Evaluation of the Texas Rangers Closer Situation

Oct 9, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Texas Rangers relief pitcher Keone Kela throws a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays in the 13th inning in game two of the ALDS at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 9, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Texas Rangers relief pitcher Keone Kela throws a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays in the 13th inning in game two of the ALDS at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /
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With Shawn Tolleson’s injury issues, questions have started to arise surrounding the closer position of the Texas Rangers.

Ranger closer Shawn Tolleson has yet to pitch in a big league Spring Training game this year due to lower back spasms that arose early in the month of March. Those injuries, along with questions about his ability to repeat his performance from last season has sparked debate over who will be the Texas Rangers closer as we approach the end of the season.

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Last season, Shawn Tolleson was about as dominant as they come in terms of closing out a baseball game. In his first season as the Texas closer, Tolleson racked up 35 saves in 37 opportunities for the Rangers, posting a 2.99 ERA and averaging 9.5 strikeouts per 9 innings. Despite these numbers, some question Tolleson’s ability to replicate a performance like last season moving forward. Taking the concerns with Tolleson’s ability heading into 2016 to another level, some believe that the right-hander may not even be the Texas Rangers closer by the end of the season.

Hot on Tolleson’s heels to be the Rangers closer is youngster Keone Kela. The 22 year old flamethrower is entering only his second big league season and is already impressing people around the league. In 2015, Kela appeared in 68 games for Texas throwing 60.1 innings. Across this body of work, Kela posted an astonishing 2.39 ERA, striking out 10.1 batters per 9 innings pitched. Not only did he keep opponents from scoring, he limited opponents from getting on base holding batters to a sub-.250 batting average and posting a 1.16 WHIP.

Many consider Kela to be the closer of the future for the Texas Rangers and the question is really only when he will take over. Heading into the season, Kela is lined up to be either the seventh inning guy, or the set up man, dependent on shuffling with Tom Wilhelmsen and Shawn Tolleson. Kela, who has a fastball in the upper 90s, has the makings of a future closer, with overpowering pitching ability mixed with decent control.

Kela, who has a fastball in the upper 90’s, has the makings of a future closer…

Kela got the only save opportunity not given to Shawn Tolleson in 2015 and pitched in numerous late game situations including some pressure spots in the playoffs. He has the ability to pitch in big moment opportunities and has the take no prisoners attitude required by a major league closer in today’s game. Whether Kela gets the opportunity to “try out” for the closer role this year is undetermined but look for him to enter the conversation if Tolleson strings together a couple of bad outings.

Along with Kela, Tom Wilhelmsen, who the Rangers signed this offseason, also is a candidate for a closer role. Over the course of his career, Wilhelmsen has 67 saves including 13 for the Mariners in 2015. He has a career 2.97 ERA and a career WHIP of 1.191. Wilhelmsen, the veteran and oldest of the three players, has by far the most experience in late game scenarios which plays to his advantage.

Wilhelmsen, who has a mid 90s fastball, also has the build of a prototypical dominant closer. At 6’6″, the big right hander has the ability to cut down the distance between the mound and the plate, making his fastball look even faster and limiting the hitters ability to see the ball well. Of the three, Wilhelmsen would probably be second in line for the closer role given his experience late in games.

When 2016 rolls around, given Tolleson has returned fully from his back issues, the closer role will be solely his. He earned it based on his performance last season and it will be his moving forward. However, if injury issues appear again or he starts to struggle often, I have no doubt that Texas won’t hesitate to switch things up in the back end of the bullpen.

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