Don't Mess With Success: Rangers Should Resist Moving Neftali Feliz Into Rotation

Categories: Texas Rangers

Neftali_Feliz_Graham.jpg
Mark Graham
Neftali Feliz in early 2009
​In the comments of yesterday's blog, commenter "sporty" posed the question of whether Neftali Feliz should be moved into the rotation since we both agree the Texas Rangers rotation needs help desperately. He said the "transition makes a lot of sense." I disagree.

The argument for Feliz becoming a starter is largely based on his experience as one during his minor league career. Of the 79 games he appeared in from 2006 to 2009, he started 53 times and was mostly dominant when doing so.

However, the vast majority of the game's best closers throughout the years started their careers the exact same way. Mariano Rivera, perhaps the greatest closer of all time, started in the minors and even made 10 starts in his rookie season with the New York Yankees. Billy Wagner, Lee Smith, Jeff Reardon, John Franco and Jonathan Papelbon also pitched as starters in the minor leagues before becoming big-league closers.

Trevor Hoffman started six games for Double-A Chattanooga in 1992 as a 24-year-old and posted a 3-0 record, 1.52 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings. That's top-of-the-rotation talent. Yet he didn't make one start in his 18-year career in the majors and instead racked up a record 601 saves along the way.

Then there's Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who was a 20-game winner and two-time All-Star in 12 years as a starter in the majors. But it was the next 12 years he spent as a closer that secured his spot in Cooperstown, as he made the All-Star squad four more times and added MVP and Cy Young awards to his résumé.

Eric Gagne had very little success as a starter, but when he became the Los Angeles Dodgers closer in 2002, he reeled off one of the most dominant three-year stretches in baseball history, tallying 152 saves with a 1.79 ERA and picking up a Cy Young of his own in 2003.

While there are examples of closers turned starters that have become aces (Adam Wainwright comes to mind), history proves that once a pitcher proves he can close games, it makes little sense to mess with that success.

And Neftali Feliz's success has been hard to miss. He emerged as one of the game's top closers last year, saving 40 games with a 2.73 ERA and sparkling 0.88 WHIP. He also won the American League Rookie of the Year Award and struck out Alex Rodriguez to advance the Rangers to the World Series. Not too shabby for a 22-year-old.

With all that said, I agree with the argument that a dominant starter is worth more than a top closer, but the key word is dominant. If Feliz can pitch as a legit No. 1 or No. 2 starter, then pencil him in. But if he's merely a solid No. 3 or really good No. 4 or No. 5, then the move makes little sense.

As he'll turn just 23 in May, the likelihood that he can step out on the mound this year and pitch like a true No. 1 or No. 2 is slim. Has it been done before? Sure. But it's rare.

Of course, now we know Feliz wants to stay in his current role, which doesn't mean he should be able to call the shots, but it should be part of the consideration. Comfort at his age and experience level cannot be underestimated. Joba Chamberlain can attest to that.

In a couple years, maybe it will be time to give Feliz a shot as a starter. But for the time being, general manager Jon Daniels should pull the emergency break on this experiment and find another way to improve the rotation.

Follow the author on Twitter @SamMerten.

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29 comments
Mishon
Mishon

I am so ready for RW to come back.....I can't take anymore of this love fest between sam merten and sporty. It makes me want to vomit.

Throbuta
Throbuta

Does anyone regret CJ coming out of the pen last year? He was too valuable in the 9th. He didn't have the head to pitch a full game. Anyone regret CJ as a starter now? If he can be a quality starter then switch him.

wally pipp
wally pipp

please let this be permanent!?!?!?!

love me some poor man's mike modano sam merten

Sam_Merten
Sam_Merten

Drinks are on the house the next time you drop by Hully & Mo.

Robert Wilonsky
Robert Wilonsky

Kin I be in your fantasy baseball league? It's my fantasy. Please e-mail me at jim.schutze@dallasobserver.com.

Sam_Merten
Sam_Merten

This just in from the Rangers:

With many of the club's regulars staying back to work out in Surprise,the Rangers lost to the Angels 2-1 this afternoon in Tempe. Texas washeld scoreless until the 9th inning, when Jose Ruiz doubled andpinch-runner Davis Stoneburner scored on Matt Kata's 2-out, RBI-single.Kata, representing the tying run, was stranded at first base to end thecontest. Rangers starter Eric Hurley faced the minimum in his 3.0innings against Angels regulars despite walks to the first 2 batters inthe opening frame. He now has 5.0 hitless, scoreless innings in hisfirst 2 Cactus League outings, having retired 13 of 15 batters faced.Right-handers Seth McClung and Brett Tomko also tossed scoreless framesfor Texas. Minor league shortstop Leury ("Larry") Garcia started thecontest at shortstop and tallied a pair of hits, while Mitch Morelandadded his 3rd double of the spring. Maicer Izturis broke a scoreless tiewith an RBI-double in the 6th, while LA of Anaheim plated the game'sdecisive run on a suicide squeeze bunt by Jeff Mathis in the 7th.

