Gagne will carry that responsibility as the Rangers' closer. Akinori Otsuka saved 32 games for the Rangers last season, and general manager Jon Daniels said there is only one reason why the club would pursue Gagne for that role.
"We think Eric is a difference-maker," Daniels said on Tuesday in officially announcing that Gagne has been signed to a one-year, $6 million contract to replace Otsuka as the Rangers' closer.
"We think our bullpen has been a strength in the past, and we think it will be a strength next year," Daniels said. "This is all about adding to a strength and making it a competitive advantage. Eric is a guy who has performed at a level that is second to none in the history of the game. We feel like he's over the problems of the past two years and is ready to return to a dominating level."
The announcement was made after Gagne passed a rigorous physical on Monday. He pitched in just 16 Major League games over the past two years because of elbow and back surgery.
But prior to that, he was one of the most dominating relievers in the Major Leagues, a three-time All-Star who set a Major League record by converting on 84 consecutive save opportunities. His 152 saves between 2002-2004 is the highest total by a reliever over a three-year period in Major League history.
Because of his limited work over the past two years, Gagne went into free agency looking for a job as a closer and the Rangers made it clear that's what he'll do for them. He has $5 million in incentives, and most of them are tied to statistics that represent a closer, such as games finished.
"I want to close," Gagne said. "I'm a closer. That's what I want to do. That was the main thing. That's what I had success doing. I felt comfortable physically where I didn't have to worry about setting up. I feel like I'm ready to close again. The main thing is to go close on a winning team."
Gagne said he expects no physical problems that will keep him from being ready for Spring Training and said he's about three weeks ahead of his normal offseason throwing program.
"I'm looking forward to getting back on the mound and competing," Gagne said. "I feel great. I had the back surgery, and I haven't felt this great in the past 2 1/2 years. I started playing catch a few weeks ago, and my arm feels great. I can't wait to get to Spring Training."
Otsuka was acquired a year ago in a six-player trade with the San Diego Padres. At the time, he was being acquired as the eighth-inning setup reliever, but he took over as the closer when Francisco Cordero struggled through April.
Otsuka ended up 11th in the American League in saves and seventh in save percentage. Daniels said the Rangers talked to Otsuka last week and explained to him the reasons behind signing Gagne.
"He was a little disappointed," Daniels said. "Not with Eric, but [Otsuka] took a lot of pride in the role he filled last year. But we originally brought him in here to be one of the premier setup relievers. He saved our bacon last year, but we're a better team with Eric at the end of our bullpen."
A number of teams have inquired about Otsuka but have not offered anything close to what the Rangers think he is worth. The Boston Red Sox offered little more than a mid-level prospect. Other teams have made offers that show they also view Otsuka more as an eighth-inning reliever rather than a closer.
"We're not interested in trading Aki," Daniels said. "He is a big part of our team, on and off the field. You always have to listen, but we haven't been presented with anything that makes sense to us."
The Rangers realize they are loaded with relievers, but unless they get a substantial offer, they are inclined to wait until the end of Spring Training to make a move. Both Kameron Loe and Josh Rupe will be given an opportunity to make the rotation in Spring Training.
Rupe made 16 relief appearances for the Rangers last season, but Daniels said, "At the end of the year, we told Josh to prepare as a starter, so he's already preparing to do that."
Right now, the Rangers' bullpen includes Gagne and Otsuka, plus two left-handers, likely C.J. Wilson and Ron Mahay. That leaves three spots for right-handers, and the competition will be fierce between Frank Francisco, Rick Bauer, Wes Littleton, Joaquin Benoit, Scott Feldman, Nick Masset and others.
The Rangers have had no team offer a frontline starter for Otsuka, and that remains a glaring need to fill before the winter is over.
"Our priority is still our rotation," Daniels said. "We'd like to add one more starter to our staff."
Barry Zito is the No. 1 target. He and his agent met with the New York Mets on Tuesday, and a source said they also met with the Seattle Mariners on Monday. A source said the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the San Francisco Giants are also in the hunt as well.
The Rangers have made one offer that's believed to be for five years and in the $75 million to $80 million range. They have come nowhere close to the $100 million mark that has been speculated.
Sources familiar with the negotiations said this likely will come down to Zito just deciding where he wants to pitch and where he can be the most successful. The Rangers have been told they have as good a chance as anybody.
The Rangers also have exchanged offers with free-agent pitcher Mark Mulder and his agent, Gregg Clifton. Indications are it's down to the Rangers and the Cardinals. But there is still much work to be done and financial gaps to be closed before the Rangers get anything done with them.
The Rangers could also use a utility infielder to replace Mark DeRosa and have expressed interest in Mark Loretta.