In 2019, the Texas Rangers bullpen ERA of 4.73 was the 21st-best in baseball, while their 4.88 FIP trailed behind and was the 25th-best in baseball. The unit only recorded 33 saves, and there wasn’t exactly stability in the roles inside the bullpen. Their best overall reliever in 2019 by ERA, Chris Martin, was moved in the summer, and the usually dependable veteran Shawn Kelley had a disastrous second-half which led to his team-option for 2020 getting declined and left his MLB future in doubt.
I imagine that if the Rangers want to improve going into 2020, they’ll be active in acquiring relief pitching this offseason. Outside of their top relief option in Jose Leclerc, the team is missing some stability to eat up the middle innings. And sure, they may have acquired Corey Kluber, but it cost them perhaps their best reliever in Emmanuel Clase, which makes this bullpen look pretty weak. Rafael Montero is a fine reliever, but I don’t know if he should be the primary setup option on a team trying to compete in 2020. There are many proven options on the open market, and I would imagine the Rangers pick up a couple of mid-relievers to help them out. For now though, the Rangers bullpen is probably in a worse state than it was a year ago, and while reliever productivity usually fluctuates, it looks like the Rangers bullpen is in for more of the same outside of their top three arms.
Rangers Projected Bullpen
|Jose Leclerc||Rafael Montero||Brett Martin||Jesse Chavez||Nick Goody||Joely Rodriguez|
Closer – Jose Leclerc
After being one of the best relievers in baseball in 2018, Leclerc took a step back in 2019 to the tune of a 4.33 ERA, 3.59 FIP, and 4.21 xFIP. They’re above-average numbers, but not quite what one would expect from Leclerc going into 2019. A lot of the damage came from his absolutely terrible April, where he allowed a .442 wOBA against him and an 8.44 ERA. He slightly righted the ship in the following months, with a 2.13 ERA in May, but it rose back up to mid-to-high 3’s in June and July, and then ballooned back into the 4’s as the season came to a close. He lost his role as closer after that disastrous April, although he regained it not long after. After the trade of Chris Martin, there was really no reason to go to somebody else other than Leclerc, and he should be the incumbent closer going into 2020. Even though he was closing the majority of the season, it doesn’t mean that he made life easy for fantasy owners.
A lot of Leclerc’s volatility in 2019 can be attributed to his higher walk-rate and lower strikeout-rate. His walk rate jumped from 11.2% to 13% in 2019 while his strikeout rate dropped from 38.1% to 33.4%, with a swinging-strike rate drop to go along with it. To further accentuate his troubles, his HR/FB rate skyrocketed from a measly 2% in 2018 to 10.4%. As the Rangers move out of their old bandbox ballpark to their new one, it will be interesting to see how the ballpark plays, and if it winds up being a more neutral park, their pitchers will surely be happy, as their home run rates are likely to drop.
There is good news though for Leclerc though, and that is that Statcast absolutely loved him in 2019. His .267 xwOBA is miles better than his actual rate of .306, and he was in the top one percent of all pitchers in terms of xBA and xSLG with .175 and .288 marks, respectively. So who is the real Leclerc? His Statcast numbers suggest he should be closer to the pitcher he was in 2018, although maybe not quite that good. I’d predict that he goes somewhere in that second-tier of closers, and he should still be a quality, high-leverage arm. He’d be better off getting his walk rate back down to where it was in 2018, but his 2019 peripherals suggest that he should get his ERA back under control for 2020.
