Feliz too good not to be a starter
It's a matter of need for Rangers, and Feliz is best to fulfill it
The sample size isn't large enough for us to responsibly decipher if Neftali Feliz best fits in the starting rotation.
But it makes perfect sense for the Rangers to explore the option. And if he adjusts the way so many who have watched him blossom expect, Feliz -- despite what colleague Anthony Castrovince believes -- needs to return to starting games, not finishing them.
A little background is necessary here. Feliz came up through the Rangers' system mostly as a starting pitcher, and he was good. So good, in fact, that after a stellar 2008 -- when he went 10-6 with a 2.69 ERA in 27 starts -- MLB.com listed him as a Top 10 Prospect for the first of two seasons running.
Around that time, Feliz transitioned to the back end of the bullpen. But it wasn't because he didn't pose the arsenal and makeup to be a Major League starter; it was because that's where the Rangers' needs were at the time.
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Now the Rangers need help in the rotation. And if Feliz shows he can effectively pitch off his fastball and handle the workload, making the 22-year-old right-hander a starter is a no-brainer for the short term and the long term.
Right now, it's about subtracting from an area of depth to improve an area of weakness.
The Rangers' rotation isn't very good. It's essentially last year's questionable one minus arguably the greatest pitcher in the game, Cliff Lee. The Angels and Athletics have better ones, even if several of the Rangers' starters outperform their career numbers the way they did in 2010. And nothing against C.J. Wilson -- who proved last year that one can effectively transition from reliever to starter -- but if you're ranking baseball's best pitchers, how far down the list do you get before you come upon Texas' Opening Day starter?
While the rotation has its questions, the Rangers' bullpen is stacked, with power righties and veteran lefties who can help make up for the loss of the reigning American League Rookie of the Year.
Perhaps Alexi Ogando can close, or maybe Mark Lowe. Regardless, the modern game has taught us three things about relief pitching: Success in that department is unpredictable year to year, the seventh and eighth innings are just as important as the ninth, and experience isn't a prerequisite to successful closing.
Just look at last season, when six of the top eight in the Major Leagues in saves -- Feliz included -- made less than $5 million and had fewer than six years of service time.
As Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said, "There are a lot of Major League closers who get their first save. Until you give them the opportunity, you just don't know."
Feliz was so good as a rookie that he'd be missed no matter how deep the bullpen is. But the void of a closer can be filled.
The void of an ace can't.
It's why the Rangers tried so desperately to sign Lee -- whose addition last July immediately made them a legitimate title contender -- and why quality starting pitching is so non-existent in the trade market right now.
More than anybody else on that pitching staff, Feliz can be that ace for the Rangers, because nobody else boasts his talent, electric stuff and upside.
Just ask Eric Hurley, the Rangers' 25-year-old pitcher who watched Feliz throw recently and said things like "effortless," "God-given gift," "crazy" and "wow" -- all in consecutive sentences.
If you have that kind of arm, you want it to pitch as many of your innings as possible. And 150-200 innings is greater than 70 (those are figures even a sportswriter can understand).
Yes, the competition in the rotation is heated at Rangers camp, where nine starters are vying for the final two spots. But outside of Feliz, the quantity seems far more impressive than the quality. There is no clear-cut ace anywhere on the Rangers' staff, and a previous one -- Brandon Webb -- hasn't pitched in two seasons and has yet to appear in a game this spring.
Feliz can eventually lead that staff. He helps the Rangers more as a starter this year, and down the road -- if he lives up to expectations -- he's far more beneficial as a rotation anchor than a lights-out closer.
Because of how expensive starters are as free agents, and how crucial they are on a year-to-year basis, there is nothing more important, more valuable and more coveted than a cost-controlled starting pitcher. As smaller-market teams will tell you, address starting pitching first, then worry about everything else.
Now -- while his arm is still young and his days as a starter are recent -- is the time for Feliz to make that move.
Of course, the question is whether he's ready. He proved he could handle starting in the Minors, but he relied heavily on his fastball while living a reliever's life.
This month, we'll find out if Feliz's slider and changeup are reliable out pitches. We'll see how his arm stands up to six-plus-inning outings. And we'll observe how he does when seeing a Major League lineup for a second and third time in a game.
If he passes those tests, the decision is easy.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.