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Sifting through internal bullpen options

The Rangers bullpen blew another lead on Wednesday. Is there anyone in the minors who might help?

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners
Are you there, God? Its me, the Ranger bullpen...
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

One of the mysteries of the offseason for the Texas Rangers was why they didn’t do more to address either their LF/DH situation or their bullpen situation.

The LF/DH situation seems to be working itself out, what with Ezequiel Duran putting up a 122 wRC+ so far and apparently, with Corey Seager returning from the injured list, establishing himself as the regular left fielder for now. Robbie Grossman is, as one would have expected, fine as a DH option against lefties and not fine against righties, so you still don’t have a great option against RHPs at DH, but Bruce Bochy can rotate guys through there and figure things out as needed. If the biggest concern with your everyday lineup is that you don’t have a quality DH option against righthanded pitchers, well, you’re probably not in bad shape there.

On the other hand, the bullpen situation appears to be deteriorating. After a solid start to the season, leading to “just as we all expected, a strong Ranger bullpen is carrying a shaky rotation” snarkiness for a few weeks, things reversed themselves. Bruce Bochy was for a while appearing to be flipping all the right switches and hitting all the right buttons when it came to the pen. At this point, though, the bullpen buttons all seem to have labels like “garlic flavored Tootsie Roll” and “box of broken glass.”

We mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the bullpen had, overall, been middle of the pack as of that point in the 2023 season. Flash forward to today and that’s no longer the case. The Rangers’ bullpen ERA is 4.48, which is 25th in the majors, and their fWAR (which is FIP based but also takes into account leverage) is 0.4, which is tied with Washington for 22nd in the majors.

Here are the eight members of the bullpen as of today:

Will Smith

Brock Burke

Jonathan Hernandez

Josh Sborz

Jose Leclerc

Cole Ragans

John King

Joe Barlow

Will Smith is in the closer role and has been just fine, putting up a 2.93 ERA and a 2.65 FIP. So let’s set him aside.

Out of the rest of that group, who do you trust to preserve a one run lead in the 8th inning?

Jose Leclerc was doing good until he wasn’t, and has been relegated to “mop up/get his head straight” duty while the team tries to figure out how to ensure he’s going to throw strikes when he’s in the game.

Jonathan Hernandez has lost command of his slider — in May, he has more walks (5) than Ks (4) and almost as many home runs allowed (3), with a 10.80 ERA and 14.30 FIP in 7 appearances. He has allowed a .333/.517/.762 slash line to the 30 batters he has faced in May, and has a 5.63 ERA with a 6.01 xERA.

Leclerc and Hernandez, you may recall, were supposed to be the top righthanded late inning options.

Josh Sborz, who has spent most of the last eight months in danger of being designated for assignment, assumed the trusted late inning righty role, then blew up in the 8th inning on Wednesday when his command disappeared on him.

Brock Burke has stopped missing bats (6.9 K/9 this year), although weirdly, per xERA, he’s pitching better than 2022. While he had a 1.97 ERA and 3.29 FIP in 2022, compared to 3.93 and 4.72 in 2023, his 3.08 xERA in 2023 is better than last year’s 3.31 xERA.

Cole Ragans made the roster as a long man/spot starter, started off well, appeared in five of the Rangers’ first 11 games, and has appeared six times in the last 37 days. One of those games he allowed five runs in less than an inning at Cincinnati, after having not pitched for ten days. His last time out he gave up four runs in three innings against Atlanta in the Monday game where everyone celebrated the fact that the good pitchers didn’t have to pitch.

That leaves John King and Joe Barlow, who have 2.1 IP in three games between them in the majors this year, and who have been in AAA until recently because they weren’t deemed good enough options to beat out the likes of Ian Kennedy (who, I think, is technically still in the organization since he was designated for assignment but no announcement has been made of a trade or release yet) and the various guys listed above.

Who would’ve imaged we’d be missing Brett Martin so much?

I suspect that the organization thought that, like the LF/DH situation, the bullpen situation would be resolved between their late, cheap pickup (Smith for the pen, Grossman for the LF/DH) and internal options proving to be acceptable. And if not, well, there’s always the trade market in July.

