True calling of Rangers' Feliz starts now
SURPRISE, Ariz. – For someone who wants to close, Neftali Feliz(notes) is doing an awfully good impression of a starting pitcher.
Over three scoreless innings Wednesday, Feliz throttled the Oakland Athletics with a fastball that kissed 98 mph, embarrassed two batters with backward-K curveballs, dropped in changeups at 90 mph and, for good measure, unleashed a new pitch.
The cut fastball Feliz is learning is, in the words of one scout sitting behind home plate, "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."
The only reason the Texas Rangers are even considering keeping the 22-year-old in the bullpen to start the season is that Feliz is comfortable as closer. And yet after this 53-pitch outing, even Feliz is beginning to come around to the simple reality: If the Rangers know what's best – and from general manager Jon Daniels through manager Ron Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux, they usually do – Feliz will be pitching in first innings, not ninth.
Theoretically, the decision is a no-brainer. Pitchers who throw 200 innings are more valuable than those who throw 70. Even 200 average innings are better than 70 good ones. Closers often come out of nowhere. Starters are significantly harder to find. That’s why they make more money.
It's the time spent in the seats behind home plate, however, that makes the choice all the more obvious. Feliz's arsenal isn't just great in a vacuum. It is No. 1-starter quality, and one of baseball's unwritten rules ought to be: Thou shalt not bury an ace in the bullpen unless thou seeks unemployment.
For every misstep he takes – say, walking the first two hitters in a frame, as he did in the third inning – Feliz has the rare ability to pitch his way out of it simply by throwing his stuff. With two out, poor Jai Miller(notes) swung through two cutters and a 98-mph exclamation point.
There is no craftiness to Feliz's game. It's power, power, power, 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds of muscle-car gusto. Feliz gets six miles to the gallon. Vroom-vroom, baby.
"It's very appetizing," Maddux said. "You've always got the almighty equalizer in your back pocket. You're never really out of an at-bat. If you can protect it and use your other stuff, everything plays off your fastball – especially if it's a plus-plus fastball like he does. Guys have to get it going. If stuff looks hittable, they pull the trigger, man. With him, it's almost start your swing, look for the ball."
When Maddux talks about Feliz, he tries to stifle his smile. It often fails. Arms like Feliz's that can throw strikes with multiple elite pitches are too rare not to savor. Putting Feliz back in the bullpen would be like dipping filet mignon in ketchup.
"Whatever role he fulfills, we're a better team," Maddux said. It's going to come down to what our biggest need is. I said before: You're only as good as your bullpen.
"If he goes out and throws like that, you're really like, 'Wow.' Start auditioning who can handle it. Who's got the belly for it? Who's got the resiliency for it? Who doesn't have to be perfect?"
The Rangers' other options at closer are the only thing keeping them from naming Feliz the No. 3 starter behind C.J. Wilson(notes) and Colby Lewis(notes). Alexi Ogando(notes) was in the minor leagues until mid-June last season. Mark Lowe(notes) has spent most of his career injured. Darren Oliver(notes) and Arthur Rhodes(notes) and Darren O'Day(notes) are wonderful complementary pieces without any closing success. Though more psychological than anything, the comfort in having a reliable ninth-inning reliever is tangible enough inside a clubhouse that the Rangers worry about snatching Feliz from a role at which he is so good and putting him in one with risk.
Feliz, too, is hesitant, and that only adds to the confusion. It's a good problem to have, but it's a problem nonetheless.
"I'm still feeling like a closer because of a whole season closing," he said through an interpreter, Rangers pitcher Pedro Strop(notes). "But the more time I get on the mound as a starter I'm going to start feeling better, like I felt today."
He'd better start feeling better, because this is his destiny. It's one thing for Jonathan Papelbon(notes), a max-effort-delivery pitcher, to transition to the bullpen, where the strain on his arm comes in bursts. Feliz's 98-mph fastball is so natural and organic it's like he bought it at Whole Foods. This is not to suggest his arm is built forever; it just lessens the likelihood of a catastrophic blowout.
The sooner Feliz comes to terms, the better. Because some time in the next 10 days, the Rangers must make a decision. If they do send him back to the bullpen – where he had 40 regular-season saves and a 1.23 postseason ERA last year – they must give him ample time to rewire his mental and physical circuitry so that pitching back-to-back days is no big deal.
In his next start, Texas plans to throw Feliz four innings, and should he shut down the Los Angeles Dodgers like he did Oakland, it's going to be impossible for the Rangers to deny him a spot in the rotation.
They can try Ogando and Lowe and Oliver and Rhodes and O'Day at closer. Not five pitchers in baseball – and certainly no one else in a Rangers uniform – can bring the pure stuff to a rotation like Feliz.
Even if it is for only 160 innings this year – and that is, in all likelihood, the maximum the Rangers would go to protect Feliz's arm – that sets him up to go 200 in the future, and no matter how concerned or short-sighted Feliz may be, he knows what a 200-inning starter commands on the free agent market. Mediocre ones get $10 million a year. The elite fetch $100 million contracts. Feliz could be a free agent at age 27, which makes him all the more valuable. Compound that with the death of the five-year deal for a closer, and Feliz not jumping at the opportunity to start means he's getting some bad advice.
Ultimately, it's not his decision. The Rangers will put him where it suits them best, and they're glad to know Feliz is on board with that much.
"I would put myself in whatever situation I could help the team most," he said.
Soon enough, when his arm is stretched out and when he's blowing through American League hitters, Feliz will have ample opportunity to pitch the ninth inning again – after pitching the first through eighth.