Rangers' relief coveted by other teams

Rangers' relief coveted by other teams

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The calls are coming, just like the Rangers expected them to this spring.

Clubs have asked about Akinori Otsuka and there's no surprise there. Several teams in baseball are looking for a closer. But they've also been asking about Rick Bauer and Frank Francisco as well.

Major League teams know the Rangers may have extra relief pitching to trade before Spring Training is over, and it's just not the teams looking for closers that have dialed their number. Right now, the Rangers put most calls on hold.

"We have to make sure what appears to be excess is really excess," general manager Jon Daniels said before the Rangers game with the San Diego Padres on Friday night. "I want to get through the spring making sure that everybody is healthy and continues to pitch well. If that happens, we may have some more detailed conversations. Right now, we're just taking inventory in other teams' interests."

The Rangers have been made well aware of who needs a closer.

The Boston Red Sox are most prominent on that list as they sort through a list of their own candidates that includes Mike Timlin, Craig Hansen, Julian Tavarez and others. They have long been rumored to be interested in Washington's Chad Cordero.

But the Florida Marlins are looking for a closer, too, and are actively talking to the Arizona Diamondbacks about Jorge Julio. The San Francisco Giants have made the same call. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Cincinnati Reds also could be looking for help.

Even teams that thought they were set may end up being worried. J.J. Putz saved 36 games for the Seattle Mariners last year but had an MRI on Friday for an elbow that has been bothering him for much of the spring.

The Rangers have had offers for Otsuka, but they have mainly been along the lines of two mediocre players for a guy who saved 32 games in 2006. The Rangers aren't going there.

"It would have to be significant to pique my interest in talking about Aki," Daniels said. "He's a big part of this club."

There are 39 relievers in Major League camps this spring that have recorded at least 32 saves in a season at some points in their career. That list includes guys who have gone back to starting, including Derek Lowe, Kelvim Escobar, Miguel Batista, Jonathan Papelbon and Byung-Hyun Kim and some ageless wonders like Roberto Hernandez and Jose Mesa who are trying to hang on as setup relievers.

There are others who have been dealing with health issues the past few years and whose reliability is uncertain. Armando Benitez of the Giants is prominent in that regard.

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The point is good closers are at a premium in the game and the Rangers could be wallowing in luxury if Eric Gagne can get back to full strength. So far, so good, and right now, the Rangers feel better about the idea of Gagne and Otsuka at the back of their bullpen than they do talking trade with other teams.

But the Rangers also know they dare not do anything with Otsuka until they are absolutely certain that Gagne is healthy. Otherwise, they could be making the same calls the Red Sox and Marlins are making. Gagne has yet to pitch in an exhibition game.

"I think his stuff is good enough to pitch in the big leagues with success," pitching coach Mark Connor said. "But it would be presumptuous to say he's back and can pitch five times a week."

Even if the Rangers are adamant about hanging on to Otsuka, they will listen to interest in other relievers. They'll have to at some point, because Bauer, Joaquin Benoit and Francisco Cruceta are all out of options.

Four spots in the seven-man bullpen are taken by Gagne, Otsuka and the two left-handers, Ron Mahay and C.J. Wilson. That leaves three more spots, and the two best-looking candidates so far are Benoit and Scott Feldman.

Wes Littleton appeared to have a spot locked up, but he's 0-2 with a 16.88 ERA, which locks up nothing, and the Rangers still wonder if Francisco is completely back from two years of recovery from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. Bauer has a 17.18 ERA.

"I'm not concerned about spring stats," Daniels said. "I'm concerned how they look, how they're working and how they're getting game-ready. We're going to be fine. I trust guys' track records more than 10 games in Spring Training."

There is also a possibility that Kameron Loe and Josh Rupe could fall back to the bullpen if they don't win the fifth starter spot. There has also been talk about using left-hander Bruce Chen out of the bullpen.

So the Rangers have much to choose from for their bullpen and much to talk about with other clubs. The Dodgers, Pirates and Indians are among the teams that have called about the Rangers' extra relief.

"Premium bullpen help is tough to find," Daniels said. "I'm hoping we do have depth. Aki is not the only one teams have called about, but I'm not motivated to do anything yet."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.