The Texas Rangers announced their closer on Saturday, but it’s not the guy everyone was expecting it to be when Spring Training began.
Joakim Soria, 29, will fill the role vacated this offseason by Joe Nathan, who signed a two-year, $20 million contract – with a third-year team option for 2016 – with the Detroit Tigers.
Rangers manager Ron Washington made in clear when the team arrived in Surprise, Ariz., that the closer role was a wide open competition, and he proved just that with Saturday’s announcement.
When Nathan voided the third year of his contract with the Rangers in November, it left a void that most figured Neftali Feliz — who closed for the Rangers so well in 2010 and 2011 — would easily fill.
But Feliz, 25, has underwhelmed so far in Spring Training, and Washington said after the announcement on Saturday that he was still fighting for a spot on the pitching staff.
Alexi Ogando – who was a strong candidate for the starting rotation at the beginning of spring — has underwhelmed as well, and has been moved back to the bullpen and will serve as the primary setup man. That leaves Feliz’s role up in the air.
The Rangers gave up the idea of Feliz being a starting pitcher after he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow during the 2012 season and was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery.
He was able to return to the pitching staff in September of the 2013 season, getting action in six games down the stretch. He didn’t give up a run in 4 2/3 innings while striking out four and walking two.
Reports surfaced during the winter that he was having a great off-season pitching in the Dominican Winter league, and word was his fastball had returned to life, registering in the upper 90s on a regular basis.
That has not been the case so far this spring, however. He has pitched in eight games, going eight innings and giving up four earned runs for an ERA of 4.50.
He has only struck out four and has given up 11 hits, and his fastball has been averaging in the low 90s.
Reports also began surfacing, early on in Spring Training, that some people in the Rangers organization felt they needed to be careful with Feliz because he has a sensitive ego.
If that is the case, and Feliz needs to be nurtured, then you don’t want him coming in to close out a game in the ninth inning for your team. You want a bulldog.
If he couldn’t look at this situation and attack it, then how can he be expected to attack the heart of the opposing team’s lineup and shut things down in crunch time?
As I said before, he has served so well in this role before, but it seems as if his confidence just isn’t really there. Things can change and Feliz may regain old form, but the Rangers are thinking more about now.
Needless to say, the door was open at closer and Soria took advantage of it. He hasn’t given up a run this spring in seven appearances, going seven innings and striking out five while only giving up three hits.
The closer role is no stranger to him, as he served in that role for the Kansas City Royals from 2007 to 2011. In six career seasons at the big league level, Soria has successfully closed out 324 games and holds a career ERA of 2.50.
The Rangers have been known to take flyers on players more recently, especially pitchers, who are recovering from a serious injury and could help the team if their recovery is successful.
Soria is one of the players. The Rangers signed him in December of 2012 as a low-risk, high-reward reliever who could carve out a niche on the pitching staff if he recovered well from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent in April of 2012.
They signed him to a two-year, $8 million deal with a $7 million team option and a $500k buyout for the 2015 season.
Soria served the first year of that deal this past season, making his first appearance — since Tommy John surgery — on July 7. He finished the season with 26 appearances, throwing 23 2/3 innings, striking out 28 and giving up 10 runs for an ERA of 3.80.
Now, the closer role is his, and he deserves all the credit in the world for battling through injury, keeping his mind right and mouth shut and flat out winning the job.
He bulldogged it, and he earned it.