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Friday, January 31, 2014
Spring training preview: Closer

By Richard Durrett

Note: Spring training is just around the corner. To get you ready, we'll take a look at every position between now and when pitchers and catchers report to Surprise, Ariz., in mid-February.

Neftali Feliz
If Neftali Feliz's form is where it was in 2010 and 2011, he has a good chance to be the closer again.

Today's position: Closer



There weren't any questions about this spot the last two years. Joe Nathan handled the final three outs of the game for the Rangers and did it well. He was signed early in the offseason prior to the 2012 season after Rangers scouts determined he could still be a dominant closer. And he was, saving 80 games in two seasons for the Rangers and becoming a key veteran in the clubhouse.

But the Rangers weren't ready to sign Nathan, at age 39, to a multiyear deal and he ended up inking a contract with the Detroit Tigers for two years at $20 million with a team option for a third year.

Texas determined that it had enough internal candidates that letting Nathan go to save some money that was spent on bolstering the lineup made the most sense. So as spring training nears, the closer spot likely comes down to three pitchers (unless the club signs someone from outside, which seems doubtful):

1. Neftali Feliz. He's considered the favorite to earn the job because he was this team's closer for the 2010 and 2011 seasons and comes into camp solely as a reliever. Feliz has said he wants to close rather than start and is focused on reclaiming the job. Feliz, 25, has 74 career saves. He got the final out of the 2010 ALCS, striking out Alex Rodriguez to send the Rangers to their first World Series.

But after blowing a save in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the Rangers had the chance to sign Nathan and moved Feliz to the starting rotation. It gave them the chance to see if Feliz could handle that role. He was 3-1 with a 3.16 ERA in his first eight starts before elbow issues landed him on the disabled list. He ended up having Tommy John surgery. Feliz said this offseason that he feels completely healthy and, after pitching in winter ball, hopes to come to Surprise and get his old job back. If Feliz can show that his form is where it was in 2010 and 2011, he's got a good chance to earn the closer spot again.

The fact that Feliz's $3 million contract with the Rangers includes bonuses ($25,000) for 50 games finished and 55 games finished is certainly an indication that he wants to do all he can to seize the job.

2. Joakim Soria. Like Feliz, Soria has closing experience. He was 1-0 with a 3.80 ERA last season after returning from elbow surgery. Soria missed all of 2012. But it was just three years ago -- 2011 -- when he saved 28 games for the Kansas City Royals. And Soria had 43 saves in 2010 and made the All-Star team.

So he comes to spring training with experience and with an offseason after pitching in 2013.

3. Tanner Scheppers. He's listed third only because he comes to spring training stretched out as a starter. That really doesn't mean much in terms of where he ends up, but it does put him in the group of guys vying for a rotation spot. Scheppers says he just wants to be a member of that 12-pitcher staff that goes into the season March 31 and that his role -- whether that's starting or relieving -- is up to the club.

Scheppers was solid as a setup man for Nathan in 2013. The 27-year-old was 6-2 with a 1.88 ERA in 76 2/3 innings as he bridged the gap in the late innings to get the ball to the closer.

There are many in the organization that believe Scheppers has the stuff and ability to close. But they also want to see if he can start. So it should be an interesting spring for Scheppers.

OUTLOOK: The Rangers have viable options at closer and a competition brewing for the spring. The fact that they also have a few candidates with closing experience helps and gives the Rangers confidence that they'll find a good option before the season begins.