One of the biggest talking points surrounding the Texas Rangers this off-season centered on just how good their bullpen could be.
One of the best in the American League. One of the best in baseball.
That’s elite territory for a group that in the second half of last season helped carry the Rangers back to the postseason after opening 2015 as a glaring weakness.
Shawn Tolleson emerged as the closer, Keone Kela was enjoying a nice rookie season, and then Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman joined at the trade deadline to complete the bullpen overhaul.
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They’re all back this season, and are joined by a former closer in Seattle and a former star in Japan.
They are the reason for all the hype. The bullpen is deep and talented, and it’s also equipped with more experience than most have given them credit for having.
That’s what a stretch run will do for a group of pitchers, as well as a postseason appearance and the chance to close games.
Now, they have to go prove it.
“You’re not one of the best bullpens in the league until you do it,” manager Jeff Banister said. “I think they’re better equipped today to handle that than they were at this point last year.
“You get tested and you play in the games with the magnitude we played in. They gain that experience that allows them to handle certain situations. They’ve already been in some of those tough, stressful situations, so they know how to handle that.”
Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson were acquired via trade ahead of the July 31 deadline, and each appeared in a game on his first day on the roster.
Dyson and Diekman each tossed a scoreless inning Sunday in the Rangers’ 7-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Each said that he is right where he normally is at this point in spring training, and catcher Robinson Chirinos said that both are filling up the strike zone with all of their pitches.
Dyson used his power sinker to post a 1.15 ERA after joining the Rangers. The right-hander pitched in five consecutive games in the final week and saved their Game 1 win at Toronto in the AL Division Series.
“Being thrown into the fire, right from the get-go, helped me out, knowing that if I had a bad performance I was still going to have an opportunity to throw,” said Dyson, who also surrendered the infamous three-run homer to Jose Bautista in Game 5 that sent the Blue Jays to the next round. “I got a lot of consistent work, and it kind of helped me take off.”
Diekman, a left-hander, rolled out a 2.08 ERA after being included in the Cole Hamels trade, and was dominating at times in the ALDS as he reached triple digits on the Rogers Centre radar gun.
I don’t think my pitching style is going to change. Just from the adversity standpoint, we didn’t get to where we wanted to be. Hopefully next time I can make a more quality pitch when I need to.
Right-hander Sam Dyson, on the experience he gained late last season
Their experiences have been cataloged for future use and will be called upon this season.
“It helps you a lot,” Diekman said. “Those games in Toronto were pretty crazy. If you can keep your emotions in check and make sure you can breathe on the mound, it’s still just a game and you have to get out there and attack hitters and see what happens.”
The load won’t fall all on them and Tolleson, as it did the final week of last season.
100 Second-half appearances last season by Rangers relievers Sam Dyson, Jake Diekman and Shawn Tolleson
Kela, who also logged postseason innings, returns after a September elbow scare and the heaviest workload of his career. His slider might be the best in the bullpen.
Tom Wilhelmsen saved 67 games over four seasons with Seattle before he was traded in November, and Tony Barnette saved 41 games in 2015 in Japan. Each has an array of pitches and is devastating when ahead in the count.
“It makes my job easy,” Chirinos said. “I can put down whatever finger I want.”
Chirinos sees the potential upside the bullpen has and agrees that it could be one of the AL’s best, capable of shortening games and protecting any lead.
Dyson said that it will require a good dose of health and good defense behind them for the relievers to live up to the hype.
And they have to prove it — a task that begins April 4.
“There’s 10 or 12 people that can pitch,” Diekman said. “The bullpen’s just deeper in general right now, and we all really jell together and push each other. That was so much fun last year in the bullpen.”