It's three-something in the morning, and my latest attempt to repair my hopelessly broken circadian rhythm has gone careening off the rails, so here are a few words on the most volatile and pliable component of this year's -- well, actually, any year's -- Rangers team. If I had a bit more creative energy right now, and a greater desire to incite chaos and confusion, I'd write an extended and somber farewell to you all in reference to April Fools' Day, and some people would actually buy it, given that I haven't been nearly as prolific over the last few months as I was once upon a time.
But I wouldn't do that to you all, as I'm sure you can get your fill of tacky bits elsewhere, and, besides, there are more pressing issues to attend to, like the all-important and assuredly division-deciding seventh pitcher at the back of the Rangers' bullpen. See what I did there? That's the kind of failed brilliant wit you can only summon forth during the darkest hours of night. And since there's obviously nowhere else for this paragraph to go, I'm going to go ahead and move on. Don't ever develop a sleep disorder, kids. This is what comes of it.
Yesterday afternoon, the Rangers went ahead and declared a winner in the ongoing Robbie Ross vs. Michael Kirkman roster battle by way of optioning Kirkman to Triple-A Round Rock, but were quick to caution that there was still a Ross vs. Neal Cotts battle in progress, and the media was quick to caution that the possibility of Texas simply not carrying a lefty remained in play. A couple of hours later, Cotts strained his left latissimus dorsi muscle throwing the penultimate pitch of his outing, and with word coming down that he could be put on the shelf for at least a week, that seems to be the end of Ross vs. Cotts, and the elimination of the last remaining obstacle standing between Ross and a roster spot.
And if you're one to buy into the notion that both Koji Uehara and Mark Lowe are locks to make it despite lackluster spring efforts, your bullpen roles coming out of spring training look like this:
CL Joe Nathan
SU Mike Adams
SU Alexi Ogando *
MR Mark Lowe
MR Robbie Ross
MR Koji Uehara
LR Scott Feldman
[* Do, of course, bear in mind that Ogando's role is perhaps the most undefined of all, as the very nature of his power arsenal and multi-inning utility affords Texas the luxury of deploying him in a conventional one-inning setup role, or in a less conventional late-inning role whereby he chews up multiple innings in a single outing, or in a long relief role where the late innings haven't yet commenced but a relatively high leverage index justifies summoning Ogando. It's also worth keeping in mind that Feldman is the first line of defense for the starting rotation, and if he has to transition back to the starting rotation at some point, Ogando could end up being deemed the next line of rotation defense.]
The only conceivable injustice here would be Yoshinori Tateyama ending up on the other side of the looking glass after pitching at a superb level for the better part of the 2011 season (up until August 24th, Tateyama boasted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 40-to-7 over 38 innings, and held his opponents' cumulative triple-slash line to .181/.231/.304), but consider a couple of things here: first, the composition of the bullpen changes early and often. Six of the seven pitchers who occupied the Rangers' bullpen last May 1st no longer occupied spots on September 1st. I don't anticipate a similarly excessive turnover rate coming into play this season, but let's all just go ahead and agree that if Tateyama is assigned to Round Rock, and if he performs well (as he should, if he's actually up to the task of handling major league hitters), he'll get his coveted big league innings.
The other thing about this closely relates to the first point: One of the big points of emphasis coming out of Surprise right now is the Rangers' sense of urgency to start the season well and put as much distance as possible between themselves and a relatively formidable Angels squad. And with that being the case, I won't be surprised if the organization pulls the plug more quickly on record-crippling underperformers than they would under less exigent circumstances, with guys like Uehara and Lowe probably not being extended too much leash if they start blowing leads and inducing hypertension. The same applies to Ross, who is going to need to perform early and often in order to build up the requisite trust with Ron Washington and Mike Maddux, and who will probably cede his spot to Kirkman if he looks overmatched a couple of weeks into the season.
Do I expect that will be the case? Not really. The experiment may not pan out, but it won't be from a lack of ability or preparation or confidence. Jason Parks and Jason Cole have together portrayed Ross as level-headed, mature, and tenacious, with a heavy low-90s heater that he commands well against hitters of either dexterity and a potent late-biting slider thrown with the mechanical cleanness and consistency necessary for him to pull this off. Wrote Parks last week:
[H]ilarious kid with exuberant personality off-the-field; monster competitor and bulldog on-the-field; despite size and stuff, attacks hitters like he’s a flamethrower; closer mentality; works extremely fast and efficient; persuades weak contact; fills up the zone with strikes and forces hitters to beat him; two plus offerings and plus command profile; has been effective out of the bullpen this spring; effective against both RH/LH; could be a 6 reliever at the major league level; 5 starter with improved changeup.
It might not work out, and if it doesn't work out, the Rangers will react accordingly. If it does work out, great. If not, bring on the next cat. I guess what I'm trying to say is that this does matter, but not to the extent that the disproportionately great amount of media coverage would suggest. It's better to get the bullpen right the first time than not, but there are much greater forces at work that will decide this year's AL West victor than the Angels' and Rangers' token southpaws.