The Neftali Feliz fantasy dilemma

There's really no debating the point recently made by Yahoo!'s Jeff Passan: The Texas Rangers should find a way to get 200 innings per season out of Neftali Feliz(notes), assuming the 22-year-old's arm can handle the workload. Feliz should get a long look as a starter.

He struck out four batters over three scoreless innings against the A's on Wednesday, and it sounds as if he'll make another 3-4 inning appearance before the team determines his role for 2011. If the Rangers intend to leave Feliz in the bullpen, he'll need to get a few back-to-back appearances under his belt this spring. If instead the team chooses to toss him into the rotation … well, you shouldn't slide him too far down your draft board. He's obscenely talented (which you already knew), and he's added a fourth pitch, a cut fastball, to his arsenal.

Here's how one scout described the cutter in a conversation with Passan:

"Unfair. Not Mo [Rivera] in his prime, but it’s a hell of a fourth pitch. He’s got the best stuff I’ve seen all spring."

So again, let's not assume that Feliz's fantasy value would be ruined if he shifts to the rotation. (And for the record, that's still a huge if). Right now, I'd rank him in the 24-28 range among the starting pitchers, and I'd draft him even more aggressively than that rank suggests, at least in public-style mixed leagues. He was a terrific starter in the minors as recently as 2009, and his K-rate was sensational at the lower levels (10.6 K/9 over four seasons). I'm absolutely ready for the Feliz-to-rotation thing to happen.

But is Feliz ready?

When questioned about his role by reporters on Monday, his initial response was perfectly diplomatic:

"Whatever the team wants me to do to help make it better. I am right in the middle."

He was then pressed for a decision, because apparently the journalists surrounding him had a fantasy draft later that day. Feliz sounded like he was leaning toward bullpen work:

"I'm comfortable there and I've done it before at this level and I know what it takes," Feliz said with Julio Borbon(notes) acting as an interpreter. "What I went through last year made me feel more comfortable with the role."

So that's where we are. (Nice to see the Rangers have found a use for Borbon, by the way). Texas has been auditioning other candidates for the rotation — Derek Holland(notes), Tommy Hunter(notes), Alexi Ogando(notes), Michael Kirkman(notes), Dave Bush(notes), someday Brandon Webb(notes) — so they have non-Feliz options, if their closer is determined to keep closing. But again, it's ultimately in the team's best interests to get as many innings from Feliz as possible.

If Neftali leaves the 'pen, closing responsibilities would presumably fall to either Ogando or Mark Lowe(notes). The former is a 27-year-old righty with a high-90s fastball and a zesty strikeout rate; the latter is also 27, also a righty, also a hard-thrower. And he'll probably hurt himself before you finish reading this post. Lowe has expressed a desire to close, if that means anything to you. Darren O'Day(notes) could enter the ninth inning conversation, too, but I'd prefer Ogando and/or Lowe if speculating at the end of a fantasy auction.

In any case, this situation isn't yet settled (and we won't stop blogging about it), but you'll enjoy Neftali no matter which innings he's pitching.


Photo via Getty Images

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