Feliz's potential as an ace is untapped

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Neftali Feliz settled the argument almost before it could begin among the Texas Rangers decision-makers this spring. He pitched himself out of any shot at the starting rotation and into the bullpen.

Decision not averted, but at least delayed.

It won't be that easy next spring, when the Rangers probably will have to make an irrevocable decision on Feliz's future. Will they give him a chance to fulfill his destiny as a potential elite starter, or will the temptation to make him the team's closer simply be too overwhelming?

To choose anything but Door No. 1 has a chance to be a monumental mistake, no matter how dominating a closer Feliz might become.

That's the joker in the Rangers' deck, and the elephant in the bullpen this spring that few want to think about until absolutely necessary. Current closer Frank Francisco is almost certainly headed for free agency after this season, and the Rangers, at some point in time, will have to start planning for life without him.

There's little doubt that Feliz, with his upper 90s fastball, would make an exceptional closer. It's just that the Rangers must first determine whether he has what it takes to become an even rarer gem -- an ace in the rotation.

General manager Jon Daniels seems to understand the dichotomy of the situation and has his priorities straight. I'm not sure that's the sentiment throughout the organization, however. Manager Ron Washington made it clear at the end of last season how much he enjoyed Feliz's presence as a weapon in the bullpen. Having him available to shut down teams at the end of games next season certainly will have a strong allure.

The problem is that putting Feliz in the closer's role at the tender age of 21 next season is a commitment that will be difficult, if not impossible, to back away from beyond that. Once his arm and his mentality become geared to the pressurized one-inning or less challenge of closing, it will be tricky to turn him back into a starter. Yes, John Smoltz has gone back and forth in his career, but at a much older age and with far more experience than Feliz.

But can the Rangers resist the temptation of putting Feliz in a position to lock down games in the ninth inning? Let's hope so.

"We'll take an upper-rotation starter over a reliever," Daniels said. "The way I look at it is this: Look around the league at No. 1 and No. 2 starters. Most of them are pedigreed guys who have always had that promise and that potential, right? There aren't too many No. 1- and No. 2-type starters who pop up and shock somebody getting there, though you can find exceptions.

"But how many closers are there who are failed starters, guys bouncing back from injuries, Rule 5 picks? From that standpoint, relatively speaking, it's easier to find a guy who can be an impact guy at the end of the game than an impact guy at the front of the rotation."

I'd breathe a sigh of relief -- I absolutely want to see what Feliz would look like as an every-fifth-day starter, hoping he might develop into an ace -- except I know there are different opinions in the organization, perhaps rightfully so. Feliz still hasn't shown the complete skill set of a major league starter yet.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux, for instance, notes that team need almost always comes first. Feliz also has to prove that he can maintain command of three pitches for multiple innings to be a successful starter.

"One thing elite starters have is command," Maddux pointed out. "It's one thing they all share. Command is a tool. Some guys roll out of bed the first day of spring training and they can put the ball where they want. That's a tool, just like velocity on a fastball or sharpness on a breaking ball. You can't teach good command.

"Neftali has never had to have great command. He's gotten away with great stuff."

Feliz is a work in progress, clearly a phenomenal talent, but to date, no one is sure whether he can refine it enough to become an elite No. 1 starter. That's what the Rangers must still figure out, and it's worth it to eventually try him as a starter. If that fails, they can always put him back in the bullpen.

Daniels compares Feliz's situation to that of C.J. Wilson, who has been an integral piece of the Rangers' bullpen for the past three years before getting an opportunity to win a rotation slot this spring.

"Neftali hasn't gone through the grind for a whole year. He hasn't had to condition himself [as a starter] for a year, and he has to understand the art of pitching," Daniels said. "But the ability is there.

"He's probably going to start the year in the bullpen and help us out there. Then we'll see as we go on. By no stretch are we saying he'll never start for us. For our sake, I hope he does. We just have to do what's best for him and best for us."

As for who the Rangers closer will be next year, Daniels hasn't spent a lot of time worrying about that yet. The Rangers have a plethora of good arms. It could be Tanner Scheppers or Alexi Ogando, for instance. Someone will turn up.

It might even be Feliz, and there's no question he could be lights-out in that role.

For the moment, though, let's hope that's Door No. 2.

The Rangers need to believe that the sky's-the-limit grand prize is waiting patiently behind Door No. 1.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.