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Rangers have question mark at closer as spring training nears

The Texas Rangers were busy revamping their rotation during the offseason but, with spring training just weeks away, the back of the bullpen has no obvious answers.

DALLAS — The Texas Rangers made some huge headlines over the winter by supplementing their starting rotation with high dollar free agent acquisitions Jacob deGrom, Andrew Heaney and Nathan Eovaldi. This comes a full year after they revamped their lineup with Corey Seager and Marcus Semien locking the middle infield down with All-Star production. 

With these measures in place, Texas is poised to make a huge leap in standings and be in contention for a spot in the 2023 playoffs. But, to make it to meaningful October baseball, they’ll have to contend with the dynasty that is the Houston Astros, the magic of the Seattle Mariners, and the star power of the Los Angeles Angels, all of which appear to be perennial problems in the American League West. 

With Texas eyeing a surge, the question remains: Have Chris Young and company done enough to land this tricky rebuild gambit?

One of the areas left untouched by big name signings was that of the back end of the bullpen. Undoubtedly, the acquisition of the three aforementioned starting pitchers, as well as trading for experienced starter Jake Odorizzi, created a plethora of depth for the rotation to give new manager Bruce Bochy as many as 15 arms to look at for filling 7 to 8 bullpen slots – and that’s just from those on the 40-man Roster. 

Texas has also invited another 15 pitchers to Spring Training, whether they were already on minor league rosters or signed as free agents to minor league contracts. 

With 30 options to look at in the coming weeks, the setup and closer roles are more than likely going to come from in-house and will be reporting to Surprise, Arizona on February 15th. There are some candidates who make more sense than others as the Rangers try to find the winning combination for their bullpen.

Here’s a look at which arms have the inside track at the backend of the bullpen for Texas in 2023: 

Jose LeClerc

LeClerc, the 29-year old righty and career Ranger, finished up 2022 as the closer. After missing 2021 due to Tommy John surgery, LeClerc struggled early on to return to what the club had seen in 2018 and 2019, but finished incredibly strong in the last two months of the season. 

During that time, spanning 25 games, LeClerc earned 7 saves with a 1.84 ERA, amassing 37 strikeouts in 29.1 innings of work. He rediscovered the movement of his “Slambio” changeup and could easily start the season in a role he is familiar with. 

The second season after Tommy John surgery is supposed to be where the reins are loosened and the recovery is completed – LeClerc’s biggest hurdle is going to be rebuilding the strength and durability to go for around 70 outings like he did in 2019.

Joe Barlow

Barlow is the other hurler who most resembles an incumbent closer for Texas. The 27-year old righty debuted with the Rangers in 2021 and earned 11 saves in 12 opportunities with an impressive 1.55 ERA in 29 innings. The following season, Barlow had the closer title and converted 13 of 17 opportunities. 

The peripherals weren’t pristine, however. In over 35 games, Barlow allowed more than a baserunner per inning, with opponents getting on base 30.1% of the time while slugging .378 against him. This contributed to his demotion halfway through the year.

Barlow also spent most of the second half of the season on the injured list with blister issues. He underwent surgery in the offseason to fix a wrist tendon issue which is supposed to help prevent further blisters. The hope is that an injury free season, and not having to worry about blisters, might help Barlow get back on track and return to more of the pitcher Texas saw in 2021.

Barlow will be a key member of the bullpen, but how he performs in Spring Training and the early parts of the season will determine whether he’s a reliable high-leverage arm or not.

Ian Kennedy

The 16-year veteran Ian Kennedy rejoins the Rangers after a year in Arizona, but on a minor league contract. The 38-year old was previously with the Rangers for half of the 2021 season, where he started the year as the Texas closer. In that role, he flashed much of the success that he enjoyed as the Kansas City Royals’ closer in 2019. With Texas, Kennedy earned 16 saves with a decent 2.51 ERA and a career-high 5.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. 

Kennedy was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies at the deadline that year and his numbers took a sharp turn, with opponents slugging .461 off of him and allowing 11 runs in 19 games.

Last year with Arizona, he saved 10 games, but otherwise was not very good in his 57 games with the Diamondbacks. Used mostly in a setup role, Kennedy pitched in 50.1 innings and gave up 30 runs and saw most of his peripheral stats take a negative turn.

Kennedy brings the experience as a closer, but he appears to be in the final stages of his career and might not be the arm that the Rangers need to push them across the line.

Jonathan Hernandez

The 26-year old fireballer out of Memphis will be going into his second season coming off of Tommy John surgery. During his time in the Majors, Hernandez impressed with his high-strikeout rates in 2019 and 2020, but also by being able to pitch to contact upon returning to action in the last half of 2022. 

Hernandez saw his strikeout percentage drop from 24.8% in 2020 to 20.6 in 2022, but also saw his Ground Ball to Fly Ball Ratio jump from 0.84 in 2020 to 1.53 in 2022. 

Hernandez has four saves under his belt, but could be poised to take another step forward to a key high-leverage arm in 2023. He’s someone that could easily start out as a 7th or 8th inning guy and move into the closer role, should any of the above options not pan out.

With expectations high, these are the top candidates that the Texas Rangers could be counting on as their closer or high-leverage arms out of the bullpen this year, but other arms such as Brock Burke, Taylor Hearn, Kyle Cody, Danny Duffy, and Chase Lee are potentially key members as well.

Who do you think should be the closer for the Rangers in 2023? Share your thoughts with Matt on Twitter @FisherWritesMLB.

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