The Texas Rangers still need a closer, haven't you heard?
Elvis Andrus said it a few weeks ago. Countless analysts have said it, too.
And manager Jeff Banister plans to name one by the time they leave the Surprise Recreation Campus on March 24.
"The goal is to leave here with the idea that, 'This is going to be the guy,'" Banister said Sunday morning.
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As of now, Banister will be choosing from what the Rangers have in-house after a deal for right-hander Seung-Hwan Oh fell through Saturday because of issues with his physical.
The Rangers are down to the same candidates they had at the end of last season plus Chris Martin. The group includes the incumbent, left-hander Alex Claudio.
He hardly looks the part, with his 86 mph fastballs and his 74 mph Frisbee sliders and his variety of arm slots.
Yet, no Rangers reliever was better last season than Claudio, and no reliever in baseball threw fewer pitches per inning (13.6). He also led MLB in another unofficial category: Cojones.
So, amid cries for the Rangers to sign a closer, why not go with Claudio?
"If we could sign 1997 Mariano Rivera, that would be a great pickup," right-hander Tony Barnette said. "The game's evolving. Bullpen's are evolving. I see the bullpen in this room. These are the guys I'm willing to work with today.
"Nobody did a better job at it than he did last year. He did his job in less pitches than anyone in baseball. That's as good as you can get. We'll see how it rolls out, but if it's not broke, don't fix it, I guess."
Barnette and others call Claudio fearless for going to the mound in an era of late-inning power arms with pitches that seem to be thrown so softly that they wouldn't break a pane of glass.
Yet, he throws them around the plate and gets opposing hitters to put them in play quickly — and unsuccessfully. He posted a .235 opponents batting average, including a scant .143 against lefties and a 2.29 ERA as a reliever, and finished with a 1.040 WHIP (walks and hits per inning).
After the difficulties of Sam Dyson and Matt Bush in the ninth inning, Claudio helped to solidify it. He finished with 11 saves.
The key is that he doesn't hurt himself. He issued only 15 walks last season in 82 innings.
"That's my way," Claudio said. "I pitch that way because of my confidence in myself. I'm only thinking about attacking the zone and getting people out. I always believe in myself and I thank God that I have the confidence I have to go get outs."
The confidence allows him to be fearless. One a scale of 1 to 10, his level of guts is off the charts.
"Twenty," catcher Robinson Chirinos said. "That's why he's good. Nobody believes in the minor leagues that he would play in the big leagues. He got to the big leagues, and everybody thought that he would be that up and down guy.
"He has great stuff. He's right there with guys who throw 100. It shows you a lot about the person he is and the cojones he has."
Barnette has experience closing games in Japan, but lefty Jake Diekman and righty Keone Kela are considered closing candidates with Claudio. General manager Jon Daniels said that the Rangers are continuing to explore the late-to-develop free-agent market, and All-Star closer Greg Holland remains available.
Diekman told Banister that the bullpen as a whole is a closer, and Banister is always tempted to use his best reliever in tight spots well before the ninth inning. If Claudio is the Rangers' best reliever, Banister might want him as early as the sixth inning.
"When I pitch, I don't care what position, what inning or what score," Claudio said. "If you give me the ball, I want to get outs."
He did that better than any Rangers reliever last season, and was so good that he was given the closer's role. Why not let him try again?
"He's fearless. He's just fearless," Barnette said. "That stems from him just being confident in his abilities. I think everyone in this room, were they to gain the ability to be fully confident in all their abilities all the time like he was last year, that's what separates good from great."