Gagne said the Rangers bullpen now reminds him of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004. The Dodgers won the National League West that year with a terrific group of relievers who were a combined 36-19 with a 3.06 ERA and 51 saves in 60 opportunities.Gagne had his third straight great year as a closer, going 7-3 with a 2.19 ERA and 45 saves, winning the Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year for the second straight season. But he had a strong supporting cast that included Duaner Sanchez (3-1, 3.38 ERA), Guillermo Mota (8-4, 2.14), Giovanni Carrara (5-2, 2.18), Yhency Brazoban (6-2, 2.48) and others. "That was my best year in baseball," Gagne said. "These guys remind me a lot of the Dodgers in '04 -- a lot of young guys that have been playing together for a while and are ready to flourish and make the playoffs. We have a lot of great arms in our bullpen. We have guys who can throw 96 [mph] rolling out of bed." Gagne was once a guy who could throw 96 or better. But that was before undergoing Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery on June 24, 2005, and surgery to repair a herniated disk on July 8, 2006. His best pitch, though, has been his changeup, and Gagne knows because of the injuries, he'll need to be more of a complete pitcher, rather than a guy who just rears back and fires the ball. He once tried to rear back and throw the ball by Hank Blalock in a crucial situation, and it cost him the 2003 All-Star Game. Trevor Hoffman made the adjustment after surgery. From 1996-2002, while establishing himself as a premier closer, Hoffman held opponents to a .198 batting and averaged 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings. He then missed almost all of 2003-04 because of elbow reconstruction surgery and hasn't been quite as overpowering since then. Over the past two years, he has struck out 7.7 batters per nine innings. But opponents are hitting just .220 off him, and he is 89-for-97 in save opportunities. "My favorite pitcher is a guy like Paul Quantrill, who throws 85, 86, 87," Gagne said. "You focus on hitting your spots and keeping people off balance. You know you're not going to throw 100 mph the rest of your career, so you've got to learn to pitch. That's what I've been doing the last three or four years, and I've learned a lot." One thing he has learned is to go easy in Spring Training. If he forgets, he has people who will remind him. He is not sure when he'll be ready to pitch in an exhibition game, but he is not worried about it. Ten innings in game situations would be a lot for Gagne. He said he can get just as much out of playing catch as he can throwing off the mound. He is healthy. Now, he needs to build arm strength and endurance. "I've learned over the past two years that you have to be ready for the first day of the season, not yesterday, tomorrow or next week," Gagne said. "Even if you're 100 percent healthy, you're going to be sore this time of this year. I feel I can do everything, but we're going to take it in baby steps. "Right now, I feel great. I want to keep feeling good every day."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less