Feliz move high risk for win-now Rangers
Texas has too much at stake to create more pitching questions
You won't find me arguing against the notion that a front-of-the-rotation starter has more value than a closer. Relief pitching, after all, is the most erratic part of the game. And while the market for relievers was completely out of control this past winter, the price of a ninth-inning arm still pales in comparison to that of an established ace.The Rangers understand this. That's why they're considering converting Neftali Feliz into a starter this spring. They see a potential ace-in-the-making ... and an affordable one, at that. "We may have a front-line starter right here in our own camp," general manager Jon Daniels told SI.com. "It's extremely difficult to acquire a pitcher like that, and if you do, the cost is extreme. We always viewed Neftali as someone with the ability to start. Why wait two, three years to find that out?" In meaningless games against watered-down lineups, having Feliz strut his stuff as a starter is a worthwhile experiment. And as my colleague Alden Gonzalez asserts, if this move works out, it might indeed be best for the long-term health of the franchise.
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Remember, however, that this is an experiment that likely won't lead to any definitive conclusions in this spring environment. The regular season would provide the truest test of Feliz's secondary pitches (82.8 percent of his pitches thrown last season were fastballs, according to FanGraphs.com) and, therefore, the truest indication of whether he can not only succeed, but excel in a starter's role.That, in essence, is why I don't believe a full-time conversion for Feliz is the right move for this club at this juncture. It would rob this potential contender of its closer, for the sake of trial and error. We are all well aware of Feliz's high-velocity fastball, which plays well in the ninth. A move to the rotation might force him to take a few ticks off the fastball, which could impact the pitch's effectiveness, though I wouldn't label that a major concern. The curiosity, rather, stems from the secondary pitches. As Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News recently pointed out, Feliz showed increased confidence in his breaking ball late in the season, while working with veteran catcher Bengie Molina. He threw the pitch for strikes 61.5 percent of the time in August and September. That's a good sign. But for the season, he threw it just 14 percent of the time, so it's still unproven. Maybe Feliz could get by as a starter on the fastball and breaking ball alone. But to be an elite arm, he'd probably have to refine a changeup that he threw just nine times in the second half last year, and that only induced four swinging strikes on the season. That pitch is a question mark that can only be answered in-season and over time. The No. 1 argument against converting Feliz to the rotation now is the potential impact such a move could have on his young arm. Keep in mind that the 22-year-old Feliz's career-high innings total was in 2008, when he tossed 127 1/3 innings as a starter at the Class A and Double-A levels. In '09, he split his time between starting and relieving before joining the Rangers' bullpen. All told that year, he threw 108 1/3 innings. Last season, pitching exclusively out of the Texas bullpen, he threw 76 2/3 innings between the regular season and the playoffs. He pitched multiple innings in just six of his 70 appearances. Now consider a starter's workload. The definition of success, in that regard, is a 200-inning season, which would be a 160-percent increase over what Feliz logged last year. The Rangers allowed a similar jump for C.J. Wilson last year, as he went from 73 2/3 innings as a reliever in '09 to 204 innings as a starter in '10. But Wilson was 29, not 22, and his fastball as a reliever averaged 93 mph, not 96. Those are two major distinctions to consider. We also don't yet know how well Wilson's arm will respond to that innings hike, after the fact. We'll find out this season. If the Rangers want to be careful with Feliz's arm, they'd be best-served to cap his innings well before he gets to that 200-innings point. But that would, of course, remove a prominent arm from the mix before the end of a season in which they expect to contend. Not good. Even if Feliz were to be limited to a conservative workload of 150 innings, that's about doubling his total from a year ago. In a perfect scenario, a young pitcher wouldn't see more than a 40-percent increase in his innings total from year to year. For Feliz, that would leave him with a little more than 100 innings to work with in 2011. Again, not good, when you're talking about contention. To me, contention is the heart of the matter here. If this were a rebuilding club in a developmental year, then the Rangers would absolutely have every reason to experiment with Feliz in-season and all season. But these are the defending American League champs we're talking about here. While a dominant Feliz at the front end of the rotation would obviously be a welcome addition to a club that lost Cliff Lee, we simply don't know if that's the Feliz we'd see. We do know that the toll such a role would place on his arm could be a dangerous one. I don't fault the Rangers for considering a switch. They are doing their due diligence, knowing full well that value equation expressed above. Still, that doesn't mean they should discount the importance of ninth-inning reliability. In Feliz, they have a young man who saved 40 games while striking out 9.22 batters per nine innings last season. His consistency inspires confidence. Installing Alexi Ogando or Mark Lowe into the role might not produce the same effect. Should Feliz remain the closer and the season not go the way the Rangers intend, then the second half might be time to start stretching out Feliz as a starter and gauging his effectiveness in the role. Maybe he could even throw a few innings in winter ball in his native Dominican Republic to further prepare him for a full-time starter's workload in 2012. But in the absence of that scenario, I look at it this way: As it stands, the Rangers have a special, proven commodity in the ninth. Feliz would be an unknown commodity in the first. And if contending right now is the primary goal, the fewer question marks you carry into a season, the better.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.