Neftali Feliz and the Texas Rangers: Why All-Star Closer Should Start

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IMarch 16, 2011

Neftali Feliz wants to start now.

After a couple weeks of media-driven drama over whether the Texas Rangers were forcing an experiment with starting on their best young pitcher, Feliz told reporters Tuesday that he feels much more comfortable with his newly-developed cutter than he did then and is now ready to mix pitches the way one needs to when pitching to 30-plus batters per game.

When first Texas' Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan suggested Feliz would get an audition for the starting rotation this spring, no one thought much of it. Number-crunchers like me applauded the principle and traditionalists who love clutch hitters and pitchers mourned the potential loss of a great closer.

Overall, though, it was awfully hard to imagine that stretching out Feliz was more than the idle entertainment of early spring training. 


Does he have the right stuff?

Now, the chances of Feliz being the Rangers' ace by midseason look to be better than 50/50 and this fight is a bit more real.

Some still insist that the Rangers are fixing what isn't broken or else that Feliz will be unable to adjust his high-90s heat and tight curve to the rigors of pitching in extended outings, facing batters three times per game.

Yet Feliz has blown away scouts (and opponents) with his command of a cutter and the deception and depth on his changeup. Having only seen spliced highlights of his work this spring, I will reserve judgment about that.

Happily, it hardly matters whether or not those reports are exaggerated.

Feliz's fastball is one of the best in baseball. Anyone can throw hard, as Feliz does, but his movement and arm action on the pitch will make it a weapon even at 94 miles per hour. His curve is another 60 to 65 pitch on the scouting scale, and he commands it really well. That combination alone makes him worth a long look.

Do not forget that the change Feliz has reportedly improved so much this month was arguably his best secondary pitch as a starter in the minors.  


The Way is Paved

It might be tempting to compare Feliz to C.J. Wilson, whom the Rangers successfully pulled from the bullpen and placed in the starting rotation last season.

But the better comparison is to Phil Hughes, with whom the Yankees performed the same exercise. Hughes was a year older last season than is Feliz this year, but still better fits the model.

As the Yankees did by having Hughes set up Mariano Rivera in 2009, Texas has kept Feliz's workload low by working him out of the bullpen thus far in his big-league career.

We can argue the wear on the arm pitching more often in shorter bursts, but the bottom line is that evidence proves high pitch and innings totals before age 25 can be detrimental to a pitcher's arm; a year in the bullpen saved both Feliz and Hughes some mileage.

In 2010, Hughes responded in expected fashion. He pitched brilliantly in the first half before stumbling to the finish, his stamina clearly not yet commensurate to his role. Feliz might similarly wear down over a full season in the rotation, but then again, his delivery is much less demanding and much looser than is Hughes'.

Either way, if the Rangers get anything akin to the 18-8 record and 2.4 WAR Hughes provided to the Yankees last season out of Feliz, they have to be happy.


Value by Volume

Of course, those arguments all depend upon Feliz, whom I adore from a scouting standpoint and in whom I have perhaps inordinate faith.

Maybe his walk rate would skyrocket in a starting role. Maybe hitters would get a better gauge on his heat and he would give up more home runs.

The worst-case scenario, after all, isn't Hughes—it's Joba Chamberlain.

Of course, the Rangers are the anti-Yankees when it comes to handling pitchers. There will under no circumstances be Neftali rules limiting pitch counts or innings. They will be decisive, aggressive and smart with Feliz, the opposite of the treatment Chamberlain got from New York.

Still, what if Feliz matches Chamberlain's 2009? What if he manages fewer than 160 innings and posts a 4.75 ERA despite starting all year?

Disaster, yes? Well, no.

Here's a fun little tidbit: Chamberlain's WAR that season, when he looked so awful and earned a permanent re-demotion to the bullpen, was 1.8. Feliz, who so dominated en route to the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2010, had a 1.7 WAR.

Feliz may have been twice as good as Chamberlain had been the previous year, but Chamberlain had pitched more than twice as many innings.

Feliz is more durable and in a better position, so he would likely pitch somewhere in the neighborhood of Hughes' 176 innings from 2010. To match his own value from last season, Feliz would not need to dominate; he would need to be as good as Kyle Davies.

Realistically, Feliz improves by anywhere from a half a win to a win and a half by moving to the rotation. The Rangers get that boost in the standings, assuming they can replace Feliz in the bullpen with an average pitcher.

It's simple math.


The Future of Closer-Starters

The road connecting the starting rotation to the bullpen used to be a one-way side street trafficked by journeymen and injury risks.

These days, though, teams are recognizing that their best pitchers should pitch as often as possible, and many elite relievers have made successful transitions to starting roles.

Some, like Hughes and now Feliz, are young players who may or may not respond well to the move in the long term. Others, like Ryan Dempster and Wilson, were already veterans and looked refreshed upon their returns to starting.

For top pitching prospects David Price, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson, late-season cameos in high-leverage relief have been a rite of initiation into the Tampa Bay Rays' rotation.

In other words, this may not be an isolated incident: Look for players like Joakim Soria, Chris Sale, Aroldis Chapman and even Jonathan Papelbon to consider moves like this one next February.

In the meantime, in the name of all things intelligent and ballsy, let Neftali Feliz start.


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