The Rangers gambled on Joe Nathan last season and won big. Nathan recovered from his worst season as a reliever, improving nearly all of his metrics, and finishing the year with a 2.78 FIP and 37 saves. The team took a similar approach this offseason, picking up former closer Joakim Soria and Toronto Blue Jays reliever Jason Frasor. Both players have been effective late-inning options during their career, but concerns about their usefulness kept their price down. Soria didn’t pitch at all last season after recovering from his second Tommy John surgery, while Frasor will have to contend with age-related decline as he enters his age-35 season. Those veterans will join a young, yet, otherwise promising bullpen in Texas.
The only concern about Nathan this season is his age. At 38-years-old, it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder how long he’ll be able to pitch at a high level. While we can’t know for sure when aging curves will take hold, we can be encouraged by his results from last season. Nathan managed to bump his strikeout rate back up to his old level and posted the best walk rate of his career. His fastball velocity, which had been down in 2011, jumped back up to a very solid 94 mph, his highest speed since 2007. If he stays healthy, he’ll be one of the better fantasy closers.
Frasor and Soria are likely to play the role of set-up men for Nathan. Soria, however, isn’t expected to be ready at the beginning of the year. According to Jeff Zimmerman‘s MASH Report, Soria is expected to be ready around late-May or early-June. There’s a good chance it will take him some time to assume a high-leverage role, so he might not be a great pick if you’re looking for a speculative closer. Frasor is probably the man for that job if Nathan struggles or gets injured.
Behind those players, the team’s bullpen is very young. Tanner Scheppers is a former prospect, who struggled with the long-ball during his debut season. He did a great job cutting down his walks last year, which was a huge problem for him in 2011. Scheppers posted some pretty solid peripherals in just 32.1 innings, so he could see his numbers improve if he can stop giving up home runs. He could be a candidate to take on a high-leverage role with Soria out to begin the year.
Robbie Ross could potentially take over a prominent role in the team’s bullpen, but he came into camp looking to fill the fifth starter spot. If he loses out on that role, Ross could be the club’s late-inning left-handed option out of the pen. Ross acquitted himself admirably last season, pitching 65 innings with a 3.40 FIP. He also didn’t show any issues with opposite-handed hitters, and shouldn’t be restricted to being used as a LOOGY.
The other lefty in the pen, Michael Kirkman, throws hard for a left-hander, but struggles with his control. Unlike Ross, Kirkman has shown some signs of platoon issues. In 46.2 innings against righties, he’s surrendered 8 home runs. His strikeout rate has also dropped below 20% against right-handers. That could prevent him from being used in a prominent role. He’ll likely end up as a situation reliever unless he can figure out a way to get righties out, or substantially improve his control.
After being dealt to the Rangers in December, Josh Lindblom completed a five month stretch where he played for three different teams. He had some pretty significant home run issues, which aren’t going to get any better in Texas. He’s probably not going to pitch his way into a prominent role. The team also took a shot on side-arming righty-killer Coty Woods in the Rule-5 draft. The Rangers would have to return Woods to the Rockies if he fails to make the team, so they could lean towards putting him on the major-league roster unless he’s terrible during the spring. He would be used strictly as a ROOGY.
It would also be foolish not to mention Neftali Feliz. The former closer is recovering from Tommy John surgery after a stint in the rotation. It’s unclear exactly how the team plans to use him when he returns, but his track record as a reliever could play into that decision. Feliz won’t be ready until July or August, so he’s probably only worth a pick if you plan on keeping him for next season.
Early Depth Chart
Closer: Joe Nathan
Set-up: Jason Frasor
Set-up: Tanner Scheppers
Middle relief: Robbie Ross (L)
Middle relief: Josh Lindblom
LOOGY: Michael Kirkman (L)
ROOGY: Coty Woods
Injured: Joakim Soria
Injured Neftali Feliz