Game 1 of 162 in the Texas Rangers’ 2017 season turned out to be the one that set the course for the entire season.
Opening Day starter Yu Darvish could have been better, but exited with a lead.
The offense fed off the home run to build a lead for their lockdown bullpen combo.
Matt Bush allowed the tying home run in the eighth inning.
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Sam Dyson handed the Cleveland Indians three runs in the ninth to send the Rangers to an 8-5 loss.
That scenario played itself out again two games later, and then again in Game 7 and Game 10 and Game 12 and kept on repeating itself, though with varying degrees of success from the starting pitchers and offense.
The bullpen was bad, plain and simple, and it cost the Rangers a chance at a third consecutive playoff spot more than any other factor.
And it needs to be fixed this off-season.
Starting pitching remains the focus for general manager Jon Daniels, but there will be new relievers in 2018, veteran relievers who can steady the rocky times and lead the inexperienced pitchers through them.
Guess what? Those guys don’t come cheap these days, so Daniels might be forced out of his comfort zone and need to dump some big bucks into the bullpen.
“It depends on the individual,” Daniels said. “Obviously, we would like to bring in some bullpen help, guys you have a degree of confidence in from Day One they’re going to fill some key roles. And then you look at where the hot names on the market have come from a year ago.
“I think our challenge is really to go down both paths. Yes, we’re looking for a known quantity, but we’re also challenging ourselves to identify some of those guys before they pop.”
Strip down all the bad, and the Rangers’ relievers were the worst in two categories: strikeouts and inherited runners scored. In other words, they didn’t miss many bats, especially after replacing another pitcher with runners on base.
The Rangers’ bullpen managed only 1,107 strikeouts and 6.95 strikeouts per nine innings, both the lowest in the majors. The bullpen allowed 40 percent of inherited runners to score, also worst in MLB.
Throw in the third-most walks by an American League bullpen and the third-worst strikeout/walk ratio in the majors (1.98), and, well, yeah.
That stops with better execution, more experience and, simply, better pitchers. Daniels’ goal this off-season, which is getting jump-started this week at the annual general manager meetings, is to find the right pitchers at the right price.
The Rangers don’t have much history of diving into the deep end of the free-agent relief pool during Daniels’ reign. They did so ahead of the 2012 season by signing closer Joe Nathan to a two-year deal worth $14.5 million, and they signed left-handers Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes to contracts worth $3.5 million and $3.9 million entering the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
Daniels has preferred trading for relief arms, like he did in 2011 to acquire Koji Uehara and Mike Adams. But when they became free agents, their price tags went beyond what Daniels had in mind.
Premium setup relievers haven’t gotten any cheaper in recent years, with multiple pitchers signing multi-year deals worth $6 million to $9 million a year. The top closers are going for more than $15 million per season, and Wade Davis and Greg Holland could get that this winter.
The Rangers could use a closer, and could find one a few pegs down the salary scale with right-handers Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek on the open market. Or the Rangers could go with an internal candidate, say Bush (if he’s not a starter), Keone Kela or Jake Diekman.
Diekman, though only 31 on Opening Day, could be viewed as the wise veteran.
“We’re going to get somebody with that cache back in Diekman,” Daniels said. “Kind of the maturity and perspective. I think he has a little different outlook that can help the other guys.”
The Rangers haven’t pinpointed a cause for the utter failures of the bullpen. Brad Holman looks like the scapegoat after the Rangers didn’t bring him back as bullpen coach, and they had Diekman for only the final month of the season.
But Dyson flopped as the closer, only to find his footing with the San Francisco Giants. Bush dealt with a shoulder issue early on that required surgery last month and was up-and-down in his turn at closer.
Tony Barnette, who looked like a steal find in Japan after a nice rookie season in 2016, allowed the highest percentage of inherited runners to score (51.2 percent) in 2017 and saw his ERA balloon from 2.09 to 5.49.
The Rangers declined the $4 million club option on Barnette, but are considering re-signing him at a lower rate. Daniels might be able to stomach the price of hard-throwing relievers such as Tommy Hunter, the former Rangers starter, and Anthony Swarzak.
Addison Reed, who finished 2017 as the primary setup man for Boston Red Sox ace closer Craig Kimbrel, will be a hot item this winter, but his strike-throwing, strikeouts and experience are exactly what the Rangers could use.
It all depends on if Daniels is willing to stretch the budget a little more than he’s comfortable doing.