Texas Should Be Cautious With Feliz

If history gives any indication, the Texas Rangers should keep Neftali Feliz in the bullpen…

In 2010, Neftali Feliz took baseball by storm. Converted to closer to fill a niche for the Texas Rangers, Feliz actually experienced more success out of the bullpen than he had in the minor leagues as a starter. By the 2011 postseason, Feliz had become a top closer in baseball at only the age of 23.

In saving six of the Rangers’ ten wins from last postseason, it was clear Feliz — as the closer — had become an integral piece to the Rangers’ success.

Unfortunately, the Rangers are ignoring history and are currently undergoing a superfluous transformation to Feliz’s career. Because of the 23-year-old’s former success as a starter in the minor leagues, the Rangers have moved their closer back to the rotation.

In 2007, Joba Chamberlain faced a similar adjustment. After being merely a good prospect within the organization as a starter, Chamberlain was moved to the bullpen and quickly became the most hyped prospect within the sport.

Chamberlain, unafraid of New York’s bright lights and big stage, quickly became the Yankees’ primary relief pitcher to set up Mariano Rivera.

To protect Chamberlain’s electric arm, Yankees’ manager Joe Torre established “The Joba Rules,” which carefully limited his star prospect’s workload

Chamberlain was not only baseball’s next big thing. He was sports’ next big thing. Voted ESPN’s NEXT in 2008, the Winnebago Native American became the face of the Yankees’ future.

The first baseball player to ever win ESPN’s NEXT award was Alex Rodriguez ten years prior. It was undisputed that the Yankees had a weapon in their arsenal and a potential monopoly within the sport with arguably the league’s two best relief pitchers on the same team.

Then, the Yankees risked it all.

Yankees’ owner Hank Steinbrenner was enticed by Chamberlain’s potential as a starter.
Sadly, impatience and indecision toyed with Chamberlain’s head. The pitcher who handled the pressures of being a phenomenon in New York City crumbled at the hands of management who continuously changed their minds on how to handle their special talent.

First he was starter in the minors. Then, after promotion, he became reliever in the majors. Then, midway through the next season, they made him a starter again. Then, he struggled and got injured as a starter. By the next year, the team had given up on the idea of Chamberlain being a starter altogether. Despite Chamberlain displaying flashes of brilliance in the starting role, his inconsistencies were enough for management to abandon him.

Now five seasons removed from their initial attempