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Sunday, April 24, 2011
Will Neftali Feliz come back as a closer?

By The Common Man


Obviously, it's never a good thing when an excellent young pitcher goes down with an arm injury, no matter how minor. So when I say that Neftali Feliz going to the disabled list with shoulder inflammation could be a development that’s in the best long-term interest of the Rangers, understand that I'm still not happy about it.

As he has always been so far in his short career, Feliz is incredibly talented. He has three major league-caliber pitches, including one of the best fastballs in the majors -- and despite his three-pitch arsenal and relatively durable frame, the Rangers have nevertheless seen fit to make Feliz into a closer.


Initially, that made sense. Feliz is young, and giving him the closer’s job would allow him to get regular work and exposure to major league hitters while also protecting his arm as it continued to develop; the list of incredible pitchers who broke into the majors as relievers is long and impressive.

Unfortunately, instead of graduating Feliz out of the role this spring, he’s in danger of becoming entrenched as a closer. This offseason, the Rangers let Frank Francisco walk rather than giving him another chance to close for them. They also passed on signing other closer candidates like Rafael Soriano, Brian Fuentes, Jesse Crain and Jon Rauch. Nor did they give any of their internal options a legitimate shot to unseat Feliz. They indulged a shot at letting him start in spring training, and then backed away from the idea.

Among the options Ron Washington can choose from at closer in 2011, Feliz is indeed the best pitcher. But there's a dirty secret about the role itself: Most good relievers will make perfectly good closers if given the chance. Veteran Darren Oliver will replace Feliz while he's out, and pitched a perfect ninth inning yesterday to pick up the save. He will likely get at least four or five more opportunities before Feliz comes off the DL, and will probably convert all of them. Most closers are just relievers with good stuff who got a shot at pitching in the ninth inning, rather than guys with supernatural nerves of steel and guts of iron.

So the good thing about Feliz's injury is that perhaps it can help Washington see how easy it could be to replace Feliz in the bullpen, and bust Feliz out of the role into which he's been thrust. Feliz is a special young talent, with the ability to get batters out three times a game. If given the chance to throw 200 innings, it's likely he'll give the Rangers roughly twice the value he provides them at the back end of the bullpen, and he will do so on the cheap for the next few seasons.

Sadly, this isn’t likely to happen. Washington has proven himself to be relatively intractable in his bullpen management, to the point of learning little from past experience. This year, just as he did in last year’s playoffs, Washington has left his best reliever -- no, probably his best overall pitcher -- waiting in the bullpen while inferior relievers have coughed up leads and allowed ties to be broken in the late innings, while holding Feliz out for leads that might not come. Feliz hasn’t been used in a tie game yet, and only once with his team behind (and then only to get in some work), but he’s been used four times to protect leads of three runs or more in eight appearances.

The chances of Washington changing course and starting to work Feliz into the rotation or even change his usage pattern to deploy him more effectively out of the pen is probably nil. Feliz will probably finish 2011 with 35-40 saves, and will become permanently tagged with the “closer” label. He’ll be wildly successful. But I’m always going to be left wondering how much more he could have given his teams if his manager would have done the right thing in 2011.

* * * *

Daisuke Matsuzaka turned in another strong start last night, going eight innings, shutting down the Angels entirely, while giving up just one hit. It’s actually his second straight start allowing one hit, and he joins an exclusive group of 14 others who have gone at least seven innings in back-to-back starts while giving up one hit or fewer in each of them.

It makes for a fairly impressive list; you’ve got your odd Ron Villones, Vicente Padillas, and Jim Tobins on it, but the others were all considered among the best pitchers in baseball at some point of their careers. Pedro Martinez and The Big Unit, you’re undoubtedly familiar with, and I hope you know about Dazzy Vance, a Hall of Famer who might have been the best pitcher of the 1920s. Sam McDowell was a little like Nuke LaLoosh come to life, but he flamed out early because of alcoholism. David Cone won a Cy Young in 1994, and Lon Warneke won 192 games by the time he was 32, but injuries and World War II cut his career short. Mort Cooper was in the middle of a three-year run where he would win 65 games and have an ERA of 2.17. Dave Stieb was probably the single best pitcher of the 1980s.

While Dice-K’s performance might not be predictive of great things for him going forward, at least it puts him in good company.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Daisuke Matsuzaka
Angels, say your prayers: Dice-K was shining in the sunlight.
The Common Man writes for The Platoon Advantage and you can follow him on Twitter.