Worrying About Closers... Or Not

Neftali Feliz, who has had an up-and-down type season in 2014, had another one of his sub-par outings yesterday in a 3-2 Texas loss in Houston. In topping out at 91 mph on his fastball, his performance was hardly the worst of the day. That honor belonged to Neal Cotts, who in the 2nd half of the season has put up an ERA of 4.91. Unfortunately, his xFIP of 4.35 prior to yesterday's outing, according to FanGraphs, suggests that many of his struggles have been of his own doing.

With the recent late-inning struggles of the bullpen, a heavy focus has been placed by many in the local media on Neftali Feliz. The reason for that, I'd suspect, lies only with the distinction that Feliz bears the title of closer.

More specifically, if you look around, there are countless numbers of articles positing that the Rangers are in some sort of trouble regarding the role of closer heading into the offseason and, consequently, 2015.

To that, I say that I don't care. Really, I don't.

After Texas let Joe Nathan walk following the 2013 season, I felt that the reason was an underlying faith in the bullpen as a whole rather than a projection of the eventual struggles Nathan has faced since making the move to Detroit. In Joakim Soria, the Rangers were proven right. Soria was among the best relievers in baseball, with the acquisition of Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel in exchange for him before the trade deadline serving as a testament to that. As sure as we sit here and nitpick Neftali Feliz, it's highly likely that Texas will approach the offseason with the same mindset going forward.

That isn't to say that it won't be interesting to watch Feliz moving forward, just that there shouldn't be an inherent focus on filling a defined role -- in this case, the role of the closer.

As the front office approaches what is sure to be an interesting offseason, I've got a feeling that Jon Daniels and his staff will be more focused on building a whole bullpen rather than defined roles. People can talk all day about the guts it takes to take the ball in the 9th inning and close out a victory, but at the end of the day, the bullpen -- and the starting rotation, for that matter -- must be good enough to hold a lead long enough for the 9th inning to matter a whole heck of a lot.

As an example, consider this: In 2013, Joe Nathan put up an ERA of 1.39 with Texas. This season, his ERA has ballooned to 5.14. Despite that, his 2013 and 2014 xFIP figures of 3.27 and 4.07, respectively, are not so different that you'd suddenly say that Nathan is an awful pitcher.

When we then consider that the Texas bullpen put up an ERA of 2.91 in 2013 while Detroit's bullpen has put up an ERA of 4.43 this season, it's fairly easy to see that Nathan has been part of something a bit less spectacular than he was just a season ago.

In fact, Detroit's bullpen this season has already given up 27 more earned runs than the Texas bullpen of a season ago, and there's still a month left to go in the 2014 campaign.

It may be that you're on the side of the fence that still values meaningless statistics such as saves, but if not, it's fairly easy to see that it's much more beneficial to build an entire pitching staff rather than focus on who will take the ball in the 9th inning of games you hope to be winning by that point.

It's with that, I think, that this whole diatribe is meant to put some focus on the present. Over the next month, Texas will have the opportunity to further evaluate some of the newer faces in the bullpen, and perhaps give some new guys a shot to earn a Spring Training invite. From there, it would appear on the surface that Jon Daniels will have a multitude of options from which to build a solid bullpen.

If Neftali Feliz is able to further recover from Tommy John surgery and come into 2015 with some extra reliability, then great. He could serve as a fantastic late-inning option if that ends up being the case. If not, however, I just don't see this causing some massive headache for the front office, because if the bullpen is strong as a whole, there's a better than decent chance that someone will be able to adequately fill a role that, in recent years, has been great for associating a song to the pitcher entering the game from the outfield gate.

The Rangers are 53-83

Once again the Rangers have the worst record in baseball. Hey! What else is new?

On Sunday Texas lost to Houston, 3-2, though Nick Martinez pitched pretty well (one run on six hits in 5.1 IP). As he exited with a 2-1 lead, the game was then handed over to the bullpen. 2015 bullpen candidate Roman Mendez tossed 1.1 scoreless innings (allowing two walks and striking out two), and Neal Cotts -- the eventual loser -- surrendered the game-tying homer to Astros 3B and former uber-prospect, Matt Dominguez, and Houston eventually scored the decisive run after Neftali Feliz was brought in. 

