The competition for the closer role is among the most important for the Texas Rangers going into spring training. Somebody will have to replace Joe Nathan, the veteran reliever who saved 80 games the past two seasons before departing for Detroit.
The Rangers would like to see Neftali Feliz reclaim the role he had in 2010-11 after a failed attempt as a starter led to Tommy John elbow surgery in August 2012. Joakim Soria, who also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012, could also return to his All-Star form and win the job.
Feliz and Soria are the leading candidates at this point, although there are other internal candidates including Tanner Scheppers. Scheppers emerged as a dependable setup man last season, but is being viewed as a possible rotation option with Derek Holland out until midseason.
Manager Ron Washington also didn’t rule out exploring outside options to fill the void left by Nathan.
“The hope is between Neftali and Soria, whom have closed before, and we have another guy in the starting rotation [Scheppers] who has the potential,” Washington said Tuesday during the annual winter camp at Rangers Ballpark.
“But, once again, that doesn’t preclude us from looking outside.”
Grant Balfour, who saved 38 games for the A’s last season, is still on the market, as is Fernando Rodney, who saved 37 games for the Rays last year.
The 25-year-old Feliz, meanwhile, has made progress in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. He didn’t allow an earned run over six relief appearances last season and followed that up by posting a 2.79 ERA over 10 appearances for Toros Del Este in the Dominican Winter League.
“The numbers say that he is well, and reports say that his velocity got better as time went on,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “Guys that come back off Tommy John, you come back but it takes you a year to rehab, so we look for a little more of the old Neffy this spring.”
Washington is going into the final year of his contract, but isn’t fretting over his “lame-duck status.”
“I’m not worried about that,” said Washington, who signed a two-year extension before the 2012 season. “That will take care of itself.”
Washington, 61, has the most wins by a manager in franchise history (611) and is set to enter his eighth season. He was hired by general manager Jon Daniels, who continues to praise Washington.
“He’s been a huge part of what we’ve done here,” Daniels said. “I expect that to continue going forward.”
Daniels said that he would keep contract talks private.
First baseman/outfielder Mitch Moreland also didn’t discuss his contract situation. Moreland is the only one of four arbitration-eligible players who is not under contract for 2014.
Moreland and the Rangers had a substantial gap between numbers exchanged Friday. Moreland asked for $3.25 million, while the Rangers were at $2.025 million. The sides can try and work out an agreement or they will have it settled in an arbitration hearing between Feb. 1-20. The Rangers haven’t gone to an arbitration hearing since 2000 when they beat Lee Stevens.
“We’ve got people [agents] that handle that for us so we can just go out and play the game,” Moreland said.
Jorge Alfaro is considered one of the Rangers’ top prospects, but knows he still has a long road ahead to the big leagues.
The 20-year-old catcher is using this year’s winter camp to gain as much knowledge as possible from instructors such as Hector Ortiz and Bengie Molina.
“It’s awesome working with those guys,” said Alfaro, who is expected to start next season at High A Myrtle Beach.
“I’m working mostly on my defense, my receiving and blocking the ball. I want to get better. I just want to play hard and give 100 percent every day.”
The same can be said for right-hander Alex Gonzalez, the Rangers’ first-round draft pick in 2013. Gonzalez, 22, split time between Short A Spokane and High A Myrtle Beach last season, posting a 2.84 ERA in his final five starts at Myrtle Beach.
“Just getting all the rust off and getting after it again,” Gonzalez said. “Just trying to talk to all the big league guys and gain as much knowledge as possible.”
Briefly• Left-hander Michael Kirkman had a forgettable 2013, but is hoping for better results in 2014. “It’s all mental,” he said. “Just having that mental capacity to overcome giving up a double or leaving a runner out there. Mental preparation is going to be the biggest key.”
• Moreland is in town for the winter camp to work in the outfield. Said Moreland: “We’re just out there catching a few fly balls, reading the ball a little bit. I didn’t feel uncomfortable; I felt good out there.”
• Catchers Brett Nicholas and Jose Felix have been added as non-roster invitees to big league camp. Nicholas spent last season at Double A Frisco, while Felix was at Triple A Round Rock.