This Rangers camp has revolved around three central figures (at least among players) - Neftali Feliz, Michael Young and Chris Davis. The storylines surrounding those three that have dominated Rangers news for February and March will all come to a head in the next ten days as Nolan Ryan, Jon Daniels, Ron Washington and their respective staffs make the final decisions on the makeup of their roster. Will Neftali Feliz move to the rotation or stay as the team's closer? Will Young be traded? Is there room for Chris Davis and is his spring performance for real? None of the three has an easy answer, and all three very much depend on each other. A Michael Young trade opens a spot for Davis and could bring back relief pitching that makes a Feliz move easier to stomach. Davis forcing his way onto the roster almost necessitates a Young move. Feliz staying at closer puts in focus the short term mindset that keeps Young around and sends Davis to the minors or to another opportunity.
The reality of the situation is that the biggest personnel decision involves Feliz. This team could survive positionally even if Young and Davis both disappeared. The question being asked about the 2011 Rangers is whether they have enough pitching to repeat their 2010 success, and the person with the most influence on that is probably Feliz. So, though the temptation will be to try to trade Young and to allow that result dictate the rest of the roster, the real lead domino here needs to be Feliz.
Though he was promised an opportunity to win a starting spot entering spring training, it was unclear if Feliz wanted it. He started and pitched two scoreless (and strikeout-less) innings against the Indians, then threw three easy, scoreless against the A's, breaking out what we would learn is a new cutter, or, for Feliz, something more controllable and with less break than his regular breaking ball. Despite the success, Feliz admitted that he preferred his closing role. Then he went out and threw another four solid innings against the Dodgers and said afterward that he'd changed his mind and that he really would like a shot at a rotation spot. Mike Maddux later said that it was the new pitch that he believed changed Feliz's mind, because it gave him belief that he would have two pitches that he could rely on each time out.
Saturday, Feliz was stretched to five innings. He struggled in a third inning where he allowed two runs, and his strikeout to walk ratio was a less than inspiring three-two, but he seemed to be as convincing as he ever has that he could be a quality starter - soon. Nolan Ryan said as much after the game and lauded Feliz's mound presence. The postgame accounts from mlb.com, the Star Telegram, ESPN DFW and even national outlets centered around the growing belief that he has immediate promise as a starter.
As Feliz grows into a more realistic starting option, warts in the bullpen have started to show. Darren O'Day and Mark Lowe, both admittedly slow starters, have looked terrible all spring. Developing late men Alexi Ogando and Pedro Strop both show potential, but both struggled late in games in their last outings and Ogando still hasn't been ruled out as a starting option himself. The core of right-handed late relievers have not made the decision easier, and that provides easy ammo for those who want Feliz to remain in his relief role.
Another dynamic will be how the Rangers arrive at the decision. Washington has made no secret of his desire for Feliz to stay in the bullpen and continue to be his late game blankee. Daniels has always believed in Feliz as a starter, while Ryan - at least until recently - hasn't. Maddux hasn't spoken out on the issue other than to say that the decision should be dictated by what is best for the team, and it may be his vote that decides the issue. Last spring, when C.J. Wilson wanted to make the move, Daniels was hesitant, while Ryan and Maddux backed him. That the prior episode turned out like it did may not help Feliz unless Maddux or Ryan switches sides.
The most likely scenario is that the fear of facing ninth innings without a safety net in a season where the club expects to contend for the post season will be too much, and Feliz will return to the closer's role. Then, when Wilson prices himself out of a return next winter and when Ogando and Strop and Tanner Scheppers have added another year of maturity, a 23/24-year-old Feliz will be the perfect go-to guy for an organization even more desperate for a rotation headliner. This is still a 22-year-old (until May 2) after all, and, though save situation innings have to be more stressful on an arm than early game innings, sparing him of 200-inning seasons in his early 20's has to be a good thing.
I would only offer two cautions. One is that Feliz has to make the transition from 70-inning reliever to 200-inning starter at some point. Later may be better, but another season as closer doesn't remove the issue. A transition season is always possible, but it would be much more difficult to execute when you're talking about a closer than a setup or middle relief guy, like Feliz figured to be last March. And a midseason move this year could be a disaster. The bullpen would be upset in the middle of the year, particularly without a trade for a new closer, while Feliz would only have a limited number of starts to adjust.
The other caution relates to Feliz's low point in 2010, the grand slam that he allowed to blow a win just before the all-star break. Bengie Molina was new and hadn't learned the staff yet. Feliz and he struggled to get on the same page, and Feliz allowed two singles and a walk to a weak collection of hitters with a four-run lead. Then, Molina called for a changeup down, Feliz didn't locate it well, and Corey Patterson tied a game that the Orioles would win in ten innings. After that misadventure, Feliz essentially shelved the changeup for the remainder of the season.
The same sort of thing would likely happen this season. If he closes, he's going to be pitching in tight games for a team that will need to win them. There won't be room for tinkering, and Feliz will throw 90% fastballs. The cutter will go on the shelf along with the changeup for another year. It wouldn't be the end of the world, but if the Rangers do have an ace in the making in Feliz and a contending team past this season, keeping him in the bullpen makes him less likely to be that guy in 2012 and a little less likely in 2013.
Baseball America's season preview includes a piece from Ed Price that concludes that this sort of decision revolves around opportunity and the pitcher's abilities. The Feliz decision may be more about a front office's courage.