2015 Preview – The Closer

The late Richard Durrett used to run a weekly series of articles, detailing in depth positions on the upcoming Texas Rangers squad. He would let you know what it was last year, what it could be this year, and if any player moves could be made to fill the spot, if necessary. Over the next twelve weeks, I’m going to pay tribute to Richard by doing my own version of these articles. Each position, the pitching staff, and even the coaching staff will be evaluated and discussed. This week, I’ll start at the back end of the bullpen.

The Closer

In 2014: The Rangers’ season started with a lot of promise. Closer was not an issue they felt they had to address, as they had an in-house option.

Former closer Joe Nathan, who had been one of the most reliable closers in the league for two years, had left Texas for the glitz and glam (read: money) of Detroit. Texas, meanwhile, was going to rely on another reclamation project in their 9th inning role. Much like Nathan, Joakim Soria was a recovering Tommy John surgery patient – Soria’s difference is that he was recovering from his second one.

Soria had also seen some time in the bullpen in the second half of the year, posting a 3.80 ERA in 26 appearances for the club. The results and progress shown in 2013 allowed the Rangers to let Joe Nathan walk into free agency and have the 30-year old Soria anchor their bullpen down. The results were there, as Soria converted 17 of 19 save opportunities with a 2.70 ERA and a ridiculous 11.3 K/9, in 35 appearances in Texas. With all of that said, Soria only had 19 save opportunities through the first half of the season; the Rangers’ season was such that there wasn’t exactly a plentiful amount of closing opportunities.

As a result, the Rangers sent their closer to where their former closer had set up shop – Detroit. Nathan had been struggling with his new club, and having Soria as backup was seen as a smart move for Dave Dombrowski (the GM) and company. The move didn’t exactly pan out, as the Detroit bullpen continued to struggle the rest of the year. As for the Rangers, they turned to another recovering Tommy John patient – although this time, it was a far more familiar face in Neftali Feliz.

Much had been made of Feliz’ return to the Rangers bullpen, as Nefi finally accepted and embraced the fact that starting was not in the cards and he was destined to be the Texas closer. The questions surrounding his return were numerous – how would he recover from TJ surgery? What was his work ethic going to be like? And, the subject of most scrutiny, could he ever recover his previous velocity? The answers did not look to be favorable to start. The confidence, velocity and demeanor weren’t there. Feliz had his first save opportunity of the year in late July against Oakland, converting it into a 4-1 win for Texas. The results continued to say Feliz was pitching decently, but the lack of velocity was concerning, as he averaged well below 95 MPH in most of his appearances through mid-August.

Some saw the turning point for Feliz in a mid-August game in Miami against the Marlins. One day after giving up a walk-off hit to Giancarlo Stanton, Feliz was tasked with holding a 5-2 lead. The inning started ominously, as Neftali gave up a home run to Marcell Ozuna. After a grounder, he gave up another solo shot to Jarrod Saltalamacchia and was on the verge of blowing another save. Until that point, his fastball topped out at 93. He persuaded Ron Washington to let him stay in and started throwing 95-96MPH heaters to close the game out, striking out Jeff Baker and Donovan Solano around a walk.

That confidence continued through the rest of the season, as Feliz finished off eight more save opportunities and saw his average fastball rise above 95 most of the rest of the way.

In 2015: Feliz showed that he can handle the adversity and pressure of the closer’s role again. The fact that he has embraced the role and has come out and said that he wants the ball in those situations has caused his confidence to grow leaps and bounds. Will he ever be the 100-102 MPH flamethrower of 2010-2011? Probably not. The sooner we, as fans, accept that, the more we can enjoy the idea of Neftali Feliz closing out games for the Texas Rangers.

Of course, the closer’s main job is to get the final three outs. He doesn’t always have to light up the radar gun like Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel or Trevor Rosenthal. Even Nathan and Soria, in their time with Texas, relied more on location and movement than fastball velocity. It can be hoped that Feliz picked up something from the two veteran relievers, especially since he, too, is a Tommy John patient.

What about the work ethic question? It’s no secret that Nefi showed up to Training Camp in 2012 a little overweight, and questions about how he approached his game began to come forward. Since then, since TJ surgery robbed him of two years of his career, perhaps Feliz has grown up just a bit. T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com put up an article on Tuesday, detailing that Feliz has hired a personal trainer to help him arrive to Spring Training in (everyone say it) “the best shape of his career.”

“The surgery is in the very far past for me…Thank God. I’m working harder…my trainer helps me. We started right after the day the season was over. I feel great and healthy. With the experience, I am more confident. Coming back from surgery, it takes a lot of things to work with, especially your confidence, trusting your elbow is OK and getting stronger. That I did and finally I feel great.”

It’s possible that the personal trainer doesn’t result in Feliz regaining the triple-digit heat he had during his Rookie of the Year campaign. What would be more important would be Neftali being able to sustain above 95 throughout the year. Conditioning and endurance training will help with that. In 2010, Feliz made 70 appearances while recording his 40 saves in 69.1 innings pitched. If you calculate what he would have done if he had the full 2014 season, Feliz would have made 60 appearances totaling 63.1 innings pitched. If the Rangers can keep all of their pieces healthy and start to contend again, we could be seeing Feliz more frequently to close out games. 2015 is going to be Feliz’ first full major league season back from TJ surgery. Can he prevent himself from running out of gas down what could potentially be a stretch run to a playoff appearance? It seems he’s taking the proper precautions.

Hot Stove: The Rangers have made two bullpen moves this winter and neither are cause for Feliz to be concerned about his spot. Instead, the signing of Kyuji Fujikawa and Juan Carlos Oviedo could prove to be vital bridge pieces to help get the ball to Nefi in the 9th. With the “Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross as Starters” experiment coming to a close, along with some rookies that had to step up in less-than-fun times in Arlington, the Rangers look to have the pieces necessary to get the ball where it needs to be – in Neftali Feliz’ hand.

Next week, we’ll delve more into the bullpen for Jeff Banister and company, but for now: What are your expectations for Neftali Feliz? Do you have confidence in his closing capabilities? What concerns do you have as Feliz enters his first full season coming off of Tommy John surgery?

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Matt Fisher
Matt Fisher is an Editor/Staff Writer for ShutdownInning. He is a baseball lifer, preferring to use the eye test and rely on the knowledge and analysis of baseball minds greater than his, while using relevant stats to encourage situational discussions. He is also co-host of The Most Valuable Podcast on the NextWave Radio Network, talking sports, entertainment, and sports entertainment.

While Matt's favorite team will always be his hometown Texas Rangers, he knows the ongoing story lines of every team in Major League Baseball. If you sit next to him at a game, be prepared to hear him try and do play-by-play. If you're famous and reading this, just know that he's not afraid to drop names.

Matt Fisher. ShutdownInning Editor/Staff Writer

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