In attempting to revamp a performance-challenged bullpen that ranked near the bottom of the majors in a litany of different peripheral areas in 2008 -- including, but not limited to, the all-important strikeouts-to-walks department -- on a shoestring budget, the Texas Rangers have opted to retain the superficially good (Eddie Guardado), purge the mediocre (Jamey Wright) and acquire the enigmatic (Brendan Donnelly, Derrick Turnbow and Joe Torres) in the hope that improved health, a lighter workload and a few pleasant surprises will slingshot their relief corps back into the realm of respectability.
The presence of those intriguing pieces notwithstanding, one facet of the projected bullpen that continues to bother me is the area of left-handed relief depth, which sustained a triple-whammy on Sunday as C.J. Wilson (blister, left middle finger) dealt with a minor medical setback, Kason Gabbard was optioned to minor league camp (Triple-A Oklahoma City) and Torres issued four free passes during his one-inning afternoon cameo appearance in the Rangers' 10-7 victory over the Padres, further validating his reputation as yet another electric arm with career-threatening control problems.
Gabbard's demotion isn't an unexpected one (his recovery from July 2008 elbow surgery has been slow-paced, and the 26-year-old southpaw almost certainly wouldn't have been ready to contribute by Opening Day regardless), but manager Ron Washington's glowing endorsement is, to an extent, very surprising:
"Now, he’s going to get an opportunity to get on a regular rotation ... so we can start to get him right," Washington said. "Once he gets his innings under him and he’s able to do the things he’s capable of doing, he’s a big asset to our organization and to our big league team."
I wish I could assert my confidence in Gabbard's ability with that same level of conviction. Gabbard's three-pitch repertoire -- comprising a mid-to-high 80s sinker, a solid mid-70s curveball and a change-up that typically hovers right around 80 mph -- is better suited for relieving than starting, but his ability to control those offerings has steadily become worse, and while his inability to consistently miss bats is at least marginally mitigated by his very strong ground ball-inducing tendencies, my gut feeling with respect to Gabbard is that he will never be a reliable major league pitcher in any capacity, and certainly not an integral component of a championship-caliber ballclub.
Torres still strikes me as the sort of intriguing talent that could parlay a brief run of success at Double-A Frisco or Oklahoma City into a brief major league stint (ala the similarly live-armed Bill White), but D Magazine's Evan Grant writes that recurring lower back spasms and abysmal control have removed him from the mix of pitchers still vying for an Opening Day roster spot; Wilson, meanwhile, can ill-afford another setback as he attempts to rebound from an injury- and controversy-beset 2008 campaign, and while Guardado does indeed represent a known veteran quantity, questions have arisen this spring as to just how much octane the 38-year-old southpaw has left in his arm, and whether his horrendous 2008 swinging-strike rate of 5.8 percent -- representing the fifth-worst mark among all qualifying major league relievers -- is a harbinger of really bad things to come.
The Rangers possess multiple left-handed minor league assets that project to impact the major league roster via the bullpen (including, most notably, Beau Jones, Joseph Ortiz and Corey Young, all of whom were profiled by D Magazine's Mike Hindman back in November), but doubt and skepticism enshroud all four of the higher-level options (albeit to varying degrees), and while the potential is certainly there for the Guardado/Wilson tandem to fulfill their assigned duties by shutting down difficult opposing left-handed batters, it would only take one of the two struggling execution-wise or falling victim to the injury bug to inflict measurable damage upon the Rangers' run prevention mantra.
Quick Hits: Left-hander Derek Holland fanned three Padres during his two-inning save on Sunday afternoon, with his third and final strikeout coming against Luis Durango on a 96 mph fastball, followed by an 81 mph back-door slider ... After throwing 70 pitches against the Padres, right-hander Kevin Millwood reportedly retreated to the bullpen to toss an additional 15 to 20 pitches ... First baseman Chris Davis and shortstops Joaquin Arias and Michael Young all homered against San Diego ... Texas has made no progress with outfielder Josh Hamilton on a long-term contract extension since the beginning of spring training ... The United States knocked the Netherlands out of the World Baseball Classic on Sunday evening with a 9-3 victory ... Designated hitter Hank Blalock (tight left quadriceps muscle) should be ready to return to the Rangers' lineup on Tuesday.