Adam Loewen, Steve Delabar and Tayler Scott are the only pitchers to record a save so far in spring training.
None of them are candidates to be the Texas Rangers’ closer. Neither is Matt Bush, who has moved back to the bullpen after a failed attempt at becoming a starter.
Other than that, the closer competition remains wide open for the Rangers with Opening Day just 15 days away.
“I mean, I feel like there are 15 people who think they can handle it,” said Rangers left-hander Jake Diekman, who saved one game last season. “But that’s not up to us at all.”
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Yes, the decision will ultimately be made by the front office and coaching staff and nobody has separated themselves yet.
Diekman is making a case by not allowing an earned run in three of four spring outings. So is left-hander Alex Claudio, who hasn’t allowed a hit in four scoreless outings with four strikeouts. Right-hander Keone Kela might have the most prototypical stuff to get the job done, but he has a history of injury concerns.
Tim Lincecum is an intriguing option, too, but he is coming off a year-long layoff, has yet to pitch in a game and has little experience in a relief role.
Oh, and the Rangers still have the possibility of looking outside the organization. Three-time All-Star Greg Holland, who tied for the National League lead with 41 saves last season, remains on the open market.
For now, it comes down to one thing for manager Jeff Banister.
“It’s about getting outs at the back end of the game,” Banister said. “We’re looking for somebody to do that, whether it’s a power arm or not.”
This is an organization that doesn’t appear too worried about breaking away from a traditional pitching staff. They’ve contemplated going with a six-man rotation. They’re leaning toward having 13 pitchers, instead of the usual 12, on their Opening Day roster.
Using a non-traditional closer would seem to fit in with this philosophy.
Why not a guy such as Claudio? After all, Claudio led the team with 11 saves last season after Sam Dyson and Bush couldn’t keep the job. He was the bullpen leader in appearances (70), innings (82 2/3) and ERA (2.50).
“He continues to find ways to get guys out,” Banister said. “I think that it’s hard for hitters to see the ball off him, the arm angle, he’s added a little sharpness to his slider, added velo to his changeup. The fastball is tough to see and pick up. It’s hard to get good barrel on it.”
The hurdle for Claudio will be whether the closer role best suits him and the team. With how the Rangers want to construct their pitching staff, he might be more valuable as a “bridge guy” who can go multiple innings if needed. Plus Claudio doesn’t have the traditional closer stuff with a fastball that sits in the upper 80s.
“There are opportunities for him to come in any inning and help preserve a win for us,” Banister said.
For Claudio, the closer role is something he would embrace, but is not necessarily pushing for.
“If they name me the closer, that’s fine, you know?” Claudio said. “I’m here to do my job and all I think about is trying to make outs and finish the innings. I’ll do whatever they ask me to do.”
Claudio is a guy who had been viewed as a lefty-lefty specialist but has emerged as a viable, multi-inning reliever. He attacks the strike zone consistently to get ahead in the count, which oftentimes leads to quick outs. His teammates know his value.
“He’s nasty. He doesn’t get talked about enough,” Diekman said. “He knows exactly who he is. He doesn’t try to change anything. It might not be the sexiest way to get people out, he doesn’t throw 105 mph and stuff, but he comes right after you with strikes.”
Banister just wants a closer who can get outs at the backend of a game.
Maybe it’s Claudio. Maybe it’s Diekman. Maybe it’s Lincecum. Maybe it’s Kela. Maybe it’s someone who isn’t on the team yet.
We’ll know the answer in a couple weeks.