For Rangers, 'pen moves to back burner for now
Club will focus on finalizing relief corps once rest of roster is settled
ARLINGTON -- The Rangers wanted to re-sign reliever Koji Uehara, and made him an offer early in the Winter Meetings. But once they signed Joakim Soria to a two-year, $8 million deal, the team had to set aside its pursuit of relief pitching."We decided to hold off making offers to relievers until we know the makeup of the rest of the club," general manager Jon Daniels said. The implication is that if the Rangers are able to sign an expensive free agent like outfielder Josh Hamilton and/or pitcher Zack Greinke, they may not have the financial resources to acquire veteran setup relievers to go with Soria and closer Joe Nathan. That is not necessarily cause for despair. As Daniels pointed out last week, successful relievers come in different shapes and sizes, and from different backgrounds. "It's not always the heralded guy who gets the job done," Daniels said. That certainly was the case with Fernando Rodney, who was the best reliever in the American League last year. The Rays signed him as a free agent last Jan. 5 for $1.75 million, with a $2.5 million option for 2013, after he had gone 3-5 with a 4.50 ERA in 39 games with the Angels in 2011, missing five weeks with a strained muscle in his upper back. Rodney also has a history of shoulder and elbow problems. But he was brilliant as the Rays' closer in 2012, saving 48 games with a 0.60 ERA and holding opponents to a .167 batting average. He was fifth in AL Cy Young Award voting. Rodney was one of three relievers in the AL who pitched at least 50 innings and had an ERA under 2.00. Red Sox reliever Scott Atchison was second with a 1.58 ERA. The 36-year-old right-hander from TCU has been demoted to the Minors 13 times over his Major League career, and spent one year playing in Japan. Darren O'Day was 6-2 with a 2.03 ERA for the Rangers in 2010 and 7-1 with a 2.28 ERA for the Orioles last season. In both cases, he was acquired by his team on a waiver claim. Jared Burton, who has a history of shoulder problems, pitched a total of eight innings in the Majors with the Reds in 2010-11. He was taken off the 40-man roster last winter, refused outright assignment and signed a Minor League contract with the Twins. He ended up posting a 2.18 ERA while opponents hit .186 off him. The Rangers, after losing relievers Uehara, Mike Adams, Scott Feldman and Mark Lowe to free agency, are trying to get lucky in the same way. While much of the attention has been on their pursuit of Hamilton and Greinke, the Rangers have been aggressive acquiring low-profile bullpen candidates beyond just Soria. They traded for left-hander Tommy Hottovy from the Royals and right-hander Cory Burns from the Padres, signed right-handers Collin Balester and Evan Meek to Minor League contracts with invitations to Spring Training, and took right-hander Coty Woods from the Rockies in the Rule 5 Draft. All but Woods have pitched in the Major Leagues, and Meek was an All-Star with the Pirates in 2010 before coming down with shoulder problems. "In our meetings following the season, we asked our scouts to focus on finding value in relief options and depth via trade, waivers, Minor League free agency, etc.," said Josh Boyd, Rangers director of pro scouting. "Essentially, we're looking for guys with pluses to give them a chance to get someone out in the middle-to-late innings, and we feel like we've added that in this type of group." Burns got beat up in 17 games for the Padres last year, allowing 26 hits and 10 walks over 18 innings. But his Minor League numbers are impressive. In 213 career Minor League innings, Burns has a 2.36 ERA while allowing just 6.6 hits and 2.2 walks against 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Hottovy, who signed a Minor League contract with the Royals last winter after being discarded by the Red Sox, had a 2.89 ERA in nine games at the Major League level, and a 2.52 ERA at Triple-A Omaha to go along with 7.6 hits, 2.9 walks and 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings. Left-handed hitters batted .147 off him. Meek was an 11th-round pick of the Twins in 2002 who has been released, traded and taken in the Rule 5 Draft at some point in his career. The Rangers are his fifth organization, but he was 5-4 with a 2.14 ERA in 70 games for the Pirates in 2010 before dealing with a shoulder injury the past two seasons. Balester has pitched in parts of five seasons in the Majors and had some good numbers for the Nationals in 2010-11. In 40 games over those two seasons, he had a 3.81 ERA, held opponents to a .245 batting average and struck out 62 batters in 56 2/3 innings. The Nationals traded him to Tigers last year, and he was 2-0 with a 6.05 ERA in 18 innings. Opponents only hit .209 off him, but he allowed five home runs. Woods is a sidearmer who was 3-2 with a 0.76 ERA and 16 saves in 38 games for Tulsa and 1-2 with a 7.40 ERA in 23 games for Colorado Springs. He was 1-0 with a 3.18 ERA in 11 games in the Arizona Fall League. Right-handed hitters were 4-for-24 off him in Arizona. "Woods has plus life on his fastball and throws from a deceptive angle," Boyd said. "Meek is a former All-Star with a power arm, Burns has a good changeup and deceptive delivery, Hottovy is tough on lefties, and Balester is a another pitcher with a good arm who our scouts have long followed." Right now, the Rangers have Nathan back as closer along with right-handers Tanner Scheppers, Wilmer Font and Justin Grimm, and left-handers Michael Kirkman and Robbie Ross. Soria is coming off Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and won't be ready until May, at the earliest. "I'm pretty far in my rehab and I'm feeling pretty good. I have confidence that I'm going to be back on time," Soria said. "Our thoughts and the Rangers' training staff ... believe that we're going to be ready by the end of the May, maybe." Texas still has Justin Miller on the 40-man roster. He was their Minor League Reliever of the Year in 2011 after going 9-1 with a 1.81 ERA at Double-A Frisco before missing all of last season with a torn ligament in his elbow. They added Joe Ortiz, a 5-foot-7 left-hander who allowed just one hit off a left-handed hitter at Round Rock last season. The Rangers also re-signed veteran left-hander Neal Cotts to a Minor League contract, as well as side-arming right-hander Johan Yan. The Rangers also expect Neftali Feliz to return in the second half from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. At that point, he could join Soria and Nathan in giving the Rangers three All-Star closers working out of the back of the bullpen. "I think you'll see our bullpen evolving over the course of the season," Daniels said. "It's an area that we need to continue to address." There are still more than a couple dozen proven experienced relievers available on the free-agent market, including Rafael Soriano, Jose Valverde, Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers, Francisco Rodriguez, J.P. Howell, Matt Lindstrom, Chad Durbin and Jon Rauch. Once the Rangers find out what happens with Hamilton and Greinke, there still should be plenty to choose from among the available free-agent relievers. But the best options may already be in the organization. Remember, Ross was 6-0 with a 2.22 ERA in 58 games for the Rangers last season, and a year ago at this time, nobody was talking about him being a part of their bullpen.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.