ARLINGTON -- Jonathan Hernández's role in the Rangers' bullpen is growing.
Hernández wasn’t even assured of a spot going into Spring Training back in February. Now, given the rapidly changing situation in the bullpen, Hernández could be thrust into “high leverage” situations late in games.
His 98 mph sinker is being counted on to make up for lack of big league experience or success.
“I feel pretty good,” Hernández said. “More so now that I am getting more mature than before in past Spring Trainings. I am a more mature guy. I know what to do, and I feel better about myself. I have been pretty proud of myself and the job I have done lately.”
Hernández, going into Thursday night’s intrasquad, had allowed just one run in six innings on five hits and a walk with nine strikeouts. He showed similar dominance in Arizona, striking out 13 over nine innings in the Cactus League. MLB Pipeline ranks him as the Rangers' No. 25 prospect.
The caveat is Hernández has just nine games of Major League experience. That came last season when he pitched 16 2/3 innings, allowing 10 runs (eight earned) on 14 hits and 13 walks while striking out 19.
That’s the situation the Rangers find themselves in as they debate the final makeup of their bullpen.
“It’s a little bit of a leap of faith in a lot of ways,” manager Chris Woodward said. “Even Jonathan, he has been lights out, but he hasn’t pitched in high-leverage roles for an entire season. This whole year is different in every way. We may not have the luxury of easing into those situations.”
Right-hander Ian Gibaut is another. He was in big league camp during Spring Training and was one of the first players cut. That was hardly surprising given the command issues he showed last year in a brief stay with the Rangers. He struck out 14 but walked eight in 12 1/3 innings with a fastball that averaged 95.4 mph.
Now Gibaut is dazzling the Rangers in Summer Camp, striking out eight over four scoreless innings while allowing one hit and one walk.
“Ian has impressed us a ton,” Woodward said. ”Whatever he did in the off-time, he looks even better now than he did the first time in spring. He’s a guy who can find himself pitching later in games if we have to get creative.”
The Rangers have to get creative because they’re not expecting right-hander Rafael Montero or left-handers Joely Rodríguez and Brett Martin to be ready for Opening Day. That’s a big hit even if the Rangers plan to carry 10-11 relievers on the 30-man roster.
The Rangers don’t lack for candidates in a bullpen that has José Leclerc as closer and right-handers Nick Goody and Jesse Chavez as experienced setup relievers.
The tricky part is many of the veteran candidates for the bullpen are not on the 40-man roster. That group includes right-handers Cody Allen, Luis García, Jimmy Herget, Derek Law, Juan Nicasio and Edinson Vólquez. Gibaut is also in that non-roster group. So are impressive young left-hander Wes Benjamin and right-hander Alex Speas.
The Rangers currently have 38 on their 40-man roster. So they can only add two non-roster players before they have to start taking guys off.
There are also potential non-roster position players who could be of value to the Rangers. That group includes first baseman Greg Bird, catcher Blake Swihart and utility candidates Yadiel Rivera and Rob Refsnyder.
“I don’t know if we are going to add as many as we anticipated or want to add,” Woodward said. “We don’t want to lose anybody just to put somebody on. We don’t want to lose any guys that we value. It’s something we have to factor in.”
That’s why the Rangers must consider taking that leap of faith in Hernández, left-hander Taylor Hearn and right-hander Luke Farrell. Rotation candidates Joe Palumbo and/or Kolby Allard could be thrust into bullpen roles simply because they are on the 40-man roster. Hard-throwing right-hander Demarcus Evans, who was in Double-A last year, is also on the 40-man.
“To start the year, we don’t have three of our best guys,” Woodward said. “So we are going to ask a lot of our younger guys with limited experience and success in the big leagues to take on roles they didn’t anticipate. Maybe with less fans or no fans in the stands, maybe that helps them relieve some tension. But I feel comfortable where these guys are at.”