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Closers Preseason Preview - AL West

As we head out west with the closer previews, there are a few more showdowns for the ninth. While there are some returners this season and a fresh face in Oakland, the two Texas teams offer tantalizing and competitive closer competitions. Like most divisions, the ability to win close games will depend on who finishes the season on top and all eyes will be on the Texas Rangers as their closer situation will have a big impact on the division race.

Houston Astros

Closer – Ongoing Position Battle (Jesse Crain, Josh Fields, Chia-Jen Lo, Chad Qualls)

Going into Spring Training, the Astros continue in lock step with last season as the least dependable bullpen in baseball. Not only are they inconsistent, but it seems that the Astros will give their closer few traditional save opportunities. If one of these candidates above emerge as an effective reliever, expect Houston to ship them to a playoff contender before the trade deadline (see Jose Veras). Last year’s top saves guys Josh Fields (5) and Chia-Jen Lo (2) both return this season. Fields had a below average first season in the big leagues (1-3, 4.97 ERA, 1.30 WHIP), but did manage to earn some trust with the Astros’ management and has a strong 9.5 K/9. On the other hand, Lo posted similar numbers last year (0-3, 4.19 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 7.4 K/9) and makes it difficult to anoint either as favorite.

The first person to challenge the returning sophomores will be journeyman reliever Jesse Crain, who will also provide the greatest competition. Although Crain only has four career saves, he was an All-Star last season and was nearly unstoppable (19 holds, 0.74 ERA, 1.15 ERA, 11.3 K/9) before succumbing to injury. If he comes back to form this season, the Astros may have their guy. Nipping at Crain’s heels will be Chad Qualls, who had an excellent season for the Marlins last year (5-2, 2.61 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 7.1 K/9) and was originally drafted by the Astros back in 2000.

Bold Prediction – Jesse Crain wins the job and is traded before the deadline. Qualls ends the season as Astros’ closer, with both having respectable seasons.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Closer – Ernesto Frieri

Frieri is very good and the Halos are glad to have him back given his career statistics (2.76 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 12.3 K9). That being said, Los Angeles is also hoping that last year was an anomaly (3.80 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 12.8 K/9) and he will return to the Frieri of old. Although there may be uncertainty for other teams, Ernesto will anchor the division as the AL West closer with the most job security. Even if the Angels’ offense does not live up to expectations, Frieri should still have 30+ saves this season.

Bold Prediction – Ernesto Frieri proves that last year’s shaky stats (which aren’t that bad in comparison to the rest of the league) were a fluke and his dominance continues with a 40-save season.

Who’s Lurking? – Dane De La Rosa returns to Anaheim this season and management will hope that he can repeat last season (2.86 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 8.1 K/9). If Frieri stumbles, De La Rosa may have demonstrated enough to take the ninth until order is restored. To go along with Frieri and De La Rosa, the Angels signed Joe Smith this offseason from Cleveland. Smith is a dependable reliever, who posted a 2.29 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and a 7.7 K/9, and should really help the Angels get out of a jam (Smith has only had 15 inherited runners score over the past two years). Finally, Sean Burnett will be jockeying for position in this bullpen after a strong 13 games last season (0.93 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 6.5 K/9). If Burnett continues to perform, he will add great depth to the Halos’ bullpen but will probably not get a chance at the ninth this season.

Oakland Athletics

Closer – Jim Johnson

With Grant Balfour gone to Tampa Bay via free agency, the A’s will turn to Jim Johnson in the ninth this season. After leading Major League Baseball in saves over the last two seasons (also only the second player in MLB history to record 50+ saves in consecutive seasons), Johnson was traded in December and will bring his talents to the Bay Area in 2014. With 145 appearances in the last two seasons, Oakland is hoping that Jim Johnson will continue to be durable and dependable in the ninth.

Bold Prediction – Somebody has to say it… Jim Johnson posts another 50-save season, but this time it’s out in Moneyballville. With a handful of blown saves, Johnson continues to be overlooked as an elite closer.

Who’s Lurking? – Should Johnson struggle this season, Oakland will certainly miss Balfour. However, there are a few candidates who should provide relief options just in case. Luke Gregerson has also arrived (via San Diego for Seth Smith) and should continue to be a steady setup guy. Gregerson has 16 career saves and a solid career stat line (2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 9.1 K/9). Ryan Cook, last year’s setup guy (2.54 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 9.0 K/9), is ready to battle for the eighth and may be the first in line if Johnson starts blowing saves. Sean Doolittle is another option, who possesses a career 3.09 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 9.3 K/9, but may have to surpass Gregerson and Cook in camp before getting the ball in crunch time.

Settle Mariners

Closer – Danny Farquhar

Last season, the Mariners struggled to find a dependable closer. After trying out a number of candidates, Farquhar took the job from Tom Wilhelmsen and never looked back. Despite the fact that last year’s statistics look poor (4.20 ERA, 1.19 ERA, 12.8 K/9), Farquhar actually performed quite well after becoming the closer (16 saves, 2.38 ERA). With that performance, Farquhar has earned the trust of Mariners’ management and will enter Opening Day as the closer.

Bold Prediction – Farquhar continues to stay ahead of Wilhelmsen and ends the season with the job, but their battle demonstrates surprising bullpen depth for the Mariners.

Who’s Lurking? – Despite the fact that he lost the gig to Farquhar and was sent to AAA last season, Tom Wilhelmsen will enter Spring Training as some of Farquhar’s greatest competition. Despite the fact that Wilhelmsen struggled last season, he should regain his pitching motion and see stats more in line with his career numbers (3.21 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.5 K/9). Considering the fact that he posted 29 saves in 2012, Wilhelmsen could be breathing down Farquhar’s neck before too long. Yoervis Medina performed admirably in his first season (2.91 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 9.4 K/9) last year and could also provide Seattle with much needed bullpen depth. After being shut down in 2013, Stephen Pryor is a top prospect who should be fully healthy this season. If so, he will be the wildcard and could start to make a name for himself in 2014.

Texas Rangers

Closer – Ongoing Position Battle (Neftali Feliz, Tanner Scheppers, Joakim Soria)

With Joe Nathan in Detroit, there will be a very serious battle for closer this season in Texas. Given Nathan’s consistency, he will leave very big cleats to fill. First up will likely be Neftali Feliz, the former closer who began last season on the disabled list (career 2.61 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 8.8 K/9). Considering that Feliz posted 30+ save seasons for the Rangers in 2010-11, he may have the insid track on the job. Tanner Scheppers, last year’s dependable setup guy (1.88 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 7.3 K/9 in 2013), will also have a shot at the ninth. Two-time All Star Joakim Soria is also lurking after spending a majority of the last two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery. The one-time superstar closer (160 career saves) may have just enough in the tank to regain the ninth this season. Alexi Ogando is a difficult pitcher to predict. After bouncing from the starting rotation to the bullpen, Ogando is a jack-of-all trades for Texas and they will use him wherever necessary. If Feliz, Scheppers, and Soria all stumble this season, Ogando may become the closer by default.

Bold Prediction – Neftali Feliz returns to the ninth with a vengeance and reminds Rangers’ fans of the good old days. After earning the job in Spring Training, Feliz hits the ground running and wins comeback player of the year.

If you’re chasing saves in your fantasy league, there’s only one place to check out… For the latest news on closers to grab, stash, start, or bench, be sure to follow @CloserNews on Twitter.

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