After a catastrophic start to the season for Rangers right-hander Sam Dyson, the team’s ninth-inning scene is now among the biggest question marks facing the club’s decision-makers. Like predecessor Shawn Tolleson, Dyson transitioned from largely unheralded setup man to unlikely closer in 2016, racking up 38 saves with a 2.43 ERA, 7.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and a 65.2 percent ground-ball rate. However, Dyson has also seemingly followed Tolleson’s footsteps by imploding early in his second season as a closer; in just 4 1/3 innings this year, the 28-year-old has yielded a staggering 13 earned runs on 14 hits (two homers) and five walks with just two strikeouts. He’s blown three saves and been saddled with three losses for a Rangers team that current sits last in the AL West with a 4-8 record.
A closer change in Arlington seems like a virtual lock, though manager Jeff Banister wouldn’t firmly commit to a new closer yesterday, telling reporters, “We’ll have those discussions,” when asked about a possible change but neglecting to elaborate beyond that (via MLB.com’s Doug Miller). The Rangers do possess several alternative options, so let’s run down the possibilities with a change seeming likely on the horizon…
- Matt Bush: The resurgence of the former No. 1 overall pick as a shutdown reliever is among the most improbable comebacks in recent MLB history. Bush has been dominant in 66 1/3 innings since making his MLB debut at the age of 30 last season, which came after spending more than three years in prison. With the Rangers, he’s posted a 2.58 ERA with a 69-to-15 K/BB ratio, a ground-ball rate of 42 percent and a fastball that has averaged 97 mph. There’s at least some level of trepidation when it comes to Bush’s shoulder, however, as the right-hander received a cortisone injection in his ailing AC joint last week, though he hasn’t demonstrated any ill effects since returning.
- Jeremy Jeffress: The former Brewers closer has been generally excellent since establishing himself as a big league bullpen arm back in 2014. Across his past 164 Major League innings, Jeffress has a 2.58 ERA with 7.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a ground-ball rate approaching 60 percent. He’s typically averaged about 95 mph on his heater, and he racked up 27 saves in 2016 for the Brewers before being shipped to the Rangers alongside Jonathan Lucroy in a summer blockbuster. Like Bush, Jeffress has had his share of off-field issues and spent a month in a rehab facility for alcohol abuse late last season. Looking solely at his on-field performance, he’s a perfectly serviceable option for the Rangers in the ninth inning and comes with the most experience of the team’s internal candidates. Piling up some additional saves would likely inflate Jeffress’ arbitration earnings next year, though the team likely wouldn’t be deterred by that if it kept them in games in 2017.
- Tony Barnette: A former Diamondbacks minor leaguer that broke out in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, Barnette inked a two-year, $3.5MM deal with the Rangers on the heels of a dominant six-year run with NPB’s Yakult Swallows. The 33-year-old has had a slightly rocky start to his 2017 season but was a terrific low-cost addition to the relief corps last season, logging 60 1/3 innings of 2.09 ERA ball with 7.3 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and a 46.3 percent ground-ball rate. Installing Barnette as the closer comes with immediate financial implications as well, as his modest $1.75MM salary can rise by as much as $550K based on games finished. He can also see the value of his $4MM club option for the 2017 season increase significantly based on games finished.
The Rangers also have hard-throwing rookie Jose Leclerc, though he comes with just 21 1/3 innings of Major League experience to date. Young right-hander Keone Kela would’ve conceivably been an option to close games in the event of a Dyson meltdown, but he was optioned to Triple-A Round Rock at the end of Spring Training for disciplinary reasons following a clash with some of the team’s more veteran players. Either righty could seemingly be a high-leverage/ninth-inning option down the line, but neither stands out as a likely option at present.