ARLINGTON -- The Rangers signing right-hander Jesse Chavez to a two-year contract was a big first step in a major project. The club has begun the process of almost completely rebuilding their bullpen this offseason.
There are many decisions to be made.
General manager Jon Daniels acknowledged pitching is a priority this offseason, but the Rangers aren't yet committed to building a full starting rotation or examining the possibility of using relievers at the beginning of the game. Either way, stockpiling relievers is a must.
"It could be some sort of hybrid," Daniels said. "The goal is to find as much quality pitching as we can, any way we can."
The Rangers will also re-examine the closer's role. Jose Leclerc finished the season as the club's closer and performed brilliantly over the final two months of the season. He did not allow a run in his final 18 appearances and was 12-for-12 in save opportunities. In 18 innings, he allowed three hits, walked six and struck out 29.
Leclerc's value to the Rangers is obvious, but the decision remains whether he is best suited for the end of the game or another role. There is also significant interest in Leclerc from other clubs. Leclerc would seem to be a keeper, but the Rangers are still in rebuilding mode and have to listen to all inquiries. He may be their most coveted player.
Chavez was one of four free-agent relievers who pitched for the Rangers this past season, and the other three are also candidates to return. The Rangers certainly have a high opinion of left-hander Jake Diekman, and a return to Texas should be of mutual interest to both player and club.
Right-handers Tony Barnette and Cory Gearrin also pitched well during their limited time with the Rangers. Barnette had a 2.39 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP while being limited to 22 games because of right shoulder inflammation. Gearrin had a 2.53 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP in 21 games between being acquired from the Giants in June and later traded to the Athletics on Aug. 31.
The Rangers' bullpen had a chance to be a strength last season, but was eventually eroded by the trades involving Diekman, Chavez, Gearrin and closer Keone Kela, plus injuries to Barnette, Chris Martin and Matt Bush. Martin was on the disabled list three times during the season. Rangers relievers still had a combined 4.28 ERA on the year, as opposed to 5.37 from the starters.
Martin, Chavez and left-hander Alex Claudio give the Rangers three experienced relievers to start the bullpen rebuild around Leclerc. The Rangers also have hard-throwing right-handers Connor Sadzeck and Nick Gardewine and left-handers C.D. Pelham and Jeffrey Springs from their own system.
All four are talented but unproven and inexperienced. Springs could be a candidate for the rotation.
The Rangers will be active in the free-agent market, which appears to be a deep market for relievers, especially proven closers. There are 21 pitchers available who have had at least one season of 20-plus saves.
That list starts with elite relievers Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland and Jeurys Familia. But it also includes Joakim Soria, Player Page for David Robertson, Brad Boxberger, Zach Britton, John Axford, Cody Allen, Sergio Romo, Jim Johnson, Ryan Madson, Santiago Casilla, AJ Ramos, Tyler Clippard, Jeanmar Gomez, Noel Salas, Brandon Maurer and Joaquin Benoit.
The long list goes beyond current and former closers. Adam Ottavino has been a standout reliever for the Rockies the past seven years and put himself in strong position this winter with a 2.43 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 75 games last season. Others to watch include Joe Kelly, Hunter Strickland, Brad Brach, Shawn Kelley and Justin Wilson.
The Rangers have a history of not being big spenders for free-agent relievers, but there are other ways to build a bullpen. Shawn Tolleson, who saved 35 games for the Rangers in 2015, was acquired off waivers. Neal Cotts, who had a 1.11 ERA in 58 games in 2013, was signed as a Minor League free agent after not pitching for three seasons.
Chavez was the first acquisition for the Rangers this winter. They probably won't stop until well after they report to Spring Training.