When spring training started, Neftali Feliz was the favorite for the Rangers' closer job. There are favorites to win the division and earn playoff berths, too. But like we see every season, some of those don't pan out.
Feliz may one day earn the job back that he held in 2010 and 2011. But it won't be on March 31. The club announced this morning in Surprise (where our Jean-Jacques Taylor is as spring training winds down) that Joakim Soria is the closer and Feliz is fighting for a job. He still has options, so the club could send him to the minors if they don't think he can help them in a setup role.
The Rangers had hoped Feliz would seize the job when spring training began. He arrived in Surprise fresh off terrific scouting reports from winter ball. But that Feliz hasn't shown up in the desert. His velocity has been lacking and so has his command. On Friday, Feliz only hit 92 mph with his fastball and struggled to get ahead in the count. That's not the kind of performance the Rangers wanted to see from their top closing candidate.
While Feliz has struggled, Soria has pitched very well. He's not a power guy and doesn't possess the strikeout ability of Feliz when Feliz is right. But Soria knows how to get the final three outs. He was an All-Star closer in Kansas City in 2010, saving 43 games. And he saved 28 games in 2011 before Tommy John surgery cost him the 2012 season.
The club decided to stretch Scheppers out as a starter to increase the depth in the rotation. That looks like a smart move the way Scheppers has pitched. In fact, he's pitched well enough that the Rangers also announced he's got a spot in the rotation. His last start, on Friday, probably cinched his case. Scheppers threw 75 pitches in six innings, allowing two runs (both in the first) and had six strikeouts and no walks. He was so efficient that he threw 20 more pitches in the bullpen after exiting in the sixth in a win over Milwaukee.
Scheppers' performance means the club will also move Alexi Ogando, who has struggled as a starter. But he's got the stuff to handle late-inning work and can help the bullpen, especially with Scheppers now starting and not setting up as he did last year.
The bottom line is that the Rangers allowed spring competition to decide the closer's role, and Soria earned it. The team wanted Feliz to win that job and the fact that he didn't is a disappointment. And while Soria doesn't have the 2010 or 2011 Feliz stuff, he's shown an ability to get those final three outs.
It will be interesting to see how all the changes work out, but after what the front office, coaches and scouts saw this spring, this was the decision they had to make.