All Ron Washington's Men: The Rangers Talented Bullpen

The Texas Rangers did not make a splash at the 2011 trade deadline. Instead, they hung around in the shallow end, snagging spare parts from non-contenders; all the while building what is likely the most formidable bullpen in the postseason. Prior to the July 31 non-wavier deadline, Jon Daniels added not one, but two relief aces. In acquiring Koji Uehara and Mike Adams, the Rangers’ General Manager snagged two of the elite non-closing relievers in baseball, if not top-10 relievers in the game period. But Daniels was not done.

At the end of August, he added left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez in a waiver wire deal in advance of the September 1 cutoff date, leaving him eligible for postseason duty. Gonzalez – the former closer turned left-handed specialist – joined Uehara and Adams who previously joined fire-breathing closer Neftali Feliz as a strong stable of arms for Ron Washington to use at the back end of ballgames. On Thursday, we learned that reliever-turned-starter Alexi Ogando will re-join an already stacked bullpen in the American League Divisional Series.

Before the Rangers dip in to their bullpen, the Rays are facing some stiff competition with left-handers C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison slated to start in the first three games of the series. Add in the potential for five quality hi-leverage options and the sometimes anemic, always inconsistent, Tampa Bay offense is in for an uphill battle.

We know what Neftali Feliz has done out of the Rangers’ bullpen, but here is just a taste of what the Rays offense may see late…

Right-handed pitcher – Koji Uehara

The Rays are plenty familiar with Uehara from his days with the Baltimore Orioles. No longer a closer, the Japanese import is one of the more dominant bullpen arms in the game despite barely hitting 90 mph on the radar. Over the past two years, he is one of only two relief pitchers (min. 100 innings) with a strikeout rate of more than 11 per nine innings and a walk rate of less than 1.5 per nine.  This year, he has faced 243 batters and yielded just eight unintentional walks versus 85 strikeouts. He has yet to walk a right-handed batter this season.

What he lacks on in velocity, he makes up for in movement on a devastating off-speed pitch. This season hitters have swung at 43% of his pitches outside of the zone, and whiffed on 16% of his total offerings. An overwhelming majority of those empty swings have come off his split-fingered/changeup pitch.

The pitch –generally regarded as a platoon neutralizer – has been an equal opportunity offender for Uehara, fooling both lefties and righties. He likes the pitch low and away to righties while working inside to the left-handers. The pitch is a problem for all hitters; however, maybe more so for B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, and Reid Brignac – should he see action. Meanwhile, Johnny Damon, Desmond Jennings, and Sean Rodriguez have had success against this type of pitch. If you are looking for an option off the bench, John Jaso likely presents the best chance.

Uehara’s kryptonite has been the home run; not a good thing for a flyball pitcher. This has been especially following since his mid-season trade. Since joining the Rangers, Uehara has allowed five home runs in 18 innings. Over the larger sample that will regress. Let’s hope sometime next season.

Right-handed pitcher – Mike Adams

Unlike Uehara, the Rays are relatively unfamiliar with the former Padres’ set-up man. The team has 19 collective plate appearances against Adams with Johnny Damon, John Jaso, and Casey Kotchman each having faced him three times.  He is another control artist (1.71 BB/9 in 2011) with strikeout stuff (74 K’s in 73.2 innings).

Adams does the bulk of his damage with a low-90s fastball and a sharp cutter/slider (more classification issues). He will mix in the occasional breaking ball; however, the cutter/slider is his go-to pitch, and is among the best of its’ kind for relief pitchers.

Similar to Uehara, he uses the pitch effectively against both lefties and righties.  The Rays as a team have struggled with the cutter; especially notable right-handed batters Desmond Jennings, Sean Rodriguez, and Upton, along with lefty Matt Joyce. On the other hand, Damon, Kotchman, and Evan Longoria have handled the pitch well this season.  Looking for help off the bench against the cutter? You might want to keep looking.

Left-handed pitcher – Mike Gonzalez

Once a neural reliever in his own right, Gonzalez has been loogy-like in 2011. While holding lefties to a line of .214/.264/.311 against, right-handers are hitting .287/.375/.525. Despite the split, he has faced more right-handed batters this season; however, this has somewhat been corrected following his trade from Baltimore to Texas.  

The Rays have recently stacked left-handers Matt Joyce, Johnny Damon, and Casey Kotchman within four spots in the lineup. If they do so against the Rangers, they could be walking into a one-inning buzzsaw in Gonzalez. Because of the left-handed starters in the Rangers’ rotation, it would be wise to use Sean Rodriguez and Kelly Shoppach to break-up the lefties, making Gonzalez more of a situation weapon than full-frame option.

Joining these three quality arms will be the 2010 dynamic duo of Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz. Ogando has been a welcomed surprise in the rotation for most of the 2011 season, sustaining success over the course of a 29-start season. Even with the increased workload, he has maintained velocity in the mid-to-upper 90s. At times he still struggles with left-handed batters, having allowed 12 of his 16 home runs to them.

After bouncing from rotation to the bullpen in spring, Feliz has lost some effectiveness in 2011. Still plenty good, he has not been an elite reliever this season. In a strange twist, Feliz has struggled against right-handed batters and has – at least temporarily – developed a reverse split.

The pressure will be on the Rays offense to score early. That is easier said than done going against three very good left-handed starters. With five highly-skilled arms in the bullpen, the Rangers can shorten the game rather quickly. One would think that so many options would shield Ron Washington from mismanaging the bullpen; however, I sure hope he tries to.

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