting home runs. The problem: His fastball is fringy. Burns relies heavily on his change-up, which he threw 63% of the time for San Diego last year. His approach hasn't been nearly as successful in the bigs, and Jason has a good idea why.
 
"Much of what Burns does is based on deception when his back is turned," Cole said. "It lets him hide his release and makes the change-up a lot more effective. When runners get on, he's not the same pitcher he is out of the windup. Overall, he's probably an up-and-down guy."
 
Burns may eventually capture the magic that makes him so effective in the minor-league parks. But so far, he has an ERA of 5.4 in 21 2/3 major-league innings. He's a work in progress.
 
Michael Kirkman is just a mess. The talented lefty drew his share of believers in spring training, when some had him pegged as the most impressive pitcher in the Rangers' camp. But the erratic wildness that has held him back everywhere he's been still persists, and it's been joined by an unseemly 28% line-drive rate. Kirkman's raw stuff is excellent and his strikeout rate sits at over 10.5 per 9 innings. But as Tanner Scheppers discovered last year, the K's don't do much for you when you walk a guy every other inning and leave meatballs over the plate.
 
So we've established the possible weak links: Ortiz, Frasor, Burns and Kirkman. Kirkman isn't likely to be sent down because he's out of minor league options and would have to be designated for assignment. The same goes for Jason Frasor, whose contract is fully guaranteed and would require he be released. That leaves Ortiz and Frasor as the likely cuts in the event of a minor-league callup. Keep in mind Josh Lindblom was sent back down to AAA after one unimpressive start, so the bullpen could also be supplemented without a current reliever being called down. Who could join the major-league club? We profile all the obvious candidates... and a few you probably don't know a whole lot about. So read on! 
 
THE FIELD:
 
Neal Cotts. Much has been said about the journeyman's season at AAA Round Rock, and for good reason.  Cotts has thrown 23 innings and struck out 42 hitters. He's only walked five.  Lefties haven't managed a hit off of Cotts in 2013. Cotts hasn't pitched in the majors since 2009 and his newfound success is a real mystery. Jason conducted an excellent interview with Round Rock pitching coach Brad Holman yesterday, yielding the first real insight I've seen yet. You should subscribe and read on for the full breakdown, but the gist of it is that Holman found an erraticism in Cotts' release and worked with him on getting in sync.  The stuff isn’t any better, but he’s getting results. Unbelievable, otherworldly results. Will his new mojo fly in Arlington? Who knows. But Cotts will get a look. It's just a matter of when.
 
Kyle McClellan will probably be first righty reliever to be called up, when he’s ready (McClellan is working his way back from a spring training injury). If that name sounds familiar, it should - he was a pretty good middle reliever for the Cardinals from 2008 to 2010. Jason thinks McClellan could be a solid addition to the big league squad. "He doesn’t blow you away with stuff, but it's OK -  and he throws strikes."
 
The third name is a real darkhorse. Justin Miller didn't throw at all for the Rangers in 2012, and he's logged all of two innings this season. You can probably guess why at this point - yep, good old Tommy John Surgery. The good news: Miller was a stud in 2011, posting a 1.84 ERA in Frisco and striking out 77 in 69.2 innings. The better news: he looks really good. Miller is back to where he was before the surgery, sitting at 92-95 MPH and touching 96 with good command and a good slider while even throwing a nice changeup. It'll take a little while for Miller to prove he's fully back, but once that's established he could move quickly. Tommy John surgery obviously isn't a positive development for players' careers, but Jason said some of the more resilient characters can emerge better in the long run.
 
"Players come out of rehab in a better mental state, stronger than they used to be," Cole said. 
"It's tough to deal with both physically and mentally, but going through that adversity can really build work ethic and strength for the future."
 
The Rangers hope Miller can be one of the success stories.
 
 
I made a point of asking about three other relievers because they're higher on the prospect lists than any of the guys listed to this point: Right handers Roman Mendez, Wilmer Font and Lisalverto Bonilla. Alas, while they profile as potential 8th/9th inning arms, Jason says none appears ready.  Quick hits, via Cole's astute scouting:
 
"Font doesn't have a lot of control, and he doesn't look as good as he did late last year. Still very reliant on the fastball, don't know if he'll develop the secondary stuff."
 
"Mendez is very inconsistent. Lots of up-and-down between games... he often goes from looking like a closer to a completely different pitcher. 94-98 MPH some appearances, 88-89 others."
 
"Bonilla loves his change-up [it's considered one of the best secondary pitches in the Rangers' system] but that can get him in trouble because he doesn't set it up with the fastball. Tough to succeed that way. Still learning how to pitch."
 
 
That's it for the prospects. Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz are set to return from their rehab for Tommy John surgeries at some point in the second half, and both were among the best closers in baseball at one point. However, pitchers often struggle after first coming back from the operation, whether not yet finding their stuff or losing command for a time. Joe Nathan went through that with the Twins before re-discovering his elite level with the Rangers in 2012. We know what Feliz and Soria are capable of - just keep in mind they very likely won't reach their ceiling in this campaign.
 
 
Many thanks to Jason, who provided an extreme wealth of information for this piece. He's a must-follow on Twitter for anyone who considers themself a Rangers fan, so go to his account at @LoneStarDugout and hit the big blue button on the right. If you want to step things up, do what I do and subscribe to his prospect-specific site, LoneStarDugout.com. It's worth every penny.

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