Texas Rangers

Rangers’ bullpen facing key questions after abysmal 2017

Keone Kela is a candidate to be the Rangers’ closer in 2018, but he said that won’t be his focus entering spring training.
Keone Kela is a candidate to be the Rangers’ closer in 2018, but he said that won’t be his focus entering spring training. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

Ninth in a series of spring training previews

At this point, there’s really no need to review the performance of the Texas Rangers’ bullpen last season.

No need to say how terrible closer Sam Dyson was or to post grisly statistics such as the relievers’ inability to keep inherited runners from scoring or to keep the ball in the ballpark.

And, to be perfectly honest, none of it matters now. The bullpen’s woeful season, which contributed greatly to the Rangers missing the playoffs, is history and a new season for largely the same cast of relievers is less than two months away.

A fresh start might be the Rangers’ key bullpen addition this off-season. They added Chris Martin, are on the verge of adding Seung-hwan Oh, re-signed Tony Barnette, Jake Diekman is fully healthy and Keone Kela believes his shoulder woes have been fixed.

Those are all good things for a group that must be better in 2018, when the Rangers will be operating with little margin for error.

“When you talk about that core group at this point, I think what they’ve been through, what they’ve learned the last few years, they’re going to be better just through pitching in the big leagues,” manager Jeff Banister said.

“Going through the certain situations they’ve been through, learning what success feels like and learning when they’ve been challenged, how to fight through it, how to utilize their pitches.”

There are still questions less than a week away from the first spring workout for pitchers and catchers.

Who will be the closer?

Will Matt Bush be in the bullpen?

Oh figures to get a serious look at closer this spring after agreeing to a one-year deal with a club option for 2019. He has 396 career saves spanning time spent in Korea, Japan and St. Louis the past two seasons.

He saved 19 games during his strong “rookie” season in 2016, but lost the closer’s job last season after taking a step back.

Bush could be the answer at closer, though he wasn’t as effective as needed last season when given the chance. He can work multiple innings with power stuff, so the Rangers might want him setting up the closer instead of being the closer.

First, though, they have to determine if Bush will be in their rotation. He has trained this off-season to be a starter and will be given the chance to show if he can be effective. The Rangers will let him stretch out to three innings before deciding which way to go.

The bullpen would seem to need him more than the rotation, though there are still plenty of proven relievers who could be added before the season who would allow the Rangers’ bullpen to survive without Bush.

Diekman, Kela, Bush and incumbent closer Alex Claudio could fill the role. Diekman, the most experienced of the group, was the internal front-runner until the Oh agreement.

“He is a significant pitcher in our bullpen, a guy who’s a force,” Banister said of Diekman. “We feel like he’s an impact player on this team.”

Kela has closer stuff and has made no secret that he wants to close at some point. He was unable to get a shot at the job in the second half last season because of an injury, the second consecutive season he has been laid up.

If he can stay healthy, the job could eventually fall to him.

“Being able to go out there and get the 27th out is one of the biggest things you can do in any sports arena,” Kela said. “It’s definitely something I aspire to do, but I’m not going into spring training really worrying about that.

“As you’ve seen in previous years, we never really had roles, and the two years prior to that we were successful. Last year we had some hiccups, but that’s what comes with injuries and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.”

That cookie can’t crumble as badly as it did in 2017 for the Rangers to have a chance at reaching their goal of returning to the postseason.

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