Neftali Feliz Named Texas Rangers Closer: Generational Talent Wasted in Bullpen
He wasn’t even supposed to be Texas’ closer—he was slated to play second fiddle to Frank Francisco.
We know how that story ended. By the second week of the 2010 season, Feliz, now 22, had wrested the ninth-inning job from Francisco.
In 70 appearances, he threw 69.1 innings with a 2.73 ERA, striking out more than a batter per inning (9.2 K/9) and notching 40 saves (good for third in the American League) en route to upsetting Austin Jackson for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
Now that ace Cliff Lee has returned to Philadelphia, questions have abounded about the 2010 AL pennant winner's ability to defend its title with a weakened rotation. It was only logical that the idea of moving Feliz, who was predominantly a starting pitcher in the minors, back to the rotation would spark a lot of discussion.
Unfortunately, it's not going to happen—at least, not in 2011.
On Thursday, the Rangers announced that Feliz would return to his established role as the team's closer.
It's a terrible decision.
A solid starting pitcher makes a bigger difference to a team than even the best high-leverage reliever, so keeping a young arm with even half of Feliz’ talent in the bullpen seems like a waste.
Of course, not every pitcher has the stamina and pitch repertoire necessary to handle the increased workload and to face batters who have already seen his stuff.
The Cleveland Indians’ Justin Masterson was dominant as a late-inning reliever, but has struggled as a starter. The Detroit Tigers are likely to regret moving Phil Coke, a lefty reliever who can’t get right-handed hitters out, to the rotation.
For every C.J. Wilson, there’s a Kyle Farnsworth.
But Feliz fits the profile of a successful starter to a T. His fastball would lose some speed if he moved to the rotation, but even if he’d lose three mph and we assume his velocity has already peaked (not likely for a 22-year-old), he’d still average over 93 mph. That’s some serious heat.
More importantly, while Feliz goes to his heat most of the time (78.7 percent of his career pitches—that would drop if he moved to the rotation), he doesn’t need to rely solely on his fastball; he has a solid three-pitch repertoire to keep batters guessing.
His curveball is fantastic: On a per-pitch basis (FanGraphs’ Pitch Valuation has it at 2.77 wCB/C), it would have been the best curve in the league if he’d had enough innings to qualify. His changeup is less impressive (-0.65 career wCH/C), but it’s pretty good for a 22-year-old’s third pitch.
Of course, it's understandable that Texas would want to keep Feliz in the 'pen. With Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter and Matt Harrison ready to line up behind C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis in the rotation, Texas has no need for another starter.
Meanwhile, the bullpen situation looks bleak; the organization has questions about Alexi Ogando’s ability to close, and Darren O’Day and Mark Lowe have combined for a 12.21 ERA in 14 innings.
With that in mind, keeping Feliz as a reliever makes sense for Texas—under two conditions.
First, the Rangers can’t plan on keeping him in the bullpen forever and should at least start transitioning him to a starting role by 2012. Second, manager Ron Washington must use Feliz not as a closer, but as a true “relief ace.”
At this point, it’s pretty much accepted that permanently assigning your best reliever to the ninth inning is a terribly misguided strategy. If a team is ahead by one run with the bases loaded in the sixth or seventh inning, the need for shut-down pitching is far greater than when they’re up by three with no one on in the ninth.
Unfortunately, Washington hasn’t gotten the memo.
In 16 games last postseason (with plenty of days off in between), Wash had his best bullpen guy throw just 7.1 innings, and only once did Feliz appear in a game he didn’t finish. It’s safe to say Washington’s stubbornness with respect to the closer’s role was the reason the Rangers lost the first game of the ALCS.
What should Feliz' 2011 role be?
Using Feliz whenever he’s most needed instead of reserving him for arbitrarily determined save situations would help the Rangers win, but it would also help Feliz’ development.
In addition to giving him experience with getting out of jams—an essential skill for a starter to have—it could allow him to throw more innings.
If Texas moves Feliz to the rotation next spring after he throws a typical closer’s regimen of around 70 innings in 2011, he’s bound to experience some growing pains when his workload suddenly more than doubles.
If, on the other hand, Washington changes his tune and maximizes what he gets from his relief ace by using Feliz when he’s needed and for as long as he’s needed, the Rangers could have him throw closer to 100 frames, maybe more.
That way, they could stretch him out slowly and have him make a smoother transition to a starting role in the near future.
Of course, that's not going to happen—the team said Feliz will be a closer and, to my knowledge, they've never used the term "relief ace" in a public statement.
Wash is an old-school guy and if he can’t be bothered to maximize his bullpen properly in October, why would he be willing to change his ways in April?
If I was a Rangers fan watching my team’s best pitcher being condemned to wallow away in the ninth inning, I would not be happy—yo no sería Feliz.
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