LAS VEGAS -- Pitching coach Mike Maddux has a clear picture of what Alexi Ogando meant to the Rangers as a reliever in the playoffs last year."I saw flashes of sheer dominance," Maddux said. "I saw a sense of confidence from everybody on the field, in the bullpen and in the dugout that we've got the right guy out there." Other Rangers officials had similar visions this offseason when they began drawing an outline of their plan for the 2012 pitching staff. They saw some of it again on Saturday afternoon at Cashman Field in a 12-7 win over the Cubs when Ogando was relatively sharp in allowing three singles in his first two innings. But he pitched a third inning, and that wasn't good. Ogando gave up a couple of leadoff home runs, then a hit batter and a walk that helped lead to three more runs. "He was just getting the ball up," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "I know a few of those home runs were wind-blown, but they still got the barrel of the bat on the ball."
The uneven performance -- six runs in three innings -- was representative of the Rangers' bullpen this spring. There has been good and bad, and Ogando remains the mystery man in how the bullpen finally looks for Opening Day. The Rangers are still stretching him out in case he is needed as a starter, but that's only if there is an injury.Otherwise he'll be in the bullpen, and he has shown he can pitch in almost any role out there. Joe Nathan is the closer, but Ogando could be used as early as the fifth for multiple innings or he could pitch late. During the playoffs last year, Ogando had one specific role: to come in when the Rangers desperately needed him. "If it wasn't for Ogando, I don't know if we make it to the World Series," Washington said. They also might not win an American League West title if he hadn't stepped into the rotation at the end of Spring Training and won 13 games as an All-Star starter. But that changed when Yu Darvish signed, and the Rangers know Ogando could determine just how good their bullpen will be this year. "I do what I can," Ogando said. "I can't control what they do. I'll just do my work wherever they want me to work. I prefer to be a starter, but it's not my decision." His role out of the bullpen may come down to how other relievers fare. He saved the Rangers in the playoffs last year because Mark Lowe missed the first two rounds with a hamstring injury and Koji Uehara was giving up home runs. Mike Adams pitched effectively in his role, but Ogando and Scott Feldman saved the Rangers' bullpen through the first two rounds and right up until everything changed in Game 6 of the World Series. Other key bullpen members have been erratic this spring. Nathan, Uehara, Adams and Lowe have pitched a combined 11 1/3 innings and allowed 12 earned runs on 15 hits, eight walks and 11 strikeouts. Right now they are pitching every fourth day so the Rangers can look at other candidates for the pitching staff as well as some of their young prospects. That will change as the spring progresses, Maddux said. They'll start pitching with fewer days rest over the last three weeks until they are pitching in back-to-back games at the end. "They'll sharpen up as their appearances get closer together," Maddux said. "Their Spring Training really kicks off in the second half." Adams has been working on the side on his fastball command and took that into the game on Saturday in Las Vegas. After Derek Holland -- who was outstanding -- pitched four scoreless innings, Adams pitched the fifth and struck out the side in order before Ogando took over. "My Spring Training really kicked off today," Adams said. "Everything came together today. I found my location, I found my mechanics." But there are jobs to win in the bullpen, and Yoshinori Tateyama didn't wait for the second-half kickoff. He has not allowed a run in four innings over three appearances. He is doing better than Uehara, who allowed three runs over 1 1/3 innings in his outing on Saturday against the D-backs in Surprise, Ariz. Tateyama could force his way into the mix if others leave him an opening or the Rangers decide they don't need a left-handed reliever. That competition is still up in the air. The Rangers still think Michael Kirkman has the best stuff to win the job but needs to show he can command the baseball. That's why the Rangers are still looking at veteran left-handers Joe Beimel, Mitch Stetter and Neal Cotts, as well as rookie left-hander Robbie Ross. Ben Snyder also threw up another scoreless inning against the D-backs in Arizona. "Everybody is tied for first place," Maddux said. The Rangers are looking for a left-hander who can get right-handed hitters out, otherwise they could end up with an all right-handed bullpen. "We're not going to take a lefty just to take a lefty," Maddux said. "Your left-handers have to get right-handers out as well. If you have a left-handed specialist or right-handed specialist, it taxes the rest of the bullpen. You have to be able to pitch to both." There is less than three weeks left to sort through this. But Ogando's uneven performance on a cold, windy afternoon in Las Vegas was a reminder about one thing concerning the Rangers' bullpen. "We haven't decided anything yet," Washington said.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.