Gagne, Otsuka ready to anchor 'pen
Rangers hoping for strong season from both relievers
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers message to new closer Eric Gagne on the first day of workouts: Take it slow and be ready for Opening Day.The Rangers message to former closer Akinori Otsuka: You haven't been demoted. Both will be needed for the Rangers bullpen to be a "competitive advantage," but right now Gagne is the closer and Otsuka is the eighth-inning setup reliever. The Rangers just need to make sure that Gagne is fully recovered from elbow and back surgeries, the two physical issues that limited the former National League Cy Young Award winner to just 16 appearances over the past two years. Gagne, who has been throwing and working out at his home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., this winter, played catch on Sunday and will have his first bullpen session on Monday. "It felt good to be out there, even if it's just PFP," Gagne said, referring to pitcher's fielding practice. "It's just good to be with the team again, out there talking and joking around." He and Otsuka met and talked for a little bit during the workout. Otsuka admitted it was a little strange. He is trying to make the best of the situation and mask his disappointment over not being the closer anymore. He saved 32 games for the Rangers last year and was their Pitcher of the Year. But Gagne was one of the best relievers in baseball before he got hurt, setting a Major League record by being successful on 84 straight save opportunities. So he will close for the Rangers, and Otsuka gets the eighth inning. "If he's healthy, he's great and it's good for the team," Otsuka admitted. "Everybody who has been a closer, once he's done that, he doesn't want to go down. But when the game starts, if the pitching coach or manager tells me I'm the setup guy, I have to do that. I can't control that." The eighth inning is not insignificant. The Rangers lost nine games last year where they were leading after the seventh inning. For the season, the Rangers outscored their opponents in the fifth-seventh innings and in the ninth. But their opponents outscored them 75-74 in the eighth inning. The Rangers need Otsuka to help fix that. "He's a big part of what we're trying to do to win," manager Ron Washington said. "If Gagne is healthy and Aki is pitching in the eighth inning, that will make us a great team. It's not a demotion. It's all about team and making us better."
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.