Setup – Rafael Montero
After Leclerc and the departure of such a fun pitcher to watch in Clase, it’s a bit of a bummer to move on to some pitchers who are fine, but maybe unspectacular. Up first is Rafael Montero, who is a fine pitcher, although maybe unexciting. Montero had a good comeback run after having Tommy John surgery in 2018, as the Rangers signed him to a minor-league deal in early 2019, and spent the first half of the season rehabbing and getting back to game speed. Since being recalled for good by the Rangers in late July, Montero was pretty good, to the tune of a 2.48 ERA. His peripherals show good strikeout and walk numbers at 30.1% and 4.4%, respectively, but what really held him back were his issues with the long ball with a rate of 1.55 per nine innings. He is definitely a fly-ball pitcher, which played a part in limiting his effectiveness as a Met, especially in such an extreme offensive season in such an extreme hitter’s park. That tendency is always going to be something to consider, and until we either see how the new Globe Life Field plays or a change back to a non-juiced ball, that’s something that is going to be a point of focus when evaluating Montero.
Montero’s changeup and slider were the big drivers of whiffs for him last season, with his fastball lagging behind. His fastball did see its velocity tick up to nearly 96 mph, which is up over two mph than his last full season in 2017, which is definitely a good sign when coming off Tommy John surgery. Whether he sustains those changes over another season will be important to his success, as he doesn’t exactly have the best track record of success in the majors. Overall, Montero should be one of the Rangers’ best options for holds, but his performance could be volatile due to his track record. If the Rangers had to make a change at closer, Montero could be an option in that role.
Setup – Brett Martin
Brett Martin made his MLB debut in 2019, pitching 62.1 innings and recording a 4.76 ERA. His peripherals were more encouraging, with a consistent 3.65 FIP, 3.66 xFIP, and a 3.70 SIERA. The lefty may be the Rangers’ best young reliever, maybe more so the case after the trade of Clase. He struck out a whopping 37.3% of hitters in AAA in 2019, although that may be the outlier, as his previous minor league totals are much closer to his 22.1% rate that he posted in the majors. His repertoire consists of mainly fastballs and sliders, with a hint of a curveball. He’s historically gotten a lot of ground balls in his career, and that translated to his first taste of the bigs with a 53.8% mark in 2019. He has the profile of a starting pitcher with a fastball that usually sits in the low-90’s, but he has had injury issues as a professional, and the Rangers may like him as their primary left-handed option out of the ‘pen, and I think he likely stays in that role in 2020. With the trade of Clase to the Cleveland Indians, I currently have Martin penciled in for a setup role, if only because he’s left-handed, and I figured it would be a good idea to have one setup option that’s right-handed in Montero, and one that’s left-handed in Martin. In reality, it may play out differently, and I could see a lot of changing roles in the Rangers bullpen outside of their top two options. With good performances though, Martin may make himself relevant for fantasy purposes, getting holds for a team that should be much improved in 2020.
Middle – Jesse Chavez
Jesse Chavez is a pitcher who had success in 2018 with both the Rangers and the Chicago Cubs with a 2.55 ERA and a FIP of 3.54, impressing enough that the Rangers signed him to a two-year deal as a free agent early last offseason with the hope that he could extend his career resurgence for another couple years. In 2019 though, Chavez regressed with his ERA rising to 4.85 and his FIP rising to 4.41, and Chave ultimately fell into the “just another reliever” category—a generic pitcher with not much to be really excited about. Case in point, his 21.4% strikeout rate and his 6.5% walk rates aren’t necessarily bad, but they aren’t anything special either. He features primarily some combination of a sinker and a cutter, with his slider being his best whiff pitch. He had right elbow surgery in September that prematurely ended his season, and he wasn’t pitching particularly well at that point, as he had a second-half ERA of 11.15. With the Rangers weakness being their bullpen, the team would likely be better off upgrading their middle relievers if they are serious about contending going into 2020.