Dollar Dog
Dollar Dog

So Bush gave up one home run per 6.2 innings last year in the national league with a home park with 20 feet more distance in right field then BPinA. Hurley gonna take his spot as the #3 righty on the roster?

sporty
sporty

haha, thanks for the shoutout, Sam. I guess that was my Sportatorium 15 Minutes/Words of Fame.

Well, I think you're one of the best baseball writers in town, but I have to disagree with your post here. Your paragraph asking if Feliz was more of a 1-2 or a #3 type starter is basically the reason I feel like they need to and are/were exploring where his true potential lies. All this talk may be unnecessary if the Rangers are now scrapping the idea of transitioning him, but I'll argue this point a bit anyway.

When the Rangers dealt for Feliz, scouts felt he had true ace upside to be one of the most dominant starters in the game eventually. The Rangers moved him to the pen to warm him in like a lot of teams have done with their star prospects (David Price in recent years, even Tampa Bay's closer for a period and probably the closest example to Feliz I think can, or Pedro Martinez to go back a few years). Feliz has stayed in the pen out of necessity after Frankie struggled in the 9th and while he is clearly an asset and an elite option in that position, I feel this team's depth at starting pitcher is shaky, as your article yesterday pointed out. The farm system's depth is rich with relievers, not starters, another reason I think the Rangers are going with this experiment.

I do feel this team can get by with a good-very good closer (the Minnesota Twins had a combined 37 saves last year between Jon Rauch and Matt Capps while Joe Nathan was sidelined) and would be much better served with a legitimate front of the rotation arm. I believe the team's future starting pitching depth issue is pretty tellingly questionable if the front office is going against every scouting/prospect publication and trying to convert 2009 supplemental 1st rounder Tanner Scheppers into a starter. His numbers last year between AA and AAA were absolutely filthy as a reliever until he transitioned to a starter where his numbers imploded. Scouts have always felt Scheppers can be a lights out closer if groomed for the position. The Rangers are clearly intrigued by Mark Lowe, seemingly a throw-in with the Cliff Lee deal but possibly more, and even though Ogando wants to be a starter, he seems like a decent option for the 9th inning as well if Feliz transitions to starter.

Basically, 200+ innings and 30+ starts from an ace is more valuable than ~70 innings (Feliz's innings last year) from a great closer I feel. Is Feliz an ace is the question, and I think it'd be a shame if it went unanswered. The Kansas City Royals have arguably the best closer in baseball with Joakim Soria, but it means very little to their record each season since a closer can only help out a team so much, and usually 8 innings go by before he matters.

The AL West will not be a cakewalk this year with the Angels healthy and the As much improved and with a great young rotation. As the Texas rotation stands, there are legitimate concerns with the Rangers longterm and short and I think there is little doubt the team's decision to tryout not only Feliz as a starter but Scheppers too echo that. I think if the experiment only lasted 1 start the Rangers panicked, and I'm curious how JD will patch up things to ensure a formidable rotation for the foreseeable future.

Sam_Merten
Sam_Merten

Another great comment, sporty. Keep ‘em coming.

While I don’t think either of us will change the other’s mind, I have some thoughts about what you said.

First of all, Feliz was long thought to be a candidate to become a dominant closer as a youngster in the Braves organization. No one knew if he could develop into a starter. It was only when he began to have success in the minors as a starter that he became regarded as a potential top-of-the-rotation arm.

Second, regarding the conversion of Tanner Scheppers into a starter, he has always been thought of as a starter. Like Price as you mentioned, Feliz and many others, the idea was to groom him by having him pitch some innings at the big-league level in relief. And your claim that his numbers imploded last year in the minors when he became a starter isn't accurate. In his last four games of relief, he surrendered 14 runs in just seven innings.

As for your statement about Joaquin Soria, you contradict your own argument by saying he doesn’t help them as a closer. If he would be better served as a starter, then why don’t the Royals put him into the rotation? They don’t because, as you said, he’s one of the best closers in the game.

