It would be easy to flat out grade the bullpen as an outright failure. With the exception of a couple of stretches for a couple of weeks, the Texas Rangers’ bullpen was, at best, a shocking, seat-squirming necessity in each ballgame. At worst, it was a complete firestorm of failure, leading to 21 blown saves.
It’s not the 21 blown saves by themselves that cost the Rangers a .500 record and a real chance at competing – 21 blown saves was right about middle of the pack for all of baseball and 9th in the American League. It’s the Save Percentage – the amount of opportunities actually converted into saves – of 58% that catches your eye. It was dead last in the American League. Detroit was close behind at 58.18%. In terms of reliable bullpens, the Tigers aren’t exactly good company to keep.
After going through two named closers, struggling to find an identity and an anchor and, strictly speaking, suffering from a complete regression of talent, the bullpen was certainly over-hyped going into the season. There was such confidence going into 2017, Jon Daniels did not make a single move in the offseason to augment the bullpen except for Rule 5 Acquisition Mike Hauschild.
As we take a look at the key issues that plagued the bullpen, that seems like a good place to start.
Mike Hauschild: The goal of a Rule 5 pick is to try and turn nothing into something. 40-man rosters are hard to assemble for a general manager, especially if you have a plethora of talent you’d like to hang on to. Hauschild was left off of the 40-man roster of the Houston Astros in December and the Rangers decided they would add some competition to the rotation battle. Once added to the Rangers, Hauschild would have to do well enough to remain on the active 25-man roster for the entire season.
The 27-year old pitched well enough out of Spring Training, posting a 2.70 ERA in 20 innings, to merit further discussion as the season began. The discussion seemed to halt quickly. In April, Hauschild pitched in four games and gave up runs in each appearance, culminating in a five run outing over 3.1 innings, as he ate some innings in his swan song. The Rangers were pigeon-holed into keeping the 27-year old through April, because of the Rule 5 restrictions, but couldn’t use him reliably. He ended up going back to the Astros. GRADE: F-
Jeremy Jeffress: Jeffress’ time with Texas was cursed since he joined the team at the trading deadline last summer. Once a closer with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Rangers hoped to tap into that high leverage relief experience to augment their bullpen. Just under a month after his acquisition, Jeffress was arrested on DWI charges. He spent some time in rehab and rejoined the team towards the end of September. In 12 appearances in 2016, Jeffress put up a 2.70 ERA.
Texas hoped that they would get that pitch-to-contact arm for 2017. It wasn’t the kind of contact they were hoping for. In 40.2 innings, Jeffress gave up 49 hits to the tune of a 5.31 ERA. Whether Texas was going to be in a playoff race down the stretch was irrelevant – the Rangers couldn’t afford to keep Jeffress on the team. He was eventually traded back to Milwaukee, not for Lewis Brinson or Ryan Cordell, but for off-the-radar minor leaguer Tayler Scott. GRADE: F
Keone Kela: When Kela was in the bullpen, he was good. Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, the 24-year old was away from the club more than he was with it. It started off with Kela being held off of the 25-man roster at the start of the year due to unspecified disciplinary reasons. Even upon his return, the hard throwing righty suffered from elbow, shoulder and biceps problems.
But let’s concentrate on the time that he was with the club. After joining the club in mid-April, Kela went six games without giving up a run. After giving up 4 against Houston, he gave up just three total over the next 12 appearances. Kela gave up one run each in back to back outings in June before going nine more scoreless appearances and landing on the DL.
He only made four appearances when he returned before going back on the DL, and then gave up just three more runs the rest of the way upon coming back. Kela ended the year with a 2.79 ERA. If he had been healthy for the whole season, well, who knows what magic could have been spun. GRADE: B
Tony Barnette: The second-year Major Leaguer must have had unfamiliarity on his side in his rookie year, because he simply did not come back as the same reliever. Perhaps it was his peripherals that weren’t that good (as so many have said about much of the 2016 Rangers), or perhaps it was that the rest of the league figured him out. Whatever the reason, Barnette went from a 2.09 ERA pitcher with a 3.06 K/BB ratio over 60 innings to a 5.49 pitcher with a 2.59 K/BB ratio over 57.1 innings this season.
Still, Barnette could be used as a multi-inning guy – whether it was during a good stretch, and he could be a longer bridge to someone like Alex Claudio, or during a bad stretch, where he had to eat some innings for the club. He gave up an awful 51% of inherited runners and was much better when starting an inning clean.
The Rangers will likely pick up his $4 million team option for 2018, and perhaps, if used in better situations, with a little more comfort provided by a better lineup, Barnette will prove to be a continued bargain. GRADE: C
Matt Bush: Bush was another second-year Major Leaguer, having debuted on the other side of 30. Like Barnette, Bush’s newness to the league may have helped him be successful in his rookie year. For Bush, however, 97-100 mph is a little more forgiving than Barnette’s stuff. As such, the 31-year old’s ERA only increased from 2.48 to 3.78 – yes, a full run plus, but not the drastic cliff dive that Barnette took.
Bush was (probably prematurely) named the closer after Sam Dyson crashed in flames. Maybe it was that there was a lot of public outcry for the man with high-octane, swing and miss stuff to be the closer, but Bush was not exactly ready to take on the rigors of being a closer. He saved 10 games before being ousted, responsible for four of the Rangers’ blown saves at the time (he had one more towards the end of the year).
After relinquishing the closer role in mid-July, Bush found his way back to a much more comfortable role – that of setup man. From July to August, Bush only pitched in the 9th inning once. Over 19 outings, he gave up three runs. A short stint on the DL from the end of August through the first week of September put him out for 21 days and after that, he had a few bumps in the road. Otherwise, Bush was a very effective setup man. Setup, of course, is the key word. GRADE: B
Sam Dyson: Before we rise up, we must first fall down. So before I start talking about the best part of the 2017 bullpen, I must talk about the worst part. Sam Dyson, who joined the Rangers from the Marlins in 2015, pitched a good year and a half with a “bowling ball” sinker that made him a killer setup man.
When Shawn Tolleson had his implosion in the early part of 2016, Sam Dyson was able to take over the role with the steadfastness of a gunslinger. No, he wasn’t a huge swing and miss pitcher, but that sinker was just too perfect. If you watched the World Baseball Classic, your baseball tongue may have salivated because Dyson was just SO good on a national stage. Surely Dyson would be immune to the early season closer woes that Texas experienced each of the last two seasons.
Dyson was not immune. Right out of the gate, in his first two appearances, Dyson gave up five runs. Maybe just early jitters, some would think. Some would think wrong. The red-bearded righty gave up six more runs that month, blowing three saves in the process. The month turned to May, and it wasn’t any better for the once reliable and loved Dyson.
Six more runs and another blown save resulted in Dyson being designated for assignment and traded to the San Francisco Giants. There, he had something of a reawakening, although he was pitching for a basement level team. With how well he performed in San Francisco, the Rangers might be able to get a player that isn’t a complete throwaway. They’re still waiting to name the player acquired in the deal. GRADE: F---
Alex Claudio: Claudio has flown under the national radar for such a long time, and likely with good reason. He’s not flashy, he throws roughly 83 MPH at his hardest, has a weird way to come to the set, and overall, isn’t a high-radar name. But for the Rangers, he has been nothing short of a godsend.
For Texas, the Puerto Rican, who was able to showcase his considerable talent on the World Baseball Classic stage, took whatever hand he was dealt in whatever situation and simply thrived. Did you need him to pitch the eighth in a high-leverage hold situation? Alex Claudio was there and did it. Did you need someone to go multiple innings on back to back days? Alex Claudio was there and did it. Did you need someone to start for Cole Hamels with less than three hours’ notice? Alex Claudio was there and did it. What’s more is that he was there and did it for three years straight.
Since 2014, Claudio has been a Major Leaguer and each year, he’s kept his ERA under 3.00, kept a very respectable K/BB ratio (3.73 for 2017), and fulfilled all roles at all times. He’s been the one reliever that has proven to be immune from the year-to-year, early-season struggles of the Texas bullpen.
Sure, there are some that might suggest trading Claudio before he implodes, but there hasn’t exactly been evidence that an implosion is forthcoming. What’s even better, going into 2018, is that you don’t have to assign Claudio the role or title of closer. Just as it’s probably a little unconventional to go with a closer by situation bullpen, Alex Claudio works best when he’s not locked into any one role. Just like him, it’s a little unconventional. GRADE: A+
There were other fill-ins, here and there – Jason Grilli towards the end of the season was supposed to provide a veteran spark to a young bullpen. Ricardo Rodriguez started the year in High-A ball and ended up being a relatively feel good story in an otherwise lost season. He’ll need some more seasoning. Nick Gardewine made the jump from Frisco. Austin Bibens-Dirkx saved the bullpen’s bacon on more than one occasion, filling in as a slot starter or absorbing innings in a blown out game. Ernesto Frieri made a couple of appearances – one great, one not so great. Jose LeClerc earned two saves in his first full season in the big leagues, but showed a marked need for consistently finding the strike zone. The biggest impact on the bullpen and how it shaped up from the start of the season onwards was made by the above group of players.
While starting pitching might be a definitive priority for Jon Daniels going into the 2017-2018 Hot Stove season, he might be wise to not leave the bullpen alone during the winter.
The strong showing by Alex Claudio would have been wonderfully complemented by Matt Bush and Keone Kela, if Bush hadn’t had his ill-timed stretch as a closer and Kela had been healthy. As it is, the Rangers not only had to deal with displacing two closers, but also couldn’t survive with just Claudio carrying the reliever load. OVERALL GRADE: D.