Gil LeBreton

Rangers again have the makings of one of AL’s best bullpens

The Native Americans said that the desert air can play tricks, make the mind see things that aren’t really there.

That’s my excuse, in any case, and I’m sticking with it.

A year ago, after sitting amidst the saguaro cactus and setting sun behind the White Tank Mountains, watching the 2016 Texas Rangers take shape, I boldly announced that this could well be The Best Bullpen the Rangers Have Ever Had.

Caps are mine. I wrote it, so I have to own it.

Four weeks later, manager Jeff Banister’s trusty Cactus League relief corps was ranked 30th — of 30 — in all the major leagues. The Arlington Fire Department was placed on dumpster alert. Banister couldn’t contain the nightly flames.

He had made the same mistake I did, letting the desert air — and the day-after-day spring performances of his yet-untested bullpen — tease him into thinking that the group’s limited sample set numbers were for real.

As it turned out, the two he thought he could trust most, incumbent closer Shawn Tolleson and veteran Tom Wilhelmsen, were the ones who let him down the most spectacularly.

In the second game of the season, Banister handed the bullpen a 2-2 ballgame in the seventh inning and watched the Mariners score eight runs. One game later, Tolleson blew a 5-3 save opportunity and gave up five runs without recording an out.

And so it went for (wince) The Best Bullpen the Rangers Have Ever Had.

Fortunes would change, as it turned out. Wilhelmsen was released. Sam Dyson permanently replaced Tolleson as the closer. And by the end of June, what was once an eyesore became one of the AL West champions’ strengths.

So here I am again. Cut me some slack. I’m seeing those same visions again.

This time Dyson is going to be the closer from Day One. Matt Bush and his 100 mph fastball are back. Tony Barnette proved to be one of the best under-the-radar setup guys in the league. Keone Kela is healthy again. And I’m ready to endorse the fascination with Alex Claudio’s funky left-handed delivery.

Yep. Best Bullpen the Rangers Have Ever Had, version 2.0!

But this time there was Banister on Sunday, tapping the brakes for me.

“If you look at the skill set of all of them, they definitely have that chance,” Banister said, agreeing, sort of.

“I caution myself, though. I learned a valuable lesson last year in thinking about, dreaming about, what they are on paper. I allowed them to kinda work through it and see who they are.

“I realize that every year is a new year for bullpens. You’d like to think they’re pretty static, and you’re going to get the kind of year they had before. But it doesn’t necessarily work that way.”

What Banister was saying is that if you take the best of Dyson, Bush, Barnette, Kela, Claudio and Jeremy Jeffress, you do have the makings of a shut-down American League bullpen, as the Rangers often showed during the season’s final four months.

In the first two months of 2016, the Rangers bullpen allowed a .287 batting average and 31 home runs. In the four months that followed, only 35 homers were hit against Rangers relievers and opponents batted .249.

“They’ve all had success,” Banister said. “However, all of them were also very inexperienced, when you really look at it.

“They learned some valuable lessons last year.”

So did Banister, he admitted.

But me, I guess, not so much.

Best Bullpen the Rangers Have Ever Had, 2.0. Remember to tell the fire department where you read it first.

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