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Neftali Feliz' Sprained UCL Is Cause For Concern

After beginning the year with shoulder problems, Neftali Feliz' sprained UCL is cause for concern.

April 21, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux (left) talks to starting pitcher Neftali Feliz (right) during the fourth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE
April 21, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux (left) talks to starting pitcher Neftali Feliz (right) during the fourth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Last week, the Texas Rangers finally ended their flirtation with Roy Oswalt, signing the former ace to a contract. Oswalt will be in Texas' rotation as soon as he is ready -- and he should be after another three starts in the minors. While this is exciting to Oswalt and some Rangers fans, it's disheartening to at least one other person -- Neftali Feliz.

Feliz is being replaced while being on the disabled list, which is certainly a bit rough. It's also concerning.

Last year, Feliz spent time on the disabled list because of right shoulder inflammation. Not really a big deal, right? Maybe it, at the time or in retrospect, doesn't seem like a big deal. Feliz came back and was healthy the rest of the year, right?

Well, let's look a little closer at that. When Feliz won the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year award, he was a dominant force in the back of Texas' bullpen. Feliz struck out 9.22 batters per nine innings and had a BB/9 of 2.34, en route to chalking up 40 saves for the American League champions.

Last year, Feliz did notch 32 saves, but really, who cares about saves? Feliz' K/9 dropped to 7.80, and even more concerning, his walk rate rose to 4.33. Feliz wasn't effective in the World Series, walking four and giving up two hits in 3.2 innings -- but we're dealing a bit with a small sample size there.

Still, Feliz really wasn't the same pitcher in 2011, and that it began with a shoulder injury, albeit just inflammation, is a bit concerning. It's also worth mentioning that the Rangers did start Feliz during spring training in 2011, but ultimately decided to put him in the bullpen.

Let's fast forward to March 2012. Feliz once again leaves a start because of shoulder stiffness, but battled through it, and made an exhibition start just a week after feeling shoulder discomfort. Feliz, though, felt good, and didn't need to hit the disabled list because of it.

What's worse, though, is that Feliz hit the disabled list because of a UCL tear. It's a sprain, sure, but all sprains are tears to some degree. Right now, it's not serious enough to warrant Tommy John surgery, so conservative rehab is what the Rangers and Feliz have opted for.

It's particularly concerning that this elbow injury is new for Feliz. We've seen shoulder problems in consecutive years, but neither of which were particularly scary -- at least not at the time. What is scary is that Feliz has sprained his UCL after "recovering" from a shoulder injury this spring. I'm not a doctor, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but it's easy to deduce that Feliz put more stress on his elbow to relieve any shoulder discomfort in effort to continue pitching, and, well, save his shoulder.

Is there a direct correlation between the injuries? I can't say with any certainty, and it's just speculation. Even if there's no correlation, the facts remain: Feliz injured his shoulder this spring and, subsequently, suffered a UCL sprain/tear. Certainly, this is not good.

Even more troubling, though, is the fact that the Rangers signed Oswalt to take Feliz' place in the rotation. Feliz, when he does come off the disabled list, will be going back to the bullpen. But he's not going to be Texas' closer -- that's currently Joe Nathan's job. That's ok, right? There's the eighth inning for Feliz, right? Well, not quite. Mike Adams and Alexi Ogando have proven more than capable.

Right now, Feliz' role on the Texas Rangers is to serve as an extra set up man where need be, with no defined role whatsoever. From 2010 Rookie of the Year and potential top of the rotation pitcher to a player without a defined role on a team that is seeking its third straight pennant, well, that's concerning and telling. It doesn't appear that the Rangers expect a whole lot out of Feliz this year. It seems, from the outside, that the Rangers are bracing for a long-term injury to Feliz. It seems inevitable at this point that Feliz will either injure his shoulder, or his UCL will continue to tear, leading to Tommy John surgery.

I hope I'm wrong. There's a chance I am wrong. Like I said, I'm not a doctor. My eye brows will raise, though, when the team signs Oswalt to put Feliz back in the bullpen, where he's not even needed, after Feliz suffered both a shoulder and UCL injury as a starter in a span of two months.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.