Who Will Open As Closer In 2014?

Soria
Although the Rangers have several key needs to address in the offseason, the one area on the team they already appear to be well situated headed into 2014 is their bullpen.  Solid contributor Jason Frasor just re-signed with the club for the incredibly discounted rate of $1.75M (plus incentives), and just about every other essential bullpen arm is already under contract for 2014.
Neal Cotts and Joakim Soria are both signed through 2014, Neftali Feliz through 2015, Alexi Ogando (who was a starter for most of this season, but could possibly return to the bullpen) through 2016, Robbie Ross through 2017, and Tanner Scheppers through 2018.  The only major player among Ranger relievers who may not return next year is closer Joe Nathan.

Even though the Rangers have a team option on Nathan for 2014, a performance clause in Nathan’s contract kicked in when he surpassed 55 appearances this season, which now gives him the ability to void the team’s option if he chooses to do so.  In all likelihood, Nathan will not be in a Texas uniform next season.

Nathan was outstanding throughout his tenure in Arlington, exceeding everyone’s wildest expectations – whether in the front office, the clubhouse, the press box, or even the bleachers.  But given his advancing age and high price tag, along with the fact that the Rangers already have so many other viable in-house replacement options, he is almost certainly headed elsewhere.

So, who among these viable in-house options will be the Rangers’ closer in 2014?  Let’s take a look at the top candidates to replace Joe Nathan:

Joakim Soria

PROS:

  • Has extensive prior experience as an effective major league closer.

  • Amassed 160 saves in five seasons (an average of 32 per year) with the Kansas City Royals before coming to Texas, including two 40-save seasons (42 in 2008 and 43 in 2010).

  • His K/9 rate of 10.6 was second only to Yu Darvish among all Ranger pitchers.

CONS:

  • Had a down year his last season as a Royal in 2011, when he had seven blown saves while converting just 28 opportunities – his lowest save total since his rookie campaign in 2007.

  • Missed the entire 2012 season, after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair a damaged UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) and did not return to action until midway through the 2013 season.  Although he was good at times, he has yet to return to his previously dominant form.

  • His average fastball velocity of 90.7 in 2013 was significantly lower than what would typically be needed from a closer.


Tanner Scheppers

PROS:

  • His 1.07 WHIP was the third best in the Rangers’ bullpen this season – only Nathan (0.897) and Cotts (0.947) were better.

  • Had an average fastball velocity of 96.3 MPH in 2013, which was higher than any other Ranger pitcher by far, including both relievers and starters (Feliz was second at 93.7).

  • Was one of only three Rangers other than Nathan to actually record a save this season (the others were Cotts and – get this – Michael Kirkman).


CONS:

  • His K/9 rate of 6.9 was lower than the likes of Kirkman, Nick Tepesch, and perennial Cy Young candidate/alleged left fielder David Murphy.

  • His first appearance following a post-game bar fight in Cleveland – a July 30 outing against the Los Angeles Angels in which he allowed six baserunners and four runs in one inning – was his worst of the season, and (along with his initially falsified report of what happened in Cleveland) caused some to question his makeup.

  • Has no prior experience as a team’s closer at the major league level.

Neftali Feliz

PROS:

  • Was an All-Star and the American League Rookie of the Year in 2010, when he recorded 40 saves during the Rangers’ first-ever pennant-winning season.  His dominance continued into the postseason, which most notably included an epically momentous ALCS-ending strikeout of the despised Alex Rodriguez, sending Texas to the World Series for the first time in franchise history.

  • Followed up 2010 with another solid season by posting 32 saves in 2011.

  • Is still just 25 years old, so he would seem to still have the best years of his career in front of him.

CONS:

  • Mostly remembered now for his tragically ineffective outing in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, in which he blew a save that would have given the Rangers their first-ever World Championship, despite having been staked to a two-run lead and coming within one strike of closing it out.

  • Missed the last four months of the 2012 season and the first five months of the 2013 season, following Tommy John surgery for a torn UCL.

  • Has not yet fully regained the velocity he lost as a result of that surgery, and has appeared unnerved at times when used in high leverage late-inning situations.  Seems to still not be entirely mentally recovered from what happened to him two years ago in Game 6.


The Rangers are in an extremely fortunate position headed into 2014, with respect to their bullpen, and especially as it pertains to their closer situation.  They have three legitimately viable options to choose from, assuming Nathan does not return next season.  Both Soria and Feliz have proven track records as excellent big league closers, but neither have quite fully recovered physically – especially in terms of the velocity typically needed by a closer.  Scheppers seems to be the best option for next season, based on his overall performance in 2013, but he has yet to prove he can successfully close at the major league level.

Though it’s possible either Soria or Feliz (or both) could physically improve enough over the offseason to make a strong case for closer in Surprise once Spring Training rolls around, it seems more likely as of now that Scheppers will be the leading candidate to succeed Nathan in 2014.  But no matter what, the Rangers look to be well fortified in the bullpen, with the two runners-up from this trio of closer candidates likely to provide Texas with a pair of solid set-up men next year.

Bob Bland is a Staff Writer and host of the “Diggin’ In” podcast for ShutDownInning. 
He can be reached at Bob.Bland@ShutDownInning.com or  on Twitter @SDIBob.
Bob Bland

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