And Dane Dunning ended up being a surprisingly successful internal option in the bullpen, until Jacob deGrom’s stint on the injured list forced Dunning back into the rotation (where he has also been very good). Dunning’s move to the rotation, though, took the guy who had been the best reliever on the team up to that point in the season out of the bullpen.

The Rangers have turned over three spots in their bullpen already, as Josh Sborz started the year on the injured list and then a rehab assignment, while John King and Joe Barlow started the year in AAA. All three guys are what they are — Sborz has really good stuff he’s never been able to consistently command, Barlow is a middling middle reliever who doesn’t strike out as many guys as you’d think but gets outs, and King is a lefty who doesn’t miss bats but who gets ground balls.

Looking elsewhere in the system, there are a variety of options, though none that get you all that excited. Taylor Hearn was sent down earlier in the year after not pitching well in four outings. Hearn has a 0.57 ERA in 15 innings over 10 games at Round Rock, but he has also walked 8 of 67 batters faced and hit another 3, so I’m not sure how much he helps from a “get guys up who can throw strikes” standpoint right now. That said, Hearn may be the next guy up just because he’s on the 40 man roster, has major league experience, and has been fine at Round Rock.

Yerry Rodriguez was up briefly earlier this year, appeared in four games — all of them in the 8th or 9th inning of blowouts — and was shipped out, suggested that Bruce Bochy, Greg Maddux, et al aren’t real eager to throw him in the deep end.

Glenn Otto would have been a viable candidate for the Opening Day roster had he not been injured. He is on the 60 day injured list and there’s no telling when he will return. He also had big questions about his ability to stay healthy when the Rangers traded for him, so, caveat emptor.

Off the 40 man roster there are a couple of righties with funky deliveries, Grant Anderson and Chase Lee, who are toiling in the Round Rock bullpen. Lee has been talked up almost since he was first drafted as a potential quick riser and option for the major league pen. He has a 4.64 ERA and 3.98 FIP for Round Rock this year and relies a lot on deception, which oftentimes doesn’t play as well as you move up the ranks. Anderson, meanwhile, has a 3.68 ERA between Frisco and Round Rock, and has struck out over 40% of the batters he has faced, but has also walked too many.

Anderson and Lee are guys you could see up in the next couple of months as the Rangers churn through options in the back of the bullpen. Both are somewhat limited, however, in that, as righthanded sidewinders, they have big platoon splits. Anderson had a roughly 200 point OPS split last year, and has allowed lefties an 826 OPS this year, compared to 525 for righthanders. Lee has allowed an 1169 OPS to lefties this year, versus 547 against righties. So if you have them in your pen, you have to be selective about when you use them, and you’re likely not going to use them for more than 3-4 batters.

Former major leaguers at Round Rock? Kyle Cody was getting run in spring training as someone to watch, but he has gotten lit up. Joe Palumbo has already been released after not throwing strikes in two outings. Jake Latz has a 9+ ERA. The Rangers had Dominic Leone and Zack Littell hanging around at the start of the year, but Leone is now with the Mets, and Littell was traded to Boston, then waived, and is currently with Tampa Bay.

What else? Daniel Robert and Lucas Jacobsen have been on the “guys to watch” list but aren’t doing all that well for Round Rock right now. Grant Wolfram, a lefty who spent 2022 with Frisco and got a spot in the Arizona Fall League, has a 2.33 ERA between Frisco and Round Rock this year, with 27 Ks against 8 walks in 19.1 IP. He could get a look, possibly, if he continues to have success with Round Rock.

Beyond that there are guys like Marc Church and Antoine Kelly and Alex Speas (who is back and pitching again after retiring) who are having some success in Frisco, but they are all walking a lot of guys in AA, and I don’t see any of them doing enough to make a jump to the majors in the near future, at least without getting their feet wet in Round Rock first.

Have I missed anyone? Probably. But in running down the list, there’s not a bunch of arms out there in the minors that are kicking down the door for a major league bullpen job. There’s only a few who are even knocking politely at the door.

Texas has plenty of ammunition to be players in the trade market, and there are always relievers available in July, so there’s that. But teams don’t usually start making trades until we get into the summer. I imagine the front office is working the phones, but it will probably be a few more weeks before sellers get serious about moving guys.

Until then, this is what we’ve got.