ARLINGTON -- This is what you call competition. Intense competition. When Rangers pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training next week, they will have no less than 17 candidates for the bullpen who have pitched in relief at the Major League level. That list doesn't include Kazuo Fukumori, who hasn't pitched in the United States, but was an accomplished closer in Japan. So that's 18 experienced relievers, plus Minor League right-handers Paul "Kea" Kometani and Warner Madrigal, competing for just seven spots in the Rangers' Opening Day bullpen.
More than just a few guys have the potential to be unhappy at the end of March, but the Rangers are bound and determined to do everything they can to make sure their bullpen is a strength again in 2008. Rangers relievers were 33-22 in 2007 with a 3.69 ERA that was the third lowest in the American League and the second lowest for the club in the last 17 seasons. But Eric Gagne, Akinori Otsuka and Ron Mahay were a big part of that and all three have since moved on, prompting the Rangers to assemble a long list of candidates to make sure the bullpen doesn't slip in 2008. "Guys are going to have to win jobs," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "But I don't think that's a bad thing. Competition is always a good thing." This is definitely competition and it will exist on two separate levels. One is the simple cutthroat competition for a job ... any job. The other is the competition for the closer's job, a battle being waged by the four pitchers who appear to be locks to make the bullpen, regardless. Fukumori, a right-hander who had 72 career saves in Japan, is one. The others are left-handers Eddie Guardado and C.J. Wilson and right-hander Joaquin Benoit. "Most likely, it will be a left-hander," Daniels said, offering the only clue to who will win the job. Wilson is the incumbent, having saved 12 games for the Rangers over the final two months of the season, after Gagne was traded to the Boston Red Sox. Guardado has 183 career saves and was a two-time All-Star, but that was well before he missed a year because of Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. He has pitched in just 15 games at the end of last season since his return. Both have made it clear they want the job. But at least they will have a job. The one who isn't the closer will likely be the No. 1 left-handed setup reliever. Benoit and Fukumori will be the right-handed setup relievers. The other three spots are up for grabs and that's where the competition becomes cutthroat. "What we have right now is assembled a group of guys with different looks," Daniels said. "A number of these guys have been starters and that's important. With our rotation and the issues we've had in the past, it's good to have guys who can pitch some innings. There are a number of ways we can put together our bullpen. We'll just walk through it in Spring Training."
It would be treacherous to attempt to handicap the competition, but perhaps they can be broken up into the following groups:Familiar right-handers: This bunch consists of Frank Francisco, Wes Littleton and Scott Feldman. Francisco was with the Rangers for the entire 2007 season and had a 4.55 ERA in 59 games. But he had a 3.78 ERA before the break and a 5.54 ERA after it, meaning nothing is guaranteed there. Feldman (1-2, 5.77 ERA) and Littleton (3-2, 4.31) were abused by the rules last year, because they both had options. Between the two of them, they were sent down and later recalled from the Minor Leagues nine different times. That could end up being the case again, as it's difficult to see more than two of these three guys making the bullpen. It could also be just one. Left-handers: This group consists of John Rheinecker, A.J. Murray and Bill White. Murray is probably the least likely to make the team. The Rangers feel his future is as a starter and are likely to have him do just that at Triple-A Oklahoma to build up arm strength and endurance. Rheinecker has been a starter in the past, but the Rangers seem to have figured out he's better in the bullpen. Left-handed hitters hit .229 off him last year while right-handers hit .328. White is more of a power lefty, but needs experience and better command. Ex-starters: Here we have right-handers Jamey Wright, Kameron Loe and Robinson Tejeda. All were once integral parts of the Rangers rotation who are now being looked at as middle relievers. Conceivably, one of them could pitch his way back into the rotation if there is an injury, but it's more likely that they'll be used in the bullpen. This will be an interesting spring for Loe, who has had some extreme swings over the past two years. There have been times when he has been the Rangers' most reliable starter, other times when he looks more suited to relief work and still other times when he has been injured. He has yet to establish himself in one role for any length of time, but still has a legitimate chance to be an effective Major League pitcher in some capacity. Wright is in camp on a non-roster invitation but impressed enough last year as a reliever to also have a legitimate chance to make the team. Tejeda? He has fallen far because of command and delivery issues but Daniels made it clear the Rangers have not given up on him. Non-roster guys: This is the trio of Franklyn German, Jason Davis and Elizardo Ramirez, three right-handers who have combined to pitch in 306 games in the Major Leagues. German is strictly a reliever, Ramirez has mainly (but not exclusively) been a starter and Davis has done both. They are all on board for depth and would likely need some injuries to occur to get a real shot at making the team. The long-shots: That brings us to Luis Mendoza, Josh Rupe, Madrigal and Kometani. Mendoza did make three relief appearances for the Rangers last year, but is more likely going to be a starter. Rupe, who has a 3.26 ERA at the big league level, has always been held in high esteem by the Rangers, but has had trouble staying healthy. The Rangers have at least decided to use him as a reliever and not as a starter. Madrigal is a converted outfielder with just two years of pitching experience. The Rangers signed him as a Minor League free agent and he has never pitched above Class A. But he does have 88 strikeouts in 73 innings. Kometani was a starter before turning into a reliever at Double-A Frisco last year. He had eight saves for the Roughriders and then a 1.80 ERA with three saves in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League. A strong year at Oklahoma in 2008 could push him into the Major League picture at some point in the future. Right now he's just one of many in the most cutthroat competition in the camp.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.