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Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Feliz belongs in bullpen ... at least for now

By Charlie Saponara

There was a buzz heading into spring training that reigning AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz would be stretched out and given a chance to make the Rangers' starting rotation. After only a couple weeks of "stretching out" his arm, Feliz is ready to go back to the bullpen where he feels more comfortable. This is both good and bad for the Rangers. Good because Feliz is more likely to be effective in a short role and bad because their rotation has some major question marks.

Feliz showed us last season just how dominant he could be out of the pen. He posted a 2.73 ERA and a 2.96 FIP while striking out 71 batters in 69.1 innings and walking only 18. He held opposing hitters to a very low 15 percent line drive rate while inducing the opposition to pop-up weakly to the infield on almost 17 percent of his balls in play (seventh best IFFB percent by a reliever in baseball, minimum 50 innings pitched).

Neftali Feliz
It appears Neftali Feliz is going to stay in the Rangers' bullpen for the time being.
However, despite the 40 saves, the low ERA and the 71 strikeouts to 18 walks, Feliz produced only 1.7 fWAR. That fWAR was lower than those of Sean Marshall and Matt Thornton, who racked up nine saves between them in 2010. As you can see, saves themselves are really not that valuable. As a matter of fact, Feliz's own teammate, Darren Oliver, produced 1.5 fWAR in 7.2 fewer innings.

Clearly, if Feliz could translate his bullpen success into the starting rotation, his value would be much higher. That, however, was going to be a tall order.

We've already established that Feliz was dominant in a one (sometimes two) inning(s) role, but what would happen if he had to throw more innings and go through an entire lineup several times?

In 2009, Feliz was at Triple-A being groomed as a starting pitcher, but the need arose for some help in the Texas bullpen. Feliz was converted to a reliever, and by August he was in the big leagues. Feliz has always had electric stuff, however -- just as many see Aroldis Chapman now -- Feliz lacked the command and control of an ace-level starter. As he reached the upper levels of minor league ball, that lack of refinement began to show as he posted a combined 3.9 BB/9 in Double- and Triple-A between 2008 and 2009. His control improved in 2009, but in large part due to his move to the bullpen after 13 Triple-A starts.

As a starter, Feliz would likely see a rise in walk rate, but the real issue is how his changeup would play in that role.

Feliz threw 1,072 pitches last season, 34 of which were changeups (this varies a bit based on what pitch f/x you chose, but the point remains). His change was also the least effective of his pitches, generating swings and misses only 8 percent of the time compared to his fastball and slider/curve, which produced whiff rates of around or more than 13 percent. If Feliz cannot develop his change, he may struggle as he tries to go deeper into games. A two-pitch pitcher can work in one-inning efforts, but as pitchers tend to lose their velocity and bite in extended innings, their effectiveness wears off -- not to mention that opposing hitters will have many more looks at all of his pitches.

This is not to say that Neftali Feliz can't become a very valuable starting pitcher someday, but he clearly needs more work in that role before taking such a big step. The Rangers, however, want to contend once again in 2011 and feel that the pieces to their rotation are more than solid. I may have some disagreements there.

C.J. Wilson, the Rangers' opening day starter, posted the 20th worst K/BB rate in baseball last season (minimum 150 IP) and his BABIP against was the 14th lowest in baseball. With a little less randomness (luck) in 2011, his results could very easily be a lot worse. And is no one concerned with the fact that he threw 131.1 more innings than his previous big-league career high (which was out of the pen in 2009)?

While I do like Colby Lewis to put up another solid season, it is going to be hard to count on Tommy Hunter and his K/9 of around five to win 13 games and post a sub 4.00 ERA again. Also, counting on a pitcher (Brandon Webb) who has missed almost two full seasons to come back and be his former self is hopeful at best. Derrek Holland has a chance to step up and be a big piece of the rotation, but overall there isn't as much depth as fans might think based on what happened in 2010.

Neftali Feliz has the stuff to be a shut-down pitcher in short-inning situations; there is little doubt about that. But apparently he doubts his role as a starter and rightfully so. However, by not at least trying to pitch in the rotation, he is ultimately less valuable to the Rangers in the long run. Bullpen arms come and go, but starting pitching can carry a team to glory. Just ask the Rangers themselves, who lost to the Giants and their shut-down starting rotation in the 2010 World Series.

Charlie Saponara writes for the SweetSpot Red Sox blog at Fire Brand of the American League as well as FantasyBaseball365.com and ProjectProspect.com. You can follow him on Twitter.