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Washington to take time picking closer for Rangers

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Manager Ron Washington isn't ready to just give Neftali Feliz his old job back, but he didn't hesitate to make one observation about his once and possibly future closer.

"I see him in the best shape I've ever seen him in," Washington said on Monday morning before the Rangers' first official workout.

If that proves to be the case, the drama about who will be the closer could be settled quickly. If not, Tanner Scheppers or Joakim Soria could pitch his way into the job.

Washington said that the Rangers haven't decided who will replace Joe Nathan, but the biggest factor is if Feliz is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and throwing the ball the way he did during the World Series years in 2010 and 2011. If he is, the Rangers could have an easy decision.

"I'm 100 percent, physically and mentally," Feliz said. "I'm ready for this job. I've done it in the past, and I think I'm ready."

Feliz converted 72 saves in 81 chances over his two seasons as the closer and recorded a 2.73 ERA and .184 opponents' batting average while relying mainly on a fastball that averaged 96 mph. Then came the ill-fated decision to move him into the rotation, a decision that lasted just seven starts before he encountered the problems that led to surgery on Aug. 1, 2012.

Feliz didn't return to the Majors until September of last season and was used only sporadically, as a setup man. His fastball was down three miles per hour and his command was erratic, but that was hardly unexpected after the long rehabilitation process. Feliz was sharper over 10 appearance in the Dominican Winter League, allowing three runs, six hits and two walks and striking out 11 in 9 2/3 innings.

"It was very important, because I didn't have that much of an opportunity at the end of the season last year," Feliz said. "In the Dominican you have a lot of Major League players and veterans over there, so being able to pitch against them gave me a lot of confidence."

Feliz is also comfortable being back in the bullpen. He never was truly comfortable in the rotation and wants to remain a reliever. Washington said that should also help him.

"He knows he can let it all hang out," Washington said. "He doesn't have to feel his way through innings. He knows he has just one inning and that's it, so he can let it loose."

Soria is hoping he is finally finished with his own recovery from Tommy John surgery. He spent five years as the Royals' closer, saving 160 games, before missing the entire 2012 season because of a torn ligament in his right elbow. The Rangers signed him the following winter with the idea of using 2013 to get him back into pitching shape before considering him as a possible option as closer in 2014 if Nathan left as a free agent.

Soria pitched in 26 games after being activated on July 7 and went 1-0 with a 3.52 ERA. Opponents hit just .212 off him, and he struck out 28 in 23 2/3 innings.

Soria doesn't throw as hard as Feliz, but he has a wider array of pitches that require optimum command -- command that wasn't always there last season.

"I feel great now," Soria said. "It's different than last year. Last year was about getting back. In my point of view, I was OK. I feel I'm going to have better command and more consistency in my pitches because I'm fully healthy.

"I didn't feel my command was always there when I needed it. Sometimes you don't need too much command, but sometimes when I needed command, it wasn't quite there. But I think now it's going to be different."

Scheppers was outstanding last season as a setup man, going 4-2 with a 1.88 ERA in 76 games. He is ready for a more prominent role, but it may not be as closer, as the Rangers are also going to give him a chance to move into the rotation.

"I feel I can start," Scheppers said. "I think I have the pitches needed to start. Obviously, I haven't thrown my secondary stuff as a reliever, but Spring Training is a great place to see how that plays out."

There are two concerns about taking Scheppers out of the bullpen. One is that the Rangers are already without Nathan, so losing Scheppers would be a second big hit for a bullpen that had a 2.89 ERA last season, second lowest in the American League. Their 11 blown saves were the fewest in the league.

The other concern is Scheppers holding up physically. He had a shoulder injury in his junior year in college and back issues in 2011. In four professional seasons, he has made just eight starts, compared with 198 relief appearances.

"I feel if I focus on my back and shoulder conditioning, I can handle the work," he said. "The main thing is being able to help out any way I can."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.

Texas Rangers, Neftali Feliz, Tanner Scheppers, Joakim Soria