The Rangers were active this offseason in overhauling their rotation for 2023. Martín Pérez was set to hit free agency but was given a $19.65MM qualifying offer that he accepted to return. The club also signed free agents Jacob deGrom, Andrew Heaney and Nathan Eovaldi, in addition to acquiring Jake Odorizzi from Atlanta. Those five and incumbent Jon Gray give the club six solid options for five spots. However, the bullpen hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention. Aside from that rotation surplus perhaps pushing Odorizzi into a long relief role, the club’s current relief options are holdovers and veterans on minor league deals.
The bullpen wasn’t an especially glaring weak point for the Rangers last year. Their collective 3.72 ERA was ranked 12th out of the 30 clubs in the majors. However, they lost Matt Moore and his 1.95 ERA last year when the lefty became a free agent at season’s end. They also don’t have an established closer, with various players having been given the job in recent years only to be felled by injuries and/or underperformance. The club’s saves leader in 2022 was Joe Barlow with 13, though the last one came in June as he spent much of the second half of the year on the injured list. As the club was holding Rangers Fan Fest this weekend, Levi Weaver of The Athletic discussed the situation with general manager Chris Young, who listed José Leclerc, Jonathan Hernández, Ian Kennedy, Danny Duffy and Brett Martin as some of the candidates to take over the closing duties, though Martin won’t be a short-term option since he recently underwent shoulder surgery that’s could wipe out his entire 2023 campaign.
Leclerc, 29, already had the closer’s role once upon a time. He racked up 12 saves in 2018 and 14 in 2019. However, his ERA jumped from 1.56 in that former season to 4.33 in the latter. He then missed most of the next two seasons due to injuries, including Tommy John surgery in March of 2021. He returned to the Rangers in June of last year and allowed five earned runs in his first three outings but posted a 2.01 ERA the rest of the way. He seemed to retake the closer’s job over the final months of the season, earning seven saves between August and September. He’s arguably the frontrunner and Young said Leclerc “could easily be the closer.”
Hernández, 26, is on a similar trajectory to Leclerc, in the sense that he underwent Tommy John in April of 2021. Prior to going under the knife, he had a nice breakout in 2020. He tossed 31 frames that year with a 2.90 ERA, 24.8% strikeout rate, 6.4% walk rate and 45.7% ground ball rate. After missing 2021, he returned last year and posted a 2.97 ERA in 30 1/3 innings. His control didn’t fully come back to him, as he walked 13% of batters faced, but he kept the ball on the ground at a 62.4% clip. His closing experience is quite limited, with his four career saves all coming in a two-week stretch from late July to mid-August of last year. Teams generally prefer their closers to be reliable strikeout guys, which might work against Hernández since he only punched out 20.6% of opponents last year. Perhaps he can get some punchouts back now that he’s further removed from the surgery, and Young expressed his belief that Hernández could take on the role.
Kennedy, 38, would provide a more experienced option, though that won’t necessarily make him more reliable. A long-time starter, he moved to the bullpen in recent years but has seen wild fluctuations in his performance. He racked up 30 saves for the Royals in 2019 with a 3.41 ERA, but then had an ERA of 9.00 in the shortened 2020 campaign while being limited by injury to just 15 appearances. He joined the Rangers in 2021 and got back on track, registering a 3.20 ERA and saving 26 games between them and the Phillies after a midseason trade. But with the Diamondbacks last year, his ERA shot up to 5.36 while his strikeout rate plummeted to 19% after being at 27.2% in the prior season.
Duffy, 34, is another veteran option, though in a much different way. He has just one save, which came back in 2015. Most of his career has been spent as a starter, with just 30 relief appearances scattered over his time in the big leagues. He’s also coming off a lengthy absence, having last appeared in the majors in July of 2021. A flexor strain put him on the shelf at that time and he wasn’t able to rehab in time to pitch at all in 2022. The error bars on his 2023 are quite wide, since he posted a 2.51 ERA when last healthy in 2021, but he might need time to get back on track after being down for so long.
One big wild card in the club’s bullpen is left-hander Brock Burke. Young was asked about the southpaw and said he could “potentially” take the closer job and that it’s something he’s discussed with pitching coach Mike Maddux. Burke somewhat quietly had a tremendous breakout campaign in 2022. He made his MLB debut with six starts in 2019 but then missed all of 2020 due to shoulder surgery. He returned to the mound in 2021 but was kept in the Triple-A rotation, where he registered a 5.68 ERA. Last year, however, he took on a multi-inning relief role in the big leagues and dominated, posting a 1.97 ERA in 82 1/3 innings over 52 appearances. He struck out 27.4% of batters faced while walking just 7.3%. It might be tantalizing to see what he could do in a typical single-inning relief role but it sounds like the club doesn’t want to push him in that direction, with Young suggesting Burke could eclipse 100 innings this season. “I’m not sure he gets that in a closer’s role. Or maybe it’s a different type of closer’s role; maybe it’s not as conventional. I don’t want to get too far ahead because we’re not committing to that. It could be a traditional type of closer, but certainly we view Brock as a valuable member of our bullpen and he can pitch a number of different roles that could help us win games.”
Burke himself admits that he held out hope of returning to the rotation until the club revamped it this offseason. “I feel like my role in the bullpen, with the starters we have this year, is going to be very helpful,” he said. “I’m good with whatever they’ve got. If it’s one inning, two innings, break-up innings. Last year, I definitely would have said more innings the better, at one (point) but after getting used to going out there for one inning, I was more comfortable, so I hope that this year, whatever role the team needs me for.”
It seems the Rangers are keeping an open mind for the time being and will let the chips fall where they may over the next few months. Health and effectiveness in spring and the early parts of the season will surely help the club’s decision-makers navigate the upcoming campaign.