Rangers hope to have Feliz start in 2012

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Funny how becoming a contending team can get in the way of development, isn't it?

If this year's Texas Rangers resembled the group that trotted out on the field in 2008, Neftali Feliz would be in the rotation. This "big question" hanging over camp wouldn't exist.

"If our internal expectations were lower, we may have approached it differently," general manager Jon Daniels said. "I know we would have."

There's no doubt Feliz's performance this spring -- 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA in 14 innings -- showed the club he could start.

The Rangers' front office appears united in the opinion that Feliz projects as a starter long term. But long term means 2012, barring something unforeseen. This is a Rangers team hoping for a return to the World Series in 2011. To do that, they have to be confident in the back end of the bullpen.

"I think if we weren't in such a need for him as a closer, he would be starting for us this year," club president Nolan Ryan told "Galloway and Company" on ESPN 103.3 FM on Thursday. "I think what it means is that we have a year to find somebody within our system or through trade or a free-agent acquisition to come in and take that role.

"At the end of [this season], we'd like to be in position to tell Feliz to go home this offseason and be ready to be a starter for us next year ... do what you need to do to come into spring training with that mindset and physically being in a position to take that."

The struggles of the club's relief corps this spring only reinforced the idea of needing Feliz as a stabilizing force. Had Mark Lowe come in and had great off-speed stuff to go along with a fastball that is touching 97 mph, things might have been different. If the team had someone with closer experience, Feliz could be starting. There was the possibility of Alexi Ogando closing, too. But he's been inconsistent at times, and if he closes, what does that leave the team in terms of setup options?

"It's a tough call because here's a guy we think does have the ability to start, obviously not a finished product at this point, but it's tempting," Daniels said. "But where we are as a club and the makeup of the bullpen, alternatives in the rotation, we think this is the best club in 2011 with him in the 'pen."

The club decided that moving Feliz would have created too many unknowns in a season with such high expectations. Count me among those disappointed. The idea of watching Feliz as a starter was very intriguing. His new cutter has great potential to be a good breaking pitch for him, his changeup has improved and he has a weapon few have -- that 100 mph fastball with life. The idea of impacting more of the season by pitching more innings has big-time appeal.

But I understand the decision. The bullpen is a lot stronger with Feliz in it. And it's a bullpen that has raised some concerns this spring. Daniels and his staff have to consider the big picture when making this kind of decision. They weren't willing to roll the dice right now with the team still considered the favorite in the American League West.

"In a vacuum, if you ask me which one is more valuable, I'll take the starter 10 days out of 10," Daniels said. "But we're not making this decision in a vacuum."

Could Daniels have changed the outcome with a more aggressive offseason obtaining relievers?

"I've thought about that," Daniels said. "There were a couple of guys we did pursue. Time will tell. It's tempting to think of him out there every fifth day, so I have thought about that a little bit. But we're really comfortable with the way the club sets up. We feel we've got the guys here to get the job done and we're ready to go."

The club does lose another year of Feliz's development as a starter by not taking the leap now. Whenever he does take the mound as a starter, he likely will take his lumps like most young pitchers making the transition. He'll now have to do that a year older.

But, as some Rangers officials point out, that's also another year of maturity and experience under his belt, which could better prepare him to come to spring training fully ready to seize the job. Daniels noted it's not unlike C.J. Wilson, who was a more mature pitcher when he switched to the rotation because of his experience in the bullpen.

The reality is that this was an enviable problem to have for any team. Feliz was the rookie of the year after saving 40 games in 2010. He has a 100 mph fastball, and with more work on his breaking and off-speed stuff, he'll be even more effective. So no matter where he pitches, he's going to have an impact on the game.

The challenge for Feliz will be to utilize his secondary pitches despite having to get only three outs and knowing he can blow that fastball by just about anyone. By stretching out this spring, he's had an opportunity to throw more of his secondary stuff and improve on it. He needs to incorporate it as part of his repertoire.

With Feliz in the bullpen, the Rangers' rotation should be clearly defined. But the right groin strain sustained by Tommy Hunter means more changes could be on the way. If he starts the season on the disabled list, that opens the door internally for Michael Kirkman to possibly take that slot. Dave Bush, who has starter experience, is another possibility, although he's vying for a long relief role.

Ron Washington is pleased with how Wilson, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland have gone about preparing for the season, and rebounding from some hiccups this spring.

"I know it's young, but those young kids have an opportunity to step up, and we're very confident they will," Washington said. "The key is not to go out there trying to win ballgames; just go in and keep us in ballgames, and we'll win them for them."

If you ask Washington, he's just glad to have Feliz as the hammer in those close games.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.