SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers bullpen has become more intriguing with the arrival of Timothy Lincecum. It has also grown more complicated and Lincecum is hardly the only reason.Right-handers Jose Leclerc, Nick Gardewine and Kevin Jepsen are among the long-shot candidates who are forcing the Rangers to pay more attention
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers bullpen has become more intriguing with the arrival of Timothy Lincecum. It has also grown more complicated and Lincecum is hardly the only reason.
Right-handers Jose Leclerc, Nick Gardewine and Kevin Jepsen are among the long-shot candidates who are forcing the Rangers to pay more attention to them. There are still three weeks to go before Opening Day, but many of the relievers who have looked the best in early Cactus League games are not the ones who are penciled into the Opening Day bullpen.
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"That's encouraging," manager Jeff Banister said. "You look at the depth. We need increased depth in today's trend of big-time bullpens and how you need multiples of those guys."
The Rangers also haven't decided about the possibility of Matt Bush and/or Mike Minor being used in the rotation, they aren't sure what Lincecum needs to do to be ready by Opening Day and they aren't close to completing the evaluation of their latest additions and non-roster invitees.
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Bartolo Colon and Jesse Chavez are at the top of the list, but it also includes other veteran non-roster invitees including Erik Goeddel, Steve Delabar, Tayler Scott, Austin Bibens-Dirkx, Deolis Guerra and Paolo Espino.
The Rangers don't seem to have many openings in the bullpen. Left-handers Alex Claudio and Jake Diekman and right-handers Chris Martin, Keone Kela and Tony Barnette are assumed to have spots locked up. Martin, who spent the past two years in Japan, has looked especially good so far.
It could also be assumed that Bush and Minor won't both be moved into the rotation. One will likely end up in the bullpen. That could mean just one or two spots left for a crowded field. But there are still many twists and turns possible in the next three weeks, and Lincecum's presence is only part of it.
"We are not at the point of any of this of exactly saying who we've got and where we are going," Banister said.
Leclerc and Jepsen have stood out. Leclerc has allowed just one hit and struck out three in 3 2/3 scoreless innings, and pitching coach Doug Brocail said he has been the "highlight" of the camp so far. But walks and control issues have been his bane in the past so the Rangers reserve judgement to see if Leclerc's early success is a desert mirage or the true transformation of an otherwise exceptionally talented pitcher.
"Spring Training last year he threw a lot of strikes," Banister said. "He threw a lot of strikes for us early in the season. Emotionally, there is a lot of confidence in him right now, attacking the strike zone and holding his delivery and pitching. That's very encouraging."
Jepsen is a nine-year veteran who has had some exceptional years with the Angels, Twins and Rays. The last two years have not gone well, but he does have a proven track record for the Rangers to consider if they feel he is pitching at a high level again.
"Just an impressive big league pitcher hitting his spots," Banister said. "He is a guy who has always hit the spots with a fastball. Rarely misses."
Gardewine, who pitched in 12 games in September last season, has not allowed a run in 4 1/3 innings. But he also may find out what it's like being a young reliever with options. Leclerc is in a similar situation. Both could be on the Round Rock-Arlington shuttle, getting the call when there is a need and being sent down when the big league staff is at full strength.
But they are just a couple of reasons why the Rangers bullpen is far from set.
T.R. Sullivan has covered the Rangers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast.