Commentary

Neftali Feliz belongs in rotation

No doubt about it, Rangers need to see what kind of starter future ex-closer can be

Updated: November 18, 2011, 3:10 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Neftali Feliz should expect to become a key part of the Texas Rangers rotation when pitchers and catchers report in February.

Right now, the Rangers' brain trust shouldn't even have to debate it.

You can find closers.

Easy.

Heath Bell. Ryan Madson. Francisco Cordero. Francisco Rodriguez. They're all free agents.

[+] EnlargeNeftali Feliz
Jim Cowsert/US PresswireNeftali Feliz is valuable as a closer, but he will have more value in the starting rotation.

Or the Rangers can make Mike Adams the closer and use their minor league assets to acquire relievers to lock down the seventh and eighth innings.

You just can't find 23-year-old starters who can throw 100 mph with the same ease that I play catch with my son in the backyard.

For you conspiracy theorists, this has nothing to do with Feliz's meltdown in Game 6 of the World Series. Like Dirk Nowitzki lived with the 2006 NBA Finals loss against Miami, Feliz will have to own Game 6 in St. Louis until he wins a title.

But he can start the process of creating some new history by becoming a front-of-the rotation starter.

The most important number in baseball isn't home runs or strikeouts. For you sabermetrics geeks, it isn't zone rating or wins above replacement, either.

It's service time.

Baseball players become free agents after six seasons, and the best clubs don't waste a single day.

Feliz certainly hasn't been wasted in the Rangers bullpen, where he has accumulated 74 saves and 164 strikeouts in 162 2/3 innings during his first two years of service time.

But let's look at it another way. Let's assume, for purposes of this discussion, that Feliz leaves the Rangers after the 2015 season.

Would you prefer to see him leave having averaged 65 innings per season or 200 innings per season?

See, that wasn't too difficult.

Only 20 American League pitchers threw 200 innings last season, including C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis. Derek Holland threw 198 innings.

You get the point, especially since none of us expects Wilson, a free agent, to return.

Adding Feliz to the rotation doesn't prevent the Rangers from adding another quality starter through free agency or via trade, but understand Wilson is easily the best guy on the market.

If Jon Daniels wants to add Mark Buehrle, John Danks or even the mysterious Yu Darvish, fine.

The more quality arms, the better. Competition makes everyone better, and you don't want players who can't handle it on your team.

There's no better time for Feliz to join the rotation, especially since pitching coach Mike Maddux opted to stay with Rangers instead of vigorously pursuing managing jobs with Boston and the Chicago Cubs so he could be closer to his family.

Maddux is one of the game's best teachers. Maybe he can persuade Feliz to use his changeup, the key to him eventually becoming an ace.

The best pitchers throw three pitches for strikes.

Alexi Ogando was terrific last year throwing primarily fastballs and sliders. But when one of his two pitches wasn't working or hitters laid off his slider, Ogando struggled.

As a rookie, Feliz threw his curveball 19.9 percent of the time and his changeup 10.1 percent of the time, according to fangraphs.com. In 2009, he had an ERA of 1.74 with 39 strikeouts and eight walks.

Last season, he fiddled around with a slider (4.8 percent), curveball (11.2) and changeup (4.2), but he didn't throw any of them enough to make hitters respect those pitches.

So they sat on his fastball.

Even Feliz can't consistently throw his fastball past professional hitters. He blew a career-high six saves in 2011. His strikeouts dipped from 11.3 per nine innings as a rookie to 7.8, while his walk total rose from 2.3 per nine innings as a rookie to 4.3 last season.

After you sift through all of the data and examine the Rangers' philosophy, it becomes pretty evident why Feliz is heading to the rotation.

First, Daniels doesn't place a whole lot of value on closers, unless we're talking about a player such as Mariano Rivera. He thinks a lot of pitchers can handle pitching the ninth inning.

Heck, Frank Francisco started the 2010 season as the Rangers' closer before Feliz replaced him, though Feliz had less than 35 innings of major league experience.

Finally, the Rangers believe in accelerating the development of the gifted. It's the essence of their organization.

Feliz, no doubt, is gifted.

He's never pitched more than 127 1/3 innings in a season, and that occurred in 2008. At times, he'll need some extra days between starts to keep him strong. Ogando's experience will be a guide.

That said, we know Feliz is among the game's best closers. It's time to see if he can become one of the game's best starters.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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