The Texas Rangers have been very successful over recent years at transferring pitchers back and forth between the starting rotation and the bullpen. The first big time success story came with C.J. Wilson who had spent the previous four years as a member of the Rangers' bullpen, but before the start of the 2010 season expressed his desire to once again be a starting pitcher. The Rangers gave him the opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation that spring and he was not only able to do that, but was one of their most successful starting pitchers when he went 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA. He then followed that up with a 16-7 season and 2.94 ERA in 2011 before hitting free agency and signing with the Angels. This season he was still solid, but fell of a bit with a 13-8 record and 3.83 ERA. While he had a bit of a down year in 2012, he has still had three consecutive 200 inning seasons and has become a legitimate starting pitcher in the big leagues.
The Rangers have since experimented with the method with Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando and Robbie Ross. Both Feliz and Ross came through the Rangers' system as starting pitchers, but entered the league as member's of the bullpen. Ogando had a very unique road to the big leagues, but he majority of his time in the minors was spent as a reliever. Ogando also debuted in the majors as a reliever, but was moved into the starting rotation at the start of the 2011 season when Tommy Hunter was injured coming out of spring training. The experiment worked well for Ogando for the first half of 2011, but fatigue hit him during the second half of the season and then he returned to the bullpen in 2012.
With Ogando returning to the bullpen in 2012, the Rangers decided to move Feliz into the rotation and gave Ross the opportunity to earn a spot in the bullpen as a left-handed reliever. Ogando and Ross had successful seasons in the Rangers' bullpen, but there has been talk of both of them returning to the rotation for the 2013 season. With Ogando that would most likely be at the major league level, but with Ross that could be at Triple-A Round Rock for the time being. Feliz is still a major question mark as his longterm role is still unknown. He was injured shortly into the 2012 season and would ultimately be lost for the entire season with Tommy John surgery. He will not return until sometime after the 2013 All-Star break and at that point could come back as a member of the bullpen or start working his way back into the rotation. It would seem that the likely scenario for 2013 would be for him to first return to the bullpen unless the Rangers are having rotation problems close to the time he is able to return.
Feliz, Ogando and Ross are all very talented pitchers and there could be great arguments made for them as starters or relievers, but it is time to make a decision one way or another with them. If Ogando and Ross are going to be starters they need to be treated as such and not ping pong back and forth from year to year. There are definitely times that a team has to make changes to deal with situations that arise and the best thing for a team can be for someone to fill a role that is not necessarily their normal role. However when it comes to the Rangers and their young pitchers, they have become a bit more free than most clubs when it comes to bouncing guys back and forth from one role to the other.
While many aspects of pitching do not vary from the rotation and bullpen, there are some aspects that are different and young pitchers can never fully develop in one of those areas if they always bouncing from one to the other. You can live in the bullpen with one or two solid pitches, but that is not the case as a starting pitcher. The biggest issue that came from Feliz time as the Rangers' closer was the decline of his secondary pitches. His fastball crept up to the 100mph mark, but his slider and changeup virtually turned into a thing of the past and that was what needed the most work when he returned to the rotation. Ogando has never really had a changeup and his time in the bullpen has not allowed that to be a priority. If he had been allowed to develop as as starter, at the big leagues or in the minors, he would have had time to work on his secondary pitches.
The Rangers were as healthy as a starting rotation could be in 2011, but that was not nearly the case in 2012. No team should ever expect to be as healthy as they were in 2011 and the Rangers should expect 2013 to be more along the lines of 2012. Considering that injuries are part of the game and specifically a part of the position, the Rangers should start making adjustments for that. That might mean that one or two guys that could be big time factors in their bullpen are left to develop as starts in the minors, but that could potentially play great dividends. This could also mean that a bit more has to be spent in the offseason on relievers, especially with the potential loss of Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, but the Rangers have to start taking a bit more traditional approach with these young arms. I am not saying Feliz, Ogando, Ross or anyone else is a starter or a reliever, but it's time to let them work at becoming the best they can at one or the other.
John Bowman is a lifelong baseball and Texas Rangers fan that loves to ponder the deeper aspects of the game. Some of his first baseball memories involve Arlington Stadium nachos, Charlie Hough's knuckleball, dirt on Pete Incaviglia's uniform and the voices of Mark Holtz and Eric Nadel as he fell asleep.
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