Middle – Nick Goody
Claimed off waivers by the Rangers in November, Nick Goody is a veteran reliever who in 2019 pitched to a 3.54 ERA, 4.62 FIP, and 5.02 xFIP, although he did have a more encouraging 4.29 SIERA for the Cleveland Indians. Goody was basically an average relief pitcher in 2019 and is expected to fill that role for his new team, as it is likely he’s used in a middle relief role, and it would be surprising to see him get many high-leverage opportunities. He features a four-seamer and a slider, with his slider being his best whiff pitch at 45% in 2019; his overall swinging-strike rate of 15.7% was the highest for him since 2017 and the second-highest rate of his career. He really struggled with his walk rate in 2019, which explains some of the rough results as at 12.7%, it was by far the highest of his career. For Goody to return to his previous highs from 2017, he needs to get his command back in line with where it was previously.
Middle – Joely Rodriguez
After posting a 6.33 ERA for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2017, Joely Rodriguez made the move abroad to Japan, spending the past two seasons pitching for the Chunichi Dragons. In 2018, he had a 2.30 ERA, albeit in just 27 innings. In his first full season in Japan, Rodriguez was exceptional, with a 1.64 ERA in 60 innings and a strikeout rate of 11.5 per nine. So, why is he back in the majors with a new two-year deal from the Rangers? Well, there a few reasons. One reason is that his velocity jumped back to where it was when he was a prospect for the Pittsburgh Pirates. As a prospect, his fastball velocity sat comfortably in the mid-90s, but in his last go-around with the Phillies in 2017, his fastball sat slightly below 93 mph, and he was primarily a sinker-slider pitcher. His sinker was getting hit hard, and his slider wasn’t getting many chases. He had just a 13.4% strikeout rate and, to make things worse, he also walked hitters at an 11.2% clip, which surely makes it seem as if his 6.33 ERA was justified. But what I think has really made the difference in Japan has been the development of his splitter. He didn’t throw one stateside, but this pitch has the chance to be his true impact pitch and let him stay in the league. With a new pitch and added velocity, it looks likely that Rodriguez can stick as a middle reliever. If he gets good results in this role, he should have the opportunity for more higher-leverage spots. But for now, he should be a wait-and-see candidate, and he could be an option for fantasy purposes if he moves up in the pecking order.
When evaluating other pitchers who could find themselves in the Rangers bullpen in 2020, I looked at pitchers who are primarily starting pitchers, but maybe are too fringey to stick in a Major League rotation. Yohander Mendez is a starting pitcher prospect who hasn’t had much of an opportunity at the Major League level, pitching only four innings in 2019 and 27 innings in 2018, as he dealt with injuries in 2019 that limited his opportunities to crack the bullpen. He’s shown flashes of strikeout potential in the minor leagues, but overall his stat lines in the high minors don’t offer much confidence in his ability to stick. He’s projected to open the year in the bullpen, so we’ll wait and see how he transitions into a full-time role.
Joe Palumbo is a fringey lefty who is probably more interesting than Mendez. He made his MLB debut in 2019, and his peripherals were more encouraging than his ERA would suggest, although it is hard to ignore that sky-high 3.78 HR/FB rate, although he didn’t struggle with the longball in his minor league career. His minor league stats have always been good going back a few years, and I think he should have a role in the majors. He features a fastball, curveball, and changeup that could play up in the bullpen. For 2020, he’ll likely get another opportunity in Texas, and I could see him pitching in a traditional bullpen role, as well as making spot starts or appearing as an opener or bulk reliever, which may make him worthy of a pickup for fantasy purposes.
Ariel Jurado is another young pitcher for the Rangers, although he didn’t have much success with a 5.81 ERA (that is wholly supported by his peripherals). He doesn’t offer much in terms of strikeouts, and his pitches get hit hard, with xSLG and xwOBA against numbers that are among the worst in the league. He’s likely to start the 2020 campaign in the minors, but could find himself up in a long relief or opener role at some point. Jonathan Hernandez made his MLB debut in 2019, pitching just 16 innings for a 4.32 ERA. His fastball sits in the upper-90’s, but he’s struggled with his control, which could be why he ends up in the bullpen full time. He does have the potential for strikeouts with that high-velocity fastball and a decent slider and curveball, but without improvements in his control, his overall impact will likely be low.
Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)