Do the Rangers Need Another Bullpen Makeover?

One year ago today, the Texas Rangers were 43-48, in third place in the American League West Division. The first-half bullpen looked terrible. Neftali Feliz started the year as the club’s closer and pitched himself right onto the disabled list and right out of town. Tanner Scheppers imploded. Anthony Bass threw more first-half relief innings than anyone, is maybe all you need to know. As a unit, the Rangers relief corps had a 4.38 ERA, a 4.48 FIP, and were in serious need of a shot in the arm if the club wanted to make a second-half run.

So, general manager Jon Daniels and the Texas front office identified a weakness and acquired right-hander Sam Dyson from Miami and left-hander Jake Diekman from Philadelphia, alongside Cole Hamels. Dyson and Diekman, paired with then-closer Shawn Tolleson and the emerging Keone Kela, formed a quartet that led a remarkable turnaround for the Texas bullpen. In the second half, Rangers relievers went from a 4.38 ERA to a 3.79. From a 4.48 FIP to a 3.98. From a bottom-five unit to a top-five unit. The team went 45-26 the rest of the way to launch themselves into the playoffs, and while the bullpen improvement wasn’t the entire reason why, it was certainly a large component.

Fast-forward to the present. The Rangers are in better standing than they were a year ago! Much better. They’re 55-40, and, according to our playoff odds, they’re looking at a better-than 50% chance to win their division with roughly a 70% chance to make the playoffs, one way or another. But lately, things haven’t been going well, and regarding the root of the struggles, the Rangers are experiencing déjà vu.

The bullpen, to date, has been even worse this year than it was in the first half last year. This year’s Rangers bullpen has a 5.05 ERA and a 5.04 FIP — borderline unthinkable numbers for a team with a record as good as the one Texas owns. And it’s not like things have been getting any better lately. Only the Reds’ bullpen has a higher season ERA. Only the Reds’ bullpen has a higher FIP. You should know all about the Reds bullpen. It’s one of the worst in history, on perhaps baseball’s worst team. The next-worst bullpen this year belongs to a contender.

That seems like a problem. Potentially, a major one. Particularly given the injuries to a starting rotation that has a 6.39 ERA over the last month. Hamels and Yu Darvish, the latter of whom is still building back his strength, can only throw so many innings. Naturally, the Rangers are actively seeking help. ESPN’s Buster Olney reports they’re one of the teams in on Aroldis Chapman. If you’re in on Chapman, you’re in on Andrew Miller, as well.

The year-to-date numbers paint the Rangers bullpen as an unmitigated disaster. As do the numbers over the last month. The Rangers just pulled off a successful bullpen overhaul a year ago, and it feels like they should do the same again. But despite all the evidence to the contrary, I’m not so sure that’s actually the case.

Dyson was a consistent fixture in the bullpen after coming to Texas last year, and he’s been a consistent fixture this year. That’s one late-inning guy checked off the list. Diekman, too, was great last year and again this year. He’s missed some time with a cut on his finger, but that shouldn’t be considered a problem, and he’s set to be activated on Friday. That’s two late-inning checks. Matt Bush and his near-Chapmanlike fastball have been a bit shakier as of late, but the season numbers as a whole are still great, and the stuff is obviously there. He remains a weapon. Alex Claudio and Tony Barnette, surprisingly, have given Texas consistently above-average innings all year, and while both are potential regression candidates, neither is being counted on to pitch particularly high-leverage innings, and both have more than earned their keep in a major league bullpen. Kela is back from the disabled list showing his best velocity of the year, and while Tolleson’s been an undeniable trainwreck, you see all the names that precede him within this paragraph, and there’s got to still be some talent there. As far as wild card, seventh options out of the bullpen go, he’s probably not the worst one to have.

I just named seven names. All seven have promise, one way or another. Four have been nothing but good all season. Kela last year looked like a bullpen star in the making, and he’s now pitching healthy for the first time all year. Sounds like the makings of a pretty decent bullpen! A good, even. Except, I didn’t just make up all those putrid numbers from before. So, what gives? How can the Rangers bullpen look so terrible, yet so promising at the same time?

Tolleson’s done his damage, definitely. But then Tom Wilhelmsen was expected to contribute at the start of the year, and he ran a 10.55 ERA, 7.93 FIP over 21 1/3 innings before being designated for assignment. That’s -1.0 WAR right there. Cesar Ramos has ran an ERA and FIP around seven for another 20 innings, and he’ll be jettisoned on Friday when Diekman returns. Luke Jackson’s only thrown 11 2/3 innings, but he did enough damage to cost the Rangers another half a win before being displaced. The guys who threw the overwhelming majority of the terrible bullpen innings for Texas this year? They’re all off the team. The seven guys who figure to make up Texas’ second-half bullpen — Dyson, Diekman, Bush, Kela, Claudio, Barnette and Tolleson — have combined for a 3.62 ERA and 3.79 FIP this year, both marks well-above league average and even better than last year’s second-half group. And that’s with Tolleson’s (seemingly) unsustainably poor numbers dragging down the pack. That’s a far rosier way to view the relief unit with a season ERA and FIP each north of 5.00.

Would a Miller or Chapman make this group better? Of course it would. I’m just not so sure that another bullpen makeover is this team’s biggest area of concern, despite downright horrid season numbers that would suggest the opposite. The bigger area of concern exists within the rotation, which was just average in the first half and has lately been falling apart. Colby Lewis and Derek Holland are both on the disabled list with significant injuries. Martin Perez has been more than shaky lately, and his peripheral numbers inspire zero confidence. Darvish has looked great, but still seems far from a certainty, as far as health goes. Hamels is the only consistent force in the rotation, and the Rangers should be looking to eject Kyle Lohse and A.J. Griffin from their rotation as quickly as possible if they want to continue their first-half success.

Hence the Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore rumors. The Rich Hill talks. Even the Nathan Eovaldi, Ivan Nova, CC Sabathia rumblings. The Rangers certainly have the firepower in their farm system to get a deal done, and within the next two weeks, we’ll surely see them make a move of some kind to acquire pitching. It’s just that, although it’s been the late innings that’ve gotten Texas in trouble, it’s the early ones that are more important.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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matt
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matt

Matt Bush is also a regression candidate given how much of his value have come from suppressing homers