Neftali Feliz pitched two scoreless innings on 36 pitches Thursday afternoon against Cleveland in his spring debut. There wasn’t anything special about the 22-year-old’s performance- two hits, a hit batter, and no strikeouts- but it was solid and the Ranger coaching staff will hope it stays that way as they begin to stretch Feliz out a bit over the next few weeks.
With that in mind, let’s say, hypothetically of course, that Feliz does pitch well enough to earn either the fourth or fifth spot in the starting rotation. That would mean him leaving the bullpen and Texas having to replace an All-Star closer.
If they did that, they’d have to dig through and dissect a myriad of arms that were either in the bullpen or the minors last year. Here’s my top five options for the new closer’s role if Feliz goes to the starting rotation.
After helping Fresno State win a College World Series in 2008, Scheppers was drafted by Texas and rose through their minor league ranks quickly. He pitched in AAA-Oklahoma City last year and aside from Martin Perez has been the organization’s top pitching prospect the past two seasons. Some expected him to maybe get a call up in August of last year if the Ranger bullpen needed and even the Texas front office expected him to make the big league roster by 2011.
He’ll probably be somewhere in the bullpen come opening day, but if the early reports coming out Surprise are of any indication, Scheppers won’t have a legitimate shot to earn the closer’s role.
His line today: 2/3 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 2 BB.
But worse than that was what ESPN.com’s Keith Law reported. Law said Scheppers “arm speed is gone” and that the righty’s fastball hovered around 88-91 MPH, well below his usual average.
Maybe Thursday was just an apparition and Scheppers’ arm will get into shape, but as of now, he’s no candidate to be the closer should Feliz leave the role.
4) Darren O’Day
Been a big fan of O’Day ever since Texas acquired him in 2009.
He’s a righty with a side-arm delivery which is extra effective against right-handed hitters and he consistently throws strikes. But the problem with O’Day is that as good of a seventh inning guy, and sometimes even an eighth inning guy, he is, I don’t think he’d be able to have much success in a closer’s role.
He doesn’t throw hard so he’s not going to instill much fear in a hitter, something a good closer always does. Plus, I don’t think he has the mindset of a closer. He’s more of a get in there and do my job kind of guy. He’s not there for the big lights and he’s not there to strike every batter out.
He’d be effective in a closer’s role but he’s not someone I’d want to take out of late relief role he fits perfectly in when there’s four other guys who fit the mold of a closer.
Kirkman, who pitched well after being called up late in 2010 with a 1.65 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 16.1 innings, is a lefty whose fastball isn’t great but his off-speed, mainly his slider, makes it tough on hitters. He has an outside shot to make the starting rotation but he’ll probably start the season somewhere in the bullpen. If he pitches this spring like he did at the end of last year, Texas might consider him for the closer’s role. That is, of course, if these next two guys fall off the face of the planet.
2) Mark Lowe
That’s been the only thing holding Lowe back from already earning a closer’s role somewhere in the major leagues. The “other guy” in the Cliff Lee trade has a plus fastball and a decent slider, both of which come when he’s healthy. He’s had some control issues in the past but what I like about Lowe is that he wants the job.
“It would be awesome,” Lowe told ESPNDallas.com of getting the closer’s role. “Every reliever would love to do that. I’ve done it a few times and it’s a blast.”
Closing in the major leagues is as much about mindset as it is skill set. Lowe has the mindset and when he’s healthy, he’s got a pretty strong skill set. If Feliz goes to the rotation, Lowe will fight for the closer’s job as hard as anyone else. And if he gets it, he’ll have the confidence knowing he’d earned it.
1) Alexi Ogando
Ogando has a fastball in the upper 90s with the ability to mix in off speed pitches that are equally nasty. He’s fairly young, Dominican, and had early success after being called up in mid-season.
Sound familiar? Ogando is a poor man’s Feliz with a little less hype.
He was called up in mid-June last year and immediately blew hitters away with his plus fastball and effective slider. He ended up throwing 44 relief innings with a 1.30 ERA while striking out 39. When rumors began to swirl that Feliz could go to the starting rotation, Ogando’s name was one of the first brought up as a possible replacement.
He could, and will have to, step in and be the closer should Feliz leave the bullpen. He has all the physical tools necessary to be an effective closer but the one aspect that comes to question, as it came to question last year when Feliz got the job, is going to be his experience or lack thereof.
Ogando had to wait five years to get into the United States because of visa issues and when he finally did he rose quickly through the minors. And last year, his first season in the major leagues, he ran into little trouble at all.
But as a closer, he’s bound to run into a few jams here or there.
How he handles those situations, if he does indeed get the role, could have a greater effect on Texas’ season than many would believe.