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LeClerc wins Pitcher of the Year, named closer

Right-hander emerged as force out of Rangers' bullpen in 2018
MLB.com @Sullivan_Ranger

ARLINGTON -- Jose Leclerc received the Pitcher of the Year Award at the Rangers Winter Warmup on Friday night at Texas Live!

He also received confirmation from manager Chris Woodward on what his role with the Rangers will be going into Spring Training.

ARLINGTON -- Jose Leclerc received the Pitcher of the Year Award at the Rangers Winter Warmup on Friday night at Texas Live!

He also received confirmation from manager Chris Woodward on what his role with the Rangers will be going into Spring Training.

"He is going to be our closer," Woodward said. "He has earned that right. He is our best bullpen guy and one of the best pitchers in baseball."

The decision is not a surprise. Leclerc took over as the closer last season after Keone Kela was traded to the Pirates at the end of July and was almost unhittable in that role. Leclerc did not allow a run in his final 18 innings, allowing just three hits and six walks while striking out 29 and saving 12 games.

But clarification was needed. The Rangers, over the offseason, discussed different ways to structure their bullpen and how best to use Leclerc. In the end, Woodward decided the ninth inning was the best option and told Leclerc that on Friday.

"I felt he needed to understand that going forward, get used to being the closer," Woodward said. "He doesn't want anything handed to him. He has to earn it. But he's ready for it."

Leclerc gives the Rangers a layer of confidence in a tumultuous offseason for their pitching staff. The Rangers are in the process of rebuilding their staff -- both bullpen and rotation -- but they at least know who is going to be at the back end of games. Woodward spent the past three seasons on the Dodgers' coaching staff and understood the importance of All-Star closer Kenley Jansen to their team.

"Jose is very similar with his stuff," Woodward said. "It's nice to have that at the back of the bullpen and work back."

Video: TEX@SEA: Leclerc strikes out Cruz to notch the save

It's part of the dramatic transformation for the 25-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic who wasn't a part of the Rangers' offseason festivities last year. He wasn't even thinking about being the Rangers' Pitcher of the Year when he showed up in Spring Training.

"That was the last thing I had on my mind," Leclerc said. "Not even close. In Spring Training, I was just thinking of making the team. That's it."

He made the team and was outstanding all year, first as the setup reliever and then as closer. Overall, he pitched in 59 games with a 1.56 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP. He struck out 13.3 batters per nine innings and allowed 3.7 hits per nine innings.

"Myself, I am the same guy, but it's been different," Leclerc said. "I have a lot of fans now; before, nobody knew who I am. Now people are talking to me or texting to me. I'm just enjoying it."

The rest of the league found out about him quickly, said pitcher Zach McAllister, who was with the Indians last year but is now joining Leclerc in the Rangers' bullpen.

"You'd look at him and he's not a big guy," McAllister said. "But he would come out on the field with a lot of energy. He'd be out on the field bouncing around, playing catch with the outfielder and you'd say, 'Who is this guy?' Then he would come in and carve you up and you'd say, 'That's who he is.' The league may not have known him, but he is making a name for himself."

The Rangers knew it was there. Leclerc had a 3.41 ERA and struck out 11.1 batters per nine innings over 59 games in 2016-17. But 7.9 walks per nine innings underscored why he spent those two seasons shuttling back and forth between Arlington and Triple-A Round Rock.

Then he came to camp last season with a new attitude and determination, and the Rangers saw the difference almost immediately. When he struck out 16 and walked two over 12 Cactus League outings, the Rangers could sense that Leclerc was starting to figure things out.

"He has always had the stuff, it was more so just feeling relaxed and going out and playing the game you have played your whole life," outfielder Delino DeShields said. "You could see when he came into the game, it was going to be lights-out. Everybody knew he was going to get those three outs."

Said catcher Isiah Kiner-Falefa, "Once we lost Kela, we were looking for someone at the back end. [Leclerc] emerged and took over."

That's why Leclerc received his award on Friday night and why his manager signaled his support. The Rangers will go into Spring Training knowing who their closer will be in 2019.

T.R. Sullivan has covered the Rangers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast.

Texas Rangers, Jose Leclerc