Finally, I’ll end with something we agree on. The Angels and A’s will be much better this year. And I too will be awaiting Daniels’ next move. This club as-is doesn't look like a contender to recapture the AL pennant, and anything short of that will be a disappointment.

sporty
sporty

Very good points, Sam, and your comments are always enlightening and informative, but I am certainly not alone in thinking Scheppers is best suited as a potential lights out reliever. When he was drafted, the talk of scouts was that he had a high risk potential of injury if overused (the only reason he lasted as long as he did in the draft), and that he was already close to major league ready in a bullpen role. You're right that his struggles in AAA consisted of both bullpen and starting roles, but while exclusively in a pen role in May he did dominate and did not tryout starting until June when his numbers began to fade. Perhaps that is not because of an increased role and he still held a strikeout-per-inning while in AAA, so there are understandable upside reasons if the Rangers keep their current plan. But there are other thoughts, such as from Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus' prospect guru, that has noted Scheppers' unnatural arm delivery and injury history as well as the commenting the "Rangers are still convinced that Scheppers can be a big-league starter, but few scouts contacted for this piece agreed with that assessment" in his Rangers' prospect writeup for this season.

As for Soria, the Royals are cellar dwellers for many reasons. Fortunately for their fans, their farm system is probably the best in baseball now, and much like the Rangers of a few years back they could be a heck of a promising squad in 2-3 years. There was talk of converting Soria as a starter a few seasons ago and I think that would of been interesting. They decided against it and his main purpose functions as a fantasy baseball draft pick.

Love the baseball talk, Sam. Keep it coming.

Sam_Merten
Sam_Merten

Good points about Scheppers, but what Goldstein and scouts think about him contradicts the opinions of Rangers brass, including Jon Daniels, who told me a couple months ago that he views him as a starter. It will be interesting to see where he ends up and if he can stay healthy.

Speaking of fantasy baseball, a fellow Observer staff writer (Patrick Michels) and I were hoping to get a league started this year, but there aren't many other baseball nerds around to join. If you (or anyone else reading this) is interested, e-mail me at sam.merten@dallasobserver.com.

Baldy
Baldy

WOOOOOO!!!! More Sam Merten,less RW.Pleasy!

kergo
kergo

I gregree....he was pivotal to the success last year; how often do you come across a guy that is a lights out closer? If the rotation holds to form, they will just need an innings eater; and you can pick one of the streets for nothin'. My concern is Kinz and Beltre-and the bench.

Dad always said:"if it ain't broke, don't fix it"

"you cain't shine a turd"

Ghost of Richie's integrity
Ghost of Richie's integrity

Couldn't everything that Sam said here also be explained by saying that closing is easier than starting? I don't want to overexpose Feliz, but I also don't want to underutilize him. He doesn't need Greg Maddux's arsenal of pitches when his fastball is that dominant. He just needs one other good pitch to keep batters honest, and perhaps a third pitch that he throws a couple times a game just to remind you it's there.

He'll need better location than he had in the playoffs, so I do understand the hesitation to start him.

Yourmomsbestlover
Yourmomsbestlover

200+ innings or 50 innings a year. I'll take the 200+ He'll have much more impact long term that way.

Rooster
Rooster

People get blinded by a 100mph+ fastball since not many dudes can bring that kind of heat, and you can't teach someone to throw 100mph. Many, many, many, many here in the Sportatorium have fallen for it.

As I stated over in the other post, it takes mastery of more than one pitch to be an effective starter. Its one thing for a guy to see your 100 mph fastball for one at bat when you're a closer; another for him to see it for 3 at bats. After the 5th inning of staring at the same pitch, dudes will be pounding baseballs so hard they'll reach South America.

Just because he started in the minors doesn't mean he can be a starter in the majors. You're not going to throw to an Adam Fox (Google him) caliber player in the major leagues.

Feliz can be our version of Mariano Rivera....a fantastic closer....and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Bill Lumbergh
Bill Lumbergh

Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought Neftali had four pitches in his arsenal. Sure his fastball is easy to get caught up on, but don't forget that he does have other pitches (1 or 2 of which would usually get much less use in a closer setting).

Rooster
Rooster

I believe I said "mastery" of more than one pitch.

I can throw a curveball. It does not mean I can throw a curveball at the major league level.

The bottom line is if the dude had mastery of more than one pitch, he'd be starting. He doesn't, so he's not.

Rooster
Rooster

"Neftali's regulation to a closer was a necessity that just happened to work out in everyone's favor."

