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02/15/09 7:25 PM EST

Francisco tops in Rangers' closer heap

Right-hander has job despite other strong contenders

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers have four candidates to be their closer this year. Two are former All-Stars, one led the team in saves last year and one guy has never been on an Opening Day roster in his Major League career.

Right now, Frank Francisco, who has spent the past 11 Opening Days somewhere in the Minor Leagues, who has made to make a steep climb out of both legal and injury purgatory, and who has far more experience as chess master of the Rangers clubhouse than he does as a closer, has the job.

Former All-Star closers Derrick Turnbow and Eddie Guardado have to wait in line. So does C.J. Wilson, who led the Rangers with 24 saves last year. The Rangers aren't inviting closer controversy.

"Right now Frankie is the guy," Rangers manager Ron Washington said Sunday. "We have the luxury of having some guys who have done it before and that's great, but Frankie is the guy."

Francisco was the last man standing at the end of 2008. Wilson started the season as closer but had to go on the disabled list in the first week of August with a sore elbow that ultimately required surgery. Guardado took over and held the job for less than a month before being traded to the Twins on Aug. 25.

That left Francisco, and he flourished in the role, allowing just one unearned run in 11 innings. He allowed four hits and four walks and struck out 18. Those numbers and a tight budget kept the Rangers from pursuing a front-line closer in the offseason.

"Primarily it was our confidence in Frankie and our belief that he's ready to capitalize on what he did last year," general manager Jon Daniels said.

This is the chance Francisco has been waiting for through tough times: the chair-throwing incident in Oakland in 2004, missing almost all of 2005-06 because of elbow surgery and struggling to make the team in 2007-08. He started last year in the Minors but was called up on April 22 and became the Rangers' most reliable reliever.

His 3.13 ERA was the lowest on the club for a pitcher with at least 25 innings and his 11.79 strikeouts per nine innings was the third highest among all American League relievers.

"I don't want to stop now," Francisco said. "I want to keep fighting. I want to keep working hard and getting better. I'm not happy with what I've done. I can do more."

He can't rest because others covet his job. Wilson made it clear he still hopes to be a closer again.

"Hope is not a very good stance," Wilson said. "Outworking people is and outpitching people is and that's what I plan on doing. I know what I'm capable of doing."

The Rangers felt they knew enough to make Wilson their closer in 2008 and he was 24-for-28 in save opportunities before the pain in the elbow became too much. Some thought Wilson should have kept pitching. Wilson, who had bone chips and a bone spur removed, still bristles at the suggestion surgery wasn't needed.

"I didn't want to have arm surgery but I mistakenly pitched too long with my elbow hurting and I didn't do myself any favors," Wilson said. "Nobody said 'thank you' for that. Instead I got throw under the bus. But I learned my lesson.

"I was offended by the insinuation that I didn't need surgery. I pitched through a lot of stuff."

Washington said that's in the past and insisted there are no doubts in his mind that Wilson needed surgery.

"We were concerned when he was struggling," Washington said. "It ended up being legitimate. He needed a cleanup of his elbow and he did. He's going to get the ball when it's his turn. All he has to do is what C.J. has always has done. We still have confidence in C.J. and he still has great ability. That hasn't been forgotten."

Turnbow could have had surgery last year to fix a partially torn rotator cuff in his shoulder but decided against it. He comes into Spring Training hoping that his rehabilitation and physical-therapy work over the past five months will help return him to being one of the best relievers in the game.

"Right now everything's good," Turnbow said before Sunday's workout. "The ball is coming out of my hand with life. I'm ready to go physically."

Turnbow, in camp on a Minor League contract, was the Brewers' closer in 2005 when he was 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA and 39 saves in 43 chances. He was also an All-Star in 2006 but his career has been on a downhill slide since then. Since the beginning of July 2006, he is 4-12 with a 7.20 ERA.

The Brewers outrighted him to Triple-A in May last year, then shut him down in June because of a partial tear in the rotator cuff. Five months of rehabilitation have brought the strength back and he claimed his shoulder has never been better. Like Wilson, he's still hoping to be a closer again someday.

"Once you're a closer, you always want to be a closer," Turnbow said. "I definitely want to close again, but one step at a time. I first need to make the team, do what they ask me to do, work my way back to the bullpen and maybe get a chance to close again."

Guardado, 38, was an All-Star closer for the Twins in 2002-03 and has 187 career saves, the most of anybody in camp. But Guardado, the senior member of the Rangers' Spring Training roster, isn't worked up over what role is planned for him.

"I think Frankie will do a great job, to be honest," Guardado said. "My job is hopefully the seventh or eighth innings and do what I do, get people out. We can't think about that other stuff. That's not our jobs. Our job is to pitch. Let the staff and manager worry about that and think about that."

They have, and right now, Francisco is the closer.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.