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Leclerc could be X-factor in Rangers' bullpen

Banister hopeful for breakout year from right-hander
MLB.com @Sullivan_Ranger

ARLINGTON -- The Rangers go into the new year looking to reinforce their bullpen. They would love somebody like Cubs reliever Pedro Strop but he is not available, so they are still hoping for a breakthrough year from right-hander Jose Leclerc.

The Rangers once had the same frustrations with Strop years ago as they do with Leclerc now. But Strop was able to overcome his issues after leaving Texas and has become one of the top setup relievers in the game.

ARLINGTON -- The Rangers go into the new year looking to reinforce their bullpen. They would love somebody like Cubs reliever Pedro Strop but he is not available, so they are still hoping for a breakthrough year from right-hander Jose Leclerc.

The Rangers once had the same frustrations with Strop years ago as they do with Leclerc now. But Strop was able to overcome his issues after leaving Texas and has become one of the top setup relievers in the game.

The Rangers aspire for Leclerc to follow the same path, although to do it in Arlington rather than someplace else. He could be the X-factor in the Rangers' bullpen this spring.

"We'd really like for Jose to continue to improve," Rangers manager Jeff Banister said. "I thought there were times last year he showed signs: a dynamic arm, swing-and-miss, changeup. He's one of those guys that, as they continue to grow and learn at this level ... every pitch out there is a learning experience for them. It's a process they have to go through.

"It would be nice for a guy like that to continue to improve and be part of the mix."

Leclerc pitched in 47 games for the Rangers last season and was 2-3 with two saves and a 3.94 ERA. Opponents hit .146 off him, the sixth lowest in the American League, and he struck out 11.82 batters per nine innings, the 17th highest among relievers.

Negating all of that was 7.88 walks per nine innings, the highest in the AL. He also regressed as the season progressed. Leclerc walked 16 and struck out 40 in 26 1/3 innings before the All-Star break as opposed to 24 walks and 20 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings in the second half.

But Leclerc used mainly a fastball/slider/off-speed combination that, according to Statcast™, generated a ratio of 39.9 percent whiffs on his pitches, the sixth highest among relievers who induced at least 200 swings.

He also generated a spin rate of 2,629 rpm on a fastball that averaged 95.9 mph. That spin rate -- which generates the rising effect on a fastball -- was the second highest in the Majors behind Carl Edwards Jr. of the Cubs. Leclerc's spin rate was higher than all others, including Yankees relief ace Aroldis Chapman.

"Listen, this is a guy that can get swing-and-miss," Banister said. "However, it comes down to consistency of strikes and being able to put command of the baseball. I don't think that will ever change."

Video: TOR@TEX: Leclerc fans Pillar to leave the bases full

Over the past 10 years, the Rangers have gone through many young hard-throwing relievers who could light up a radar gun but not a strike zone. Strop was the one who figured it out, although too late for the Rangers.

Strop pitched in 33 games for the Rangers from 2009-11. He struck out 9.55 batters per nine innings but also walked 7.24, resulting in a 7.24 ERA and no permanent spot in the bullpen. The Rangers dealt him for veteran left-handed reliever Michael Gonzalez on Sept. 1, 2011, as they zeroed in on a second straight trip to the World Series.

Strop, who has a similar velocity and repertoire as Leclerc, spent two years in Baltimore before being traded to the Cubs in the same deal as Jake Arrieta. Strop, 32, has been outstanding with Chicago. Over the past four years, Strop has pitched in 264 games while averaging 5.74 hits, 3.61 walks and 10.53 strikeouts per nine innings.

That's the kind of reliever the Rangers are looking for and hoping the 24-year-old Leclerc will become.

"It's the same for every single pitcher that walks out there: his ability and how well they command the baseball," Banister said. "But Jose Leclerc is one of those guys that, when he profiles out and stuff, he hits a lot of the check boxes that you want to see from a reliever."

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.

Texas Rangers, Jose Leclerc