It's definitely possible to turn an excellent relief pitcher into an excellent starting pitcher. We saw the Minnesota Twins do it with Johan Santana, and former Seattle Mariners reliever Brandon Morrow is developing into a top-of-the-rotation starter with the Toronto Blue Jays this season.
The Texas Rangers tried to pull this same trick with Neftali Feliz this season. And to a certain extent, it worked. Feliz won three of his seven starts with a respectable ERA of 3.02 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.57. He certainly couldn't be characterized as a dominant starting pitcher, but he was holding his own.
But like I said, the experiment only worked to a certain extent. The Rangers had to place Feliz on the disabled list on Monday. As reported by Richard Durrett of ESPNDallas.com, Feliz is dealing with a strained right elbow, and he's going to give his arm four weeks of rest.
If all goes well, Feliz could be back right around the All-Star break, most likely after.
Naturally, this turn of events presents the Rangers with some decisions they have to make.
First and foremost, the Rangers need to decide whether they're comfortable with the idea of using Scott Feldman in Feliz's spot in the rotation for the foreseeable future. They have other options, of course, one of them being 2011 All-Star Alexi Ogando and free-agent veteran right-hander Roy Oswalt.
The Rangers are apparently interested in Oswalt. As reported by T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com, the Rangers have already watched Oswalt throw and GM Jon Daniels admitted that Oswalt "has to be" on the team's radar given the circumstances.
Oswalt would be just what the doctor ordered in place of Feliz. He's a veteran righty with tons of experience, and Rangers boss Nolan Ryan said (see ESPNDallas.com link) that he had heard good things from his people about Oswalt's stuff and general physical shape.
That doesn't come as much of a surprise, as Oswalt is not ancient by any stretch of the imagination, and you just get the sense that he needed a couple months off to gather himself after having a tough season with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011. He may not be a No. 1 starter anymore, but he'd be a great find for the No. 5 spot in Texas' rotation, and he would presumably jump at the chance to pitch for a legit World Series contender in a state he knows quite well.
Signing Oswalt would be the best thing for everyone. He'd be an upgrade over Feldman, and the Rangers would get to keep both Feldman and Ogando in the bullpen, which is the deepest and most effective bullpen in Major League Baseball.
When Feliz is ready to come back, the Rangers could make their bullpen even deeper and even more effective. He came from a relief role, and it's to a relief role he should return when he's ready to pitch in the majors again.
Feliz wasn't a bad starter. He just wasn't a great starter, and that makes it extremely difficult to overlook the fact that Feliz was an excellent reliever.
The numbers do a pretty good job of telling the whole story. Here are the key ones, per Baseball-Reference.com:
It's simple. Feliz is not a dominant starter, but he is a dominant reliever. Your own two eyes should tell you that just as well as the numbers.
After committing Feliz to the starting rotation, the Rangers went out and signed Joe Nathan to be their closer. He's been effective as Texas' closer, saving nine games in 10 chances, but Nathan does not have the same stuff that he had in his glory days with the Minnesota Twins. We saw him make things a little too interesting earlier in the year, and that's going to be a danger every time he takes the mound.
Feliz could also make things interesting from time to time when he was closing games for the Rangers, but he got the job done more often than not. And of course, he should have gotten the final out of the 2011 World Series.
What role should Neftali Feliz occupy when he returns?
If the Rangers sign Oswalt and move Feliz to the bullpen upon his return, what they'll have is a very solid starting rotation, and one of the best bullpens seen in baseball in a long time. If teams don't have a lead through five innings against the Rangers, they'll be in deep trouble.
The key counterargument against moving Feliz back to the bullpen is that it's in the organization's long-term interest to make sure he develops into a starting pitcher. For all the good he's capable of doing coming out of the bullpen, making him a starting pitcher is the best way to maximize his value.
This is true, but the Rangers are in a position this year to put the best interests of the present over the best interests of the future. They're not trying to win the World Series in 2014. They're trying to win it in 2012. Their time is now.
If the Rangers want to reboot the Feliz rotation experiment again in the future, they're more than welcome. But for the rest of this season, it should be put on hold.
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