Courtesy of Jeff Caplan on ESPN Dallas:
“Probably the two questions were: Can [Neftali Feliz] close, and can he start?” [Jon Daniels] said. “You knew that somewhere that arm is going to play. I think we’ve definitively answered one of them. There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind he can close. We don’t know whether he can start and I don’t know if we’re going to find out. We’ve talked about it at some point that we might. We’re not going to close that door, but we’re also not going to speculate on it any more than is necessary. He’s our closer. I would expect he’ll be our closer.”
Knowing well how quickly a development like this can change makes commenting too forcefully a risky proposition. Regardless, the expected initial response here is something like, “How wasteful.” It’s not an indefensible position either. Giving a 22-year-old righty with a fastball that moves like a livid missile a life sentence to the bullpen is not entirely wise. At the same time: what else is Daniels going to say about Feliz while the season is still going on. Announcing that his best reliever with a 2.82 FIP through 100 career relief innings is moving to the rotation right now is just as foolhardy. How about the more nuanced response?
The Rangers have encountered moving pitchers to and from the bullpen before. Look at C.J. Wilson, Joaquin Benoit, and Scott Feldman for examples. Texas is experience rich in these situations and while they are fallible, that wisdom does lend credence to the folks who will defer to their expertise. Besides, their 2011 rotation as it stands today is likely to include the aforementioned Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, and perhaps one (or more) of Feldman, Tommy Hunter, and Cliff Lee.
Therefore, there is no lacuna of rotational talent or options available to the Rangers for at least next season. The same cannot be said of their bullpen. That does not mean Feliz remaining in relief is the only option. If somehow the Rangers were afforded the opportunity to swap Chris Davis for Tim Lincecum, they surely would not decline the offer because of their abundance. Answering whether Feliz as starter is worthy of a rotation spot is a difficult task and ultimately guess work.
Before Nate Silver relocated to redder and bluer pastures, he wrote on Jonathan Papelbon and the reliever-starter conundrum. The article is worth reading if for no other reason than the chart. The takeaway point is that a pitcher moving to relief can expect his ERA to drop by 25%. Assuming the inverse is true – and that the percentage has not shifted either way since the publishing date – Feliz’s ERA would shoot up to 3.41, which translates to three-to-four wins depending on the innings amount.
Label that as the best-case scenario for Feliz – in fact, Wilson matched those numbers with far more innings pitched this season – and one without taking into account the Rule of 17’s affect on his strikeouts, home run rate, and batting average on balls in play. Nevertheless, for the Rangers to not shift Feliz at this moment suggests there is something more to their decision besides value maximization within a vacuum.
Durability could be a sticking point. Yes, he’s only 22, but he has 48 starts since the 2007 season began – or roughly 12 per season. His career high in innings pitched is 127 (from 2008) and the next highest is 108 (from 2009). Meaning expecting Feliz to exceed those totals by more than a handful or two next season is probably pushing the boundaries. That goes without mentioning that Feliz pitched multiple innings in only six of his 70 appearances this season.
Perhaps there are questions over how well his stuff translates to the rotation. Batters missed on roughly 12% of the pitches they offered at this season, but Feliz rides his fastball heavily with roughly 80% of his career pitches being heaters. Would taking a few miles per hour off that pitch hamper its effectiveness? Would his breaking pitch be as effective if used more often? Could his changeup develop into a legitimate offering? Of course, those questions are not foreign to most starting pitching prospects at similar ages to Feliz.
There are other immanent skills required to start that the Rangers could feel Feliz is lacking too. A repeatable delivery, clean arm action, and so on. Or maybe it’s just as simplistic as it sounds and the Rangers are falling victim to the availability heuristic. They know that Feliz can succeed as a reliever and therefore it’s easier to envision. That doesn’t jibe with their history of converting pitchers between the various roles depending on skill sets at all, though, and that’s why the benefit of the doubt is in their corner for now.