For as big and bad as the 2019 Houston Astros are, they showed some compassion toward the Texas Rangers this season by not eliminating them from the American League West race until Sept. 4.
That’s still early to eliminate the third-place team, but the Astros tapped the brakes some with a five-game losing streak during an impressive 19-9 August.
The Rangers weren’t eliminated from the wild-card race until the Oakland A’s beat them Friday and allowed them to officially begin planning for 2020.
Of course, the Rangers have been looking ahead since an eight-game slide in July spoiled a surprising first-half run into wild-card contention. Players hit the trading block ahead of the July 31 deadline, and four players arrived from the minors Aug. 2.
The expectation is that the Rangers will pursue a third baseman (Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson) and a starting pitcher (Zack Wheeler, Tanner Roark) this off-season. They could also look at a first baseman, say Jose Abreu, and those leery of 200 more Jeff Mathis at-bats are hoping the Rangers take a run at Yasami Grandal.
A closer, though, is not at the top of the shopping list. It might not be on it at all.
“I think early in the season we might not have said that,” manager Chris Woodward said Tuesday.
That’s how far Jose Leclerc has come. He has saved his season and his job.
“He’s had a hell of a season,” Woodward said.
Leclerc tossed a scoreless eighth inning in the Rangers’ 4-1 loss to the Houston Astros, who connected for three solo homers off Lance Lynn. The offense was shut down by Justin Verlander, the Cy Young favorite who tossed six scoreless innings.
Now, consider this about Leclerc: He had an 8.44 ERA after blowing a save April 30. Opponents were hitting .318 against him and had a 1.055 OPS, albeit in only 10 2/3 innings over 13 appearances.
The Rangers, though, were winning, and they needed to find someone more reliable for the ninth inning. Leclerc was left to figure things out in lower-leverage situations, and it wasn’t easy.
His confidence was shot. The Rangers were wondering if they had put too much on Leclerc too soon, the closer’s job and a team-friendly four-year, $14.75 contract extension in March.
“My mentality wasn’t good or how it needed to be,” Leclerc said. “Every time I was out there, I was thinking, ‘Don’t blow the save.” Or, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that.’ Now, if something happens, it’s part of the game. Sometimes it going to be good. Sometimes it’s going to be bad.”
In the 52 games since April 30, Leclerc has a 3.23 ERA, a .178 opponents average and a .606 opponents OPS. He is seven strikeouts shy of 100, and 11 shy of 100 as a reliever (he has worked three games as an opener).
Leclerc credits veteran Edinson Volquez and strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez for helping him get back on track. Leclerc’s outings have often come with some stress, but he has converted 8 of 10 save chances since July 28.
He has also impressed with his selflessness, work ethic and leadership, an impressive combination for a 25-year-old.
“He’s a tremendous example for everyone in that bullpen,” Woodward said. “He’s got a heart of gold, he works his butt off, and he has still maintained an [attitude of], ‘I’m going to get that job.’”
So, does that mean Leclerc is the closer for 2020?
“As of right now, yeah,” Woodward said.
The addition of an elite closer would allow Woodward to use Leclerc in tight spots earlier in games, and two premier closers would become available this off-season if Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen opt out of their contracts.
Shelling out that kind of dough for a closer isn’t general manager Jon Daniels’ style, especially in light of Leclerc’s rebound after losing the closer’s job early this season.
He feels good again in the ninth inning.
“I feel better and more confident,” said Leclerc, who has 13 saves. “It was a year for learning. I had to learn that I have to do my best sometimes when I don’t have the results. I’m still working hard even though it’s not a good year. I’m trying to finish strong. That’s what’s most important.”