11/26/11 1:52 PM EST
Nathan signing puts Feliz in rightful place
Rangers have long planned for righty to pitch in rotation
By Peter Gammons / MLB.com
Now that we know that general manager Jon Daniels tried to trade for Joe Nathan at the July non-waiver Trade Deadline begs: 1) whether he wanted Nathan and Mike Adams and 2) whether Nathan could have closed the World Series. But what happened to Feliz that night was not some crossroads event in his career.
Last winter, the Rangers were pondering the possibility of Feliz moving into the rotation after his auspicious Rookie of the Year season, in which he saved 40 games and piled up a 71-18 strikeout-walk ratio in 69 1/3 innings. At the time, Daniels made the point that the value of starters vs. relievers can be measured by the fact that A.J. Burnett makes $1.5 million more than Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher who ever lived.
But when the season opened, as Daniels recalls, "our bullpen wasn't exactly set." The Rangers knew they were serious contenders to be the best team in the American League, and could not chance a bullpen-by-lottery experiment. In fact, much of Daniels' deadline work revolved around the bullpen, hence the acquisitions of Adams, Mike Gonzalez and Koji Uehara, as well as the pursuit of Nathan.
Remember, the Rangers tied the Rays for the AL lead in quality starts, with 99. Their starters were 74-40 with a 3.65 ERA. Despite the incredible summer heat and the offensive nature of their ballpark, they posted the fifth-most innings (994) of any starting rotation, and despite Feliz, Texas had only the ninth-best save percentage.
If C.J. Wilson leaves, which he likely will, Feliz moves into his rotation spot.
"Neftali is 6-3, 235 pounds, he holds his velocity, he has a great delivery and the makings of a good pitch mix," says Daniels.
Did they pay heavily (two years, $14.75 million) for Nathan? Maybe, but when the Phillies opened the closer market with four years and close to $50 million for Jonathan Papelbon, this appeared to be a market in which one had to move. Nathan's velocity went from 91-92 mph early in the season to a solid 94 in the last month. He may be 37, but he is proven, and Daniels believes with Adams and Mark Lowe, they now have the makings of a bullpen that can close out 6-4, 7-5, 11-7 games.
We will eventually see where the market heads for Ryan Madson, Francisco Rodriguez, Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero, Matt Capps, Brad Lidge, Jon Rauch, et al. Waiting to get Nathan at a bargain may well have cost the Rangers more in the long run, and if they had to turn elsewhere for a closer, they might well have had to give more years than they wanted to at that position.
If Wilson leaves, Feliz goes into a rotation that -- with Colby Lewis, Alexi Ogando, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland -- has four starters who won between 13 and 16 games. They may or may not get in on Yu Darvish. Their system is loaded with arms, beginning with 20-year-old left-hander Martin Perez.
"Everyone talks about the way we can score runs," says Daniels. "But the emphasis clearly is on pitching. If you look at our 40-man roster, 23 of the 38 players right now are pitchers."
When Nolan Ryan is the club president, one starts with pitching. Daniels and his front office and scouting staff got Feliz and Harrison out of the Atlanta system in the Mark Teixeira trade, stole Ogando from Oakland in a Minor League draft when he was an outfielder they projected as a pitcher, and they went to Japan to bring back Lewis. They were willing to deal Holland to Tampa Bay had the Rays not preferred the deal they got from the Cubs for Matt Garza, but they have staunchly held onto their pitching.
They made pitching coach Mike Maddux a priority -- then this winter, when both the Cubs and Red Sox had sincere interest in Maddux as manager, kept him. Maddux made the choice to keep his family together in Texas, but there is every possibility that sometime down the line he will get a chance to manage the Rangers.
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement will put a harness on the Rangers' aggressiveness in the world market, where they have done an extraordinary job finding arms in Latin America (like Perez), as well as position players. Cuban outfielder Leonys Martin hit .348 in his brief stint in Double-A, then put up a .389 on-base percentage and .905 OPS in the Arizona Fall League.
Several scouts thought their Hickory club in the South Atlantic League may have been the best prospect team in the Minors, featuring 18-year-old shortstop Jurickson Profar; one scout says "he has the makeup of Dustin Pedroia and the skill set of Hanley Ramirez," and the .390 on-base percentage and 65-63 walk-strikeout ratio at 18 is an indication that he could come quickly. Former UConn third baseman Mike Olt slugged .764 in the Arizona Fall League and led in homers and RBIs.
There are those who panned the Rangers' starters' ERA because of playing in the West, with 57 games against the Angels, Athletics and Mariners, who were 10th, 12th and last in the league in runs scored, respectively. The division obviously factors in the fact that the Rangers were tied for the lead in quality starts, the Angels were one behind and Oakland and Seattle were but four behind Los Angeles.
But it is a pitching-first division. With Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, the Angels have one of the best rotations in the game. The Athletics have Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Brandon McCarthy and will get Brett Anderson back. Seattle has two of the best young right-handers on the planet in Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda -- Jason Vargas did a credible job as a middle-rotation starter, and on the horizon are last June's No. 2 pick, lefty Danny Hultzen, as well as huge left-hander James Paxton and Jaijuan Walker, who struck out 113 in 96 2/3 innings in the Minors.
"We are going to build with pitching and defense," says Mariners manager Eric Wedge. "That's the way to win in our ballpark."
Texas is trying to sign Josh Hamilton to an extension on the contract that is up at the end of next season. Could the Rangers also jump in on Prince Fielder? They seem reticent, but that could change quickly if the price is reasonable, because six years with Prince's power in that park would be scary. If Hamilton's cost isn't out of sight, the money they save letting Wilson walk and signing Nathan means that unless they get into the Darvish sweepstakes, they will have a young power rotation for less than $5.5 million, which is what Joe Saunders made last season.
Daniels looks around and sees the pitching Seattle is developing. He knows what will happen if Oakland is allowed to move to San Jose and can be run as a Major League franchise. He sees the energy, creativity and staff general manager Jerry Dipoto is bringing to the Angels, who already have talented young position players and a premium manager.
"We try to balance the present and the future," says Daniels, which is precisely what the signing of Nathan accomplished.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.