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Young relief corps could be key to Rangers' bullpen

Young relief corps could be key to Rangers' bullpen

SAN ANTONIO -- The key members of the Rangers' bullpen made their encore appearance of Spring Training on Friday night. Jason Frasor, Tanner Scheppers, Michael Kirkman and Robbie Ross all pitched a scoreless inning, and Joe Nathan picked up a save in a 5-4 victory over the Padres at the Alamodome.

Manager Ron Washington is giving all his relievers a day off on Saturday in preparation for Opening Night on Sunday against the Astros. With Derek Lowe as the long reliever and Joe Ortiz joining Kirkman and Ross as the third left-hander, the Rangers rebuilt bullpen is in place. Exact roles are yet to be determined.

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"We're going to be figuring it out until we can get the bullpen settled," Washington said. "How we slot those guys depends on where we are in the lineup. Mainly I'm looking to see if there is a difference in their stuff, just see how their body language is, looking to see who is comfortable. The main thing is I want to see them get outs."

Nathan and Frasor are the two veterans in the bullpen and the Rangers have an idea of what they can do. If Nathan falters at this point, the rest of the bullpen isn't going to matter. But Washington admitted his bullpen's effectiveness could depend on how fast the young relievers grow up.

"That's a very good assessment," Washington said. "Scheppers will play a big role in the bullpen, Michael Kirkman will play a big role in the bullpen and Robbie Ross will play a big role in the bullpen. Those are three guys we had at the end of last year. They will get more meaningful innings and we feel they can handle it."

Kirkman had a 2.45 ERA for the spring, held opponents to a .185 batting average and walked one batter in 11 innings. Scheppers had a 3.60 ERA but did not allow a run in his last seven innings, and Ross was scoreless in his last 7 2/3 innings.

"We've got some experience, now it's about going out and doing it," Scheppers said.

How they do early in the season will do much to determine roles. But Kirkman was given the crucial eighth inning on Friday night, and he may get first crack at that during the season. He and Scheppers are the two hardest throwers in the bullpen.

"It wouldn't hurt my feelings if they let me do that," Kirkman said. "I'm not 100 percent sure what our roles will be, I just have to get outs when I do get in there."

Scheppers averaged 96.2 miles per hour on his fastball last season, while Kirkman was at 94.3. That was slightly more than Nathan, who averaged 94.0 with his fastball in 2012. Like Nathan, Kirkman also has a sharp slider, which gives him another weapon to help fill a meaningful late-inning role.

The addition of Ortiz allows the Rangers to save Kirkman for late-inning use. That's part of the luxury and motivation in having three left-handed relievers.

"All three have thrown pretty well," Washington said. "They're not situational pitchers. I should always have a left-hander available that I can depend on."

The Rangers bullpen took big hits this offseason when Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Mark Lowe and Scott Feldman left as free agents and Alexi Ogando was moved to the rotation. They -- along with Neftali Feliz in 2010-11 -- were important members of a bullpen that played a significant role in the Rangers' success the past three years.

This is Washington's seventh season as manager. Over the past three years, Rangers relievers have combined for a 3.59 ERA and a .237 opponents batting average, both the fourth best in the American League in that stretch. They also held opponents to 11.46 baserunners per nine innings, the second best ratio in the league over that three-year stretch.

In Washington's first three seasons as manager, his relievers had a combined 4.27 ERA, which was the eighth best in the league, and opponents hit .254. They also allowed 13.19 baserunners per nine innings, which was the 10th best ratio during that time.

The Rangers won 279 games in 2010-12 after winning 241 games in 2007-09. Good bullpens make a difference.

"We feel great with Joe Nathan as our anchor," Frasor said. "After that we have a nice mixture of left and right. We're going to be fine. There are good arms down there, young guys and veteran guys. There are some options for [Washington]."

"I know what they are all capable of doing," Washington said. "It's a matter of them doing what I know they can do and getting it done. I feel good about it. They've handled everything well so far, we'll see if there is any change in the way they are doing it. But we have to trust them."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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