The Rangers have the worst record in baseball to go along with the worst run differential in baseball, so basically they are right where they belong. Right now the rotation consists of Colby Lewis, Nick Tepesch, Nick Martinez, Miles Mikolas, and Scott Baker. So, where exactly are Texas supposed to gather their wins from from here on out?

Colby Lewis is entitled to a strong start here and there, as is Nick Tepesch; the other dudes... well, I don't know. Derek Holland is supposedly set to return one of these days, but I'll be taking bets with whoever's interested what injury the Rangers will make up to delay his timetable so he won't have to pitch this year. 

Any takers?

The Record is Upon Us

Earlier this week, I had a piece up on the ESPN SweetSpot Page in which I took a look at the Major League records that the Rangers are approaching in regards to the number of pitchers used in a season and total players used in a season. Suffice to say, it's been a tough year for Texas on the injury front, so I took an opportunity to look at the various scenarios in which the Rangers could get the job done.

One possibility I mentioned, Luke Jackson, almost certainly will not be seeing any Major League action this season. At one point in the season, he was viewed as a virtual lock to join the Rangers when rosters expand on September 1, but his 9.75 ERA in 36 IP since joining Triple-A Round Rock gave Jon Daniels and the Rangers pause, as Daniels has said Jackson won't be joining the team this season. Jackson's 6.09 FIP plays a bit better than the ERA, but it's still not good, and his struggles have quickly turned around what was once a promising season in the higher levels of the minor leagues.

Despite that, another possibility I mentioned, Ryan Rua, will indeed be a part of a record, as he will start at 1st base against Houston tonight, getting the Rangers tied with the record of 59 players used on the season. It stands to reason that when Derek Holland is activated when rosters expand, as well as some other September call-ups, Texas will shatter the current mark that, until today, was shared by three different ball clubs.

Rua has had himself a nice season, starting out in Frisco while putting up a wRC+ of 144 in 288 plate appearances before being promoted to Round Rock. Since arriving at Round Rock earlier this season, he's put up a 131 wRC+ in 241 plate appearances. Before arriving at Triple-A Round Rock, he was typically in the infield, but since the promotion, he's played almost exclusively in the outfield. For now, it appears that the Rangers want to see if he's able to show some of the same talent at the Major League level, and given that the season has been lost for several months now, there's really no downside to this move, with the exception of Rua crashing and burning under the weight of Major League competition.

Given the things I've read about him, I don't really see that happening, but he'll certainly have to prove he can have competitive at-bats and show the Rangers that perhaps he deserves a shot come Spring Training in February of 2015.

Rua offers some pop in his bat. While it's not quite as prodigious as that of Joey Gallo, when you consider that Rua has a strikeout percentage of 18.3% as opposed to Gallo's homer-or-bust swing that has produced a strikeout percentage of 33.5%. That isn't to say that Gallo is destined to be a bust, or that Rua will end up profiling as a better Major League player. What it does mean, however, is that it's a bit easier to feel comfortable projecting what a player like Rua might look like at the Major League level than it is for someone like Gallo.

And that, I think, is why the Rangers are willing to give this a shot. It's great to have a player with a ceiling as high as Gallo's on the farm, but it's also nice to have a guy like Rua that is a bit "easier" to predict value for. There are many within the organization that have been excited with what Rua has been doing this season, and now, it appears he'll get a chance to spend the next four weeks or so auditioning for a role on the 2015 ball club.

 

Over-Thinking Things

On Thursday morning, longtime Rangers blogger Jamey Newberg provided an interesting 20 Things type of post titled "Truth," an entry I encourage everyone to read

In it, he talks about Shin-Soo Choo and how Texas misses Michael Young (for some reason), among other things, but what caught my eye most were his feelings about how the Rangers may choose to handle their offseason vis a vis their rotation situation. 

From his article (emphasis mine):

7. I’m looking forward to Draft Day this coming June, and not just at the top. The Rangers’ second-round pick (assuming they don’t forfeit it with a free agent signing) will be around where their first-round position has been slotted the last few years.

15. The Rangers have said lately that they would like to add a starting pitcher somewhere between the 2 and 4 slots, and that a trade is more likely than a free agent signing (like Max Scherzer).

