|The question of starting Alexi Ogando next year will haunt Ron Washington this winter. (US Presswire)|
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Rangers come home needing one win in two games to get back to the World Series. They come home with a rested Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz in their bullpen, and understandably they feel very good about that.
But would they feel even better if Ogando were starting Game 6 Saturday night, with Feliz ready for a Game 7 on Sunday?
The Rangers have gotten to this point because their bullpen has been so good. But if the Rangers have a concern, it's about a rotation that hasn't been great.
Nothing can be done about it now. But you'd better believe it's an issue the Rangers will debate all winter and into next spring, whether or not they win (but especially if they don't).
"That conversation is on hold right now," general manager Jon Daniels said this week, adding that the Rangers need to focus solely on beating the Tigers this weekend.
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So it's on hold because nothing is changing this week or next. And it's on hold, as in undecided.
One Rangers person predicted that if C.J. Wilson leaves as a free agent, Feliz would join Ogando in next year's rotation. Wilson could well leave, because the Rangers don't plan to pull out all stops to keep him, as they did (unsuccessfully) when Cliff Lee was a free agent last winter.
"He wants $100 million, and he's not getting that from us," the Rangers person said.
Even if Wilson leaves, the Rangers could add another starter from outside, whether it's Yu Darvish from Japan or even CC Sabathia, if he opts out from the Yankees (as of now, Darvish seems to interest the Rangers more).
But the Feliz/Ogando question seems every bit as open as it was last spring, when the Rangers eventually decided to put Ogando in the rotation (where he stayed through the regular season and won 13 games) and to leave Feliz in the bullpen (where he saved 32).
The reason is simple. The Rangers believe their current rotation is full of guys who profile as No. 3 starters, a belief borne out by the rotation's 5.40 postseason ERA (among the eight playoff teams, only the Brewers are worse, at 6.84).
Both Ogando and Feliz could profile down the line as top-of-the-rotation, big-time starters.
Recent conventional wisdom holds that you need big-time starters to win in October. But the Rangers have been winning in large part because Ogando and Feliz have contributed greatly to a bullpen that has a 2.37 postseason ERA (the best among teams still alive).
The Rangers have six of the 11 wins needed for a championship, and Feliz and Ogando have both appeared in each of those six wins. Their combined line for those games is 15 innings, five hits, two runs and 11 strikeouts.
"When you have a sure thing [in the bullpen], is it a sure thing the other way?" pitching coach Mike Maddux asked. "But do you find out, or sit there and wonder? What they're doing in the bullpen is hard to replace. A 1-2 punch in a seven-game series or a five-game series, it's invaluable.
"But in the future, are they the ones handing the ball to another 1-2 punch?"
Some Rangers officials believe setup man Mike Adams could step in as closer next year, if Feliz moves to the rotation. But will he be as effective as Feliz has been?
And will Feliz be as good a starter as his stuff would suggest?
"There's only one way to find out," Maddux said.
Until the Rangers do find out, the question will keep coming up. The Rangers aren't likely to put it to rest, if for no other reason than Daniels likes the idea of using a great arm for 200 innings a season, rather than 60 or 70.
Besides, as the Rangers seemed to prove this summer, it can be easier to build a bullpen on the fly than it is to find a big-time starter. The Rangers were aggressive in trading for relief arms this summer, and the presence of Adams and Mike Gonzalez in their bullpen is a big reason they won one series and are in position to win another.
But the two key arms in the bullpen are still Feliz and Ogando. They're the big difference-makers, and so far this month both have made a difference.
Could they have done as much as starters? Would the Rangers, whose starters have pitched just 24 innings in five games, with a 5.63 ERA, have already clinched the Tiger series if Ogando and Feliz were starting instead?
Would they be better off if they were pitching the first six or seven innings of a game this weekend, rather than the last three?
There's really no way to answer that. But if the Rangers lose the next two games, you'd better believe the question will come up.
It will, even if they win.