Saturday, March 19, 2011
Neftali Feliz's start strikes Nolan Ryan
By Tim MacMahon
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- No decision has been made, but there's not much doubt within the Texas Rangers organization about whether All-Star closer Neftali Feliz is capable of succeeding in the team's rotation.
"He looked more like a starter to me today than any other time," team president and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan said after watching Feliz's performance Saturday against the Seattle Mariners.
Feliz allowed two runs on four hits and two walks in five innings, throwing 42 of 72 pitches for strikes. It was actually Feliz's worst performance of a spectacular spring, increasing his Cactus League ERA to 1.93.
However, Feliz impressed Rangers decision-makers by limiting the damage during a rocky third inning and finishing strong. He retired the last seven hitters he faced, beginning with a inning-ending double play with two runners on base to end the third, when Feliz allowed both of his runs.
"He's going to have hiccups in innings where he may get in trouble through walks or he may get in trouble because they get base hits," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "But that kid is strong. It didn't seem to me like he broke any sweat."
Ryan, who entered the spring skeptical of making Feliz a starter, mentioned Feliz's "presence on the mound" as the thing that most caught his attention. It was also encouraging to see Feliz effectively mix all his pitches: a mid-90s fastball, a recently developed cutter, a changeup and a high-70s breaking ball.
"I was working on every single pitch and felt good on the mound," Feliz said through an interpreter. "All of my pitches helped me get out of situations."
This outing doesn't make the Rangers' decision about whether to move last season's American League Rookie of the Year from closer any easier.
The reason for the dilemma was illustrated during the Rangers' 9-8 loss to Seattle on Saturday. The trend of bullpen trouble continued, with struggling sidearmer Darren O'Day allowing four runs on three homers in the eighth inning.
Right-hander Pedro Strop, who had been the bullpen's biggest spring bright spot, blew the save by giving up two runs in the ninth inning.
Ryan acknowledged that the Rangers' bullpen issues would be a factor in the discussion about the role of Feliz, who set a major league rookie record with 40 saves last season.
The Rangers don't have a proven closer ready to replace Feliz if he becomes a starter, having traded Frank Francisco to Toronto this offseason for first baseman/catcher/designated hitter Mike Napoli.
Hard-throwing righty Mark Lowe was considered one of the leading in-house closer candidates, but he has a 14.14 ERA this spring. Alexi Ogando, another hard-throwing righty who had a 1.44 ERA in 41 2/3 innings as a 26-year-old rookie last season, is the other closer candidate on the roster. Like Feliz, Ogando has been stretched out this spring so the front office and coaching staff could evaluate him as a starter candidate.
Washington said earlier this week that he has confidence that general manager Jon Daniels could acquire a "bona fide closer," but Washington understands that isn't likely to happen in the less than two weeks before Opening Day.
"We're going to do what we have to do," Washington said. "As far as what that is, we've got to wait and see what decision that we make. I know it's not going to be easy for them to go out there and find somebody, so we're going to have to do it in-house if that's the case."
Right now, the only plan for Feliz is to let him make his next start in the rotation.
After that, it will be time for the Rangers to make a difficult decision: Should their most talented pitcher be given a chance to achieve his ace potential or continue as a proven closer this season?
"Can we clone him?" Ryan said, cracking a smile.
Tim MacMahon is a reporter and columnist for ESPNDallas.com.