As Ranger fans, we're spoiled by the coverage we have. There's Newberg, Adam Morris at LSB, Joey Matches (formerly of BBTiA), and in the past Jason Cole and Jason Parks, who now both have skin in MLB as scouts. You could put that roster against any team in the game and feel pretty damn good about your chances. 

But Jamey is a particularly interesting case, because although he's just a fan -- like me or you -- it's not well-known that he's also on the Texas Rangers payroll (unlike me or you). How deep his roots grow within the organization is up for debate, but it would be a mistake to treat his words in the same vein you would any other blog, even if you have to read between the lines from time to time. 

In August of 2010, Newberg wrote an uncharacteristically scathing piece about Joaquin Arias a night after he cost Cliff Lee a win, and a week later Arias was designated for assignment. Arias wasn't a prize by any stretch, but there's an angle to consider when Jamey lays into a player on the blog of his favorite team, especially considering his juice in the organization. 

So, when I read that "assuming they don't forfeit [their 2nd round pick] with a free agent signing," it leads me to think he knows something I don't. And it would make sense if that was the case, because, well, he's Jamey Newberg and I'm just little ol' Eric Reining.

Still, it's a curious thing to consider. Any of Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or James Shields would slot in quite comfortably behind Yu Darvish -- and in front of Derek Holland -- in what would be a powerhouse of a 2015 rotation. Further, it wouldn't cost the Rangers what could very likely be the #1 overall pick in next year's draft; it would only be a second round selection that could arguably be deemed superfluous, given the Rangers currently have a booming farm system that should rank in the top-3 in baseball next season. 

I'm not saying what Jamey wrote doesn't make sense, but it read very casually. Too casually, one would think. For someone who's been beating the drum now for months that Max Scherzer would be perfect for the Rangers, I think it's awfully premature to abandon that notion, unless of course I had knowledge of what was really going on. 

I'm sure this is coming off like some awkward conspiracy theory jargon, but Jamey Newberg is a smart man with a smart, sometimes subtle blog. 

Maybe I just need to go to bed. 

The Rangers are 52-81

If Texas manage to go 29-0 in their final 29 contests, the club will finish the season with a .500 record. So you're saying there's a chance... 

To avoid the franchise's first 100 loss season since doing it back-to-back years in 1972-'73, the Rangers will have to go 11-18 (.379) to close out the season, which is more or less in line with their current .391 winning percentage. 

However, to say the games don't matter at this point is not a valid assessment. Winning doesn't matter -- not when you're chasing the #1 pick -- but if I went into the Rangers clubhouse and tried to tell Nick Tepesch, or Rougned Odor these games don't mean a thing, I wouldn't be greeted very favorably. To them, every day is still the World Series, and it should be. They have a stake in the future of the franchise. 

Tonight, Tepesch struggled again. In a forgotten year the work of a little-known back-end starter doesn't ostensibly count for much damage, but he is still a pitcher the Rangers are going to depend on moving forward. There's a better than 50% chance he winds up as a member of the starting rotation next year. 

Nick's workload in 2014 is in the same range as he ended up last year, going 93.0 innings before being shut down, but the results show nowhere near the same pitcher. From a run-prevention standpoint, his last two years have proven similar; in 2013 he had a 4.84 ERA and this year it's about a half-run better (4.44). His peripherals, though, aren't in the same ballpark. 

Last year, in spite of his inflated earned run average, the process that got him there suggested he was underperforming. He carried a 18.7% strikeout rate with a mere 6.6% walk rate, and induced 47.3% of his outs on ground balls. All three of those figures are worthy of a middle-rotation starter. 

This season, everything has fallen off. Yeah, his ERA is better, but his K rate (11.9%), BB rate (7.9%) and GB rate (40.7%) each indicate he's been pretty lucky. Last year his xFIP -- what his ERA theoretically should have been -- was an excellent 3.82; this year it's 4.73. 

Nick Tepesch has still only logged 190.1 IP in his big league career, so he still has a bit of a ways to go before we should write anything definitive about his future prospects, but to succeed, or, hell, even exist in a 2015 rotation that figures to be far superior to the one he's currently in (by default), he will have to do better than he's shown in this year. 

I'm an admitted Tepesch apologist; I have faith in his ability to shine as a back-of-the-rotation starter; there may not be another player on the roster I'm more focused on down the stretch.