Friday, March 02, 2007

Akinora Otsuka May Yet Collect Saves for Rangers

Rangers reliever Akinora Otsuka -- who rolled up 32 saves with a 2.11 ERA last year only to lose the closer's role to newly acquired Eric Gagne -- may still collect a save or three, or maybe a bunch.

Manager Ron Washington has decreed that Gagne will supplant the 35-year-old Otsuka as closer, but Gagne has yet to face live hitting and may not be ready to take the mound before opening day, according to unconfirmed speculation coming out of camp.

Though Gagne, 31, claims to feel strong, and has recovered from elbow surgery, the prognosis for recovery from back surgery remains questionable, with perhaps a 30-percent chance or greater that he could experience regression, according to knowledgeable sources familiar with his condition.

Until the Rangers signed Gagne on a $6 million, one-year gamble, numerous teams had studied his medical records and avoided the free-agent former superstar. Those passing included the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, not to mention his former team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Meanwhile, Gagne after a few mound sessions last month has been limited primarily to long tossing to build up his arm strength after his lengthy layoff, but lately he has been kept out of sight altogether due a reportedly unrelated illness.

Coaches have tentatively targeted Gagne's appearance target date at no later than the weekend of March 18, but even if he can ready himself before the exhibition season concludes, his effectiveness remains questionable over the short term, if not beyond.

Otsuka, however, not only is ready, willing and able, he prefers to keep the job in which he excelled last year by holding batters to a .241 average after taking over the closer's job in April. The next four weeks will be critical in determining whom of the two will turn out to be the team's real closer for the remainder of the year.