2021 Texas Rangers: Dissecting the Closer Competition

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Young and rebuilding, the 2021 Texas Rangers don’t project as elite in many on-field areas. One part of their game that could reach lofty status, however, is their ability to close.

While the Rangers comb through several position battles this spring, the most captivating is the competition between relievers Jose Leclerc and Jonathan Hernandez for the coveted closer role.

Texas signed Leclerc to a four-year contract extension after he dominated as their closer at the end of the 2018 season. But he took a step back in ’19 and appeared in only two games last season due to injury. He’s no longer a shoo-in for ninth-inning duties.

Hernandez shined brighter than perhaps any Texas pitcher in 2020, hurling 31 innings – by far the most among Rangers relievers – to the tune of a 2.90 ERA. He averaged 97.8 mph on his sinking fastball and leaned on his equally good slider and changeup to produce 9.00 K/9. The 24-year-old has yet to pitch in a save situation, however.

2021 Texas Rangers: Chris Woodward’s Thoughts on the Closer Situation

Rangers manager Chris Woodward hasn’t named a closer, nor has he tipped his hand at a front-runner. He’s not even set on employing the role in its conventional form, telling the media, “Whether the closer role means closing out a game one night and pitching two innings two days later, we just don’t know.”

Woodward wants to keep his relief options open. He’ll have an inexperienced starting rotation that will lend to bullpen creativity, plus his pitchers, like all MLB pitchers, will take on significantly greater workloads in 2021 than they did in a shortened 2020 season.

Woodward may require his relievers to open games, as he did last season and the season before. Leclerc opened three of his 70 outings in 2019, allowing one run and striking out four in 3.2 combined innings pitched. Call it coincidence or a strategy well-executed, but the Rangers won each game that Leclerc started.

Unfortunately, Chris Woodward doesn’t have a concrete rotation with clear expectations. He doesn’t have a Jacob deGrom or – dare I say it – a Lance Lynn to entrust with giving the bullpen a break every five days. His pen will take on many forms in 2021; he might not have a designated closer or set-up man.

2021 Texas Rangers: Predicting the Closer Outcome

Woodward may be onto something with his Swiss Army of Relievers, though he’ll still need a go-to arm when the Rangers are up by one in the ninth.

Leclerc embarks on a prove-it season. He’s entering the third year of his four-year contract, and the first two years did not go well. With Jonathan Hernandez breathing down his neck, he would set a high bar for ninth-inning efforts if earning the closer job out of Spring Training.

Entering his age 27 season, Leclerc still has a high-velocity arm. His average fastball mph was down a tick in short work in 2020, but the 2021 Texas Rangers anticipate it trending up with regular preparation. His cut-changeup, famously dubbed the “slombio,” is one of the more unhittable pitches in MLB. When he effectively locates his repertoire of pitches, he’s one of the more unhittable pitchers in MLB.

If Jose Leclerc is fundamentally sound this spring, he should begin the regular season at the club’s primary closer.

He fits the closer bill better than Hernandez, who pitches more so to contact. Leclerc has averaged over 13 K/9 each of the past three campaigns. He can get the big strikeout when entering the game with two outs and runners in scoring position, plus he has considerable experience closing out games.

Based on last season, the 2021 Texas Rangers will continue using Jonathan Hernandez as a multi-inning reliever. Hernandez climbed the Rangers’ system as a starter, so he has the stamina to control more than one inning. Additionally, he excelled in the role a season ago.

Don’t be surprised, though, if Hernandez records upwards of 10-15 saves in 2021. If Woodward follows through on his intentions, his two most talented relievers will take the mound in a variety of scenarios – closing games, opening games, pitching one inning, pitching two innings. He’ll take the temperature of the game, and whenever it becomes too hot, he’ll tap his right wrist to summon one of Jose Leclerc or Jonathan Hernandez.

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Travis Koch is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and a lifelong baseball fan. He's covered MLB for Overtime Heroics since January of 2021.