That's complete bunk. They wanted him to start at the beginning of last season. They tried him out as a starter in Spring Training, and he got lit up like a Christmas tree because he did not have command of his other pitches, and was moved back to the closing job. Just because your fastball is dominant, doesn't mean your other pitches are.

I still stand by what I said. If the guy had developed his stuff enough to be a starter, then he'd be a starter. He doesn't yet, so he's not. He's going to be a closer again this year because he's still develping his other pitches.

The results speak for themselves.

Bill Lumbergh
Bill Lumbergh

"The bottom line is if the dude had mastery of more than one pitch, he'd be starting. He doesn't, so he's not."

Remember that prior to Frankie's disastrous early closing performances, Neftali was looking at potential starting work late in the season to test out his starting potential. Neftali's regulation to a closer was a necessity that just happened to work out in everyone's favor.

Saying he's only got command of one pitch is overly judgmental. He's not going to bust out his full set of pitches in a closing performance. His off-speed looked better in the playoffs, and certainly he probably needs work on his movement pitches...but hey, that's what the long outings are for. He's not going to test the water on a slider-in-work if he needs to punch out 3 guys.

I doubt Neftali is ready from prime time staring work just yet, but he's worth giving a shot sooner than later. That probably won't happen if we're relying on him as the stud closer again; unfortunate since I'd like to see him get a few starts in August/September if the Rangers are struggling.

But really, one pitch only? Nah, he's better than that.

Scruffygeist
Scruffygeist

Rooster is right. Merk, his slider and curve you claim are basically the same pitch. He has three. And his breaking ball is still inconsistent.

It's fine in the 9th when he's fireballing to throw a wild-ass slider in there occasionally. It's all about the change of speed, the location doesn't matter as much. But asking him to get a dude out in the 6th who's facing him for the 3rd time means that slider has to be placed much more carefully.

Feliz has two pitches down and a third that needs work. A 4th pitch is just wishful thinking at this point.

Meh
Meh

Sure, maybe he hasn't mastered other pitches completely, but if you've looked at anything over the past week or so, you'd see that he has a habit of tipping his pitches with his arm speed and delivery.

Tool.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin

hey buddy, he has more than one pitch, in fat his slider and curve are rather nice, but why throw them when you close only need to get 3 outs? the kids has a repertoir pitches that if he started he could master. You think he is going to master them using them once a game? Let the mf'er start so he can develope. Im afraid another full year in the closer role and he fate is sealed to remain closer for life. Why waste the 100mph that way.. Rooster you mention mariano, he dont throw 100, and he has 1 pitch, the cutter that he throws from 74 to about 91 mph.

Scruffygeist
Scruffygeist

Also agree. Give him another season to two to develop his slider more anyway, you can't start games and be go three times through the order with two pitches and a very shaky, inconsistent third and expect great success.

While some will say it won't matter if he's closing if they can't get to the 9th with the lead, I think the team is stronger with a dominant closer versus the hopes he becomes a dominant starter. This team's rotation may very well be 2 #2s, 2 #4s, and a guy trying to earn his spot as 5th, but it could be alot worse. They may not win alot of 2-1 games, but I bet they win the vast majority of 6-4 games.

Josh's broken records
Josh's broken records

I agree with Nolan and JD, when they say you should have your best arms in the rotation. That being said, Neffy is still a baby and I'm fine with him closing this year. As I stated last night, although we don't have Clee to anchor the staff..I think we have a really deep rotation right now..with a chance to add a couple of more to it (Feldy and Webb). Oh yeah, Rooster would tell ya that Neffy "could" turn into something one of these days...Rooster=badbaseballpoints

Mishon
Mishon

I agree that you don't mess with success. Neftali won Rookie of the Year being a closer...he needs to stay put.

The Rangers rotation scares me. I know it is March and I should just get over it, but I think the Rangers made a huge mistake not signing Cliffy...all b/c Nolan wasn't comfortable giving him an extra year. I really hope it doesnt come back and bite him in the ass.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin

So then as I said in the other post, the starting rotation is laughable. We dont even go 3 deep with confidence. I sure hope JD has a master plan. We certainly need one more top 3 starter even if its a guy who is a 4 everywhere else, we can stick em at a 3. Trade with philly please!

cactusflinthead
cactusflinthead

gagreed.

The risk is too high imo. I do not want to see him get ruined by pushing him into the line-up. Try him out and let him get some innings in as starter, but I don't pencil him in just yet.

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