With the departure of Joe Nathan, the Rangers 9th inning was wide open to start the spring. We heard from the team that an open competition would be held, with the likely candidates being Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria. Tanner Scheppers was given some lip service as a consideration but it doesn’t seem that he was ever a realistic candidate.
With over half the spring gone, the race is becoming clearer. Feliz has failed to regain the velocity he had before Tommy John surgery and doesn’t seem to have an answer as to how to get it back. He has always had control issues and tends to leave balls over the plate. You can get away with that when you throw 98 mph, but try it with a 94 mph fastball and someone in the outfield seats is getting a souvenir.
Soria, on the other hand, has been very steady and reliable in the spring. His velocity will never be overpowering but he has shown a nice slider and was snapping off some nasty curveballs in his last game against the Giants. It looks like the job is his to lose at this point, so let’s look a little at Soria and see what we might be able to expect from him.
Soria is listed in Baseball Reference as 6′ 3” and 200 lbs. Originally signed by the Dodgers, he is now 29 years old and made his MLB debut with the Royals in 2007. His resume is impressive, after finishing 7th in the Rookie of the Year voting, he made the All-Star team in 2008 and again in 2010. In his time with the Royals, he posted an overall ERA of 2.40 and collected 160 saves. He posted a 4.03 ERA in 2011, prior to having Tommy John surgery, which makes his career ERA with the Royals even more impressive. In limited action with Texas last season, he posted a 3.80 ERA and a WHIP of 1.35.
The usual timeline with Tommy John surgery is that the first year back is a struggle, with decreased velocity and control. The second year brings a resurgence in arm strength and the pitcher usually is back to his prior level or even better. This is what the Rangers banked on when they signed Joe Nathan as a free agent after a poor first season coming off Tommy John. We all know how that signing worked out.
If Soria can even approximate what he put up with the Royals, the Rangers will have an elite closer on their hands for pennies on the dollar. Soria is slated to make $5.5 million this year and the club has an option for 2015 for $7 million. Compare that to what they would have had to pay Nathan to get him to stay (he signed with Detroit for $20 million for two years with a team option) and you see how the Rangers front office could really hit a home run with Soria.
Given his past performance, I think it’s reasonable to think Soria will put up an ERA somewhere in the mid 2s with a WHIP around 1.0. If he stays healthy, he could end up closing around 50 games and his historical save percentage of 89% would give him at least 43 saves, the same number Joe Nathan finished with in 2013.
My guess is that Scheppers will end up being the set up man with Soria being the scheduled closer. Feliz will fill out the bullpen and pitch in the earlier innings, unless he can find the velocity that seems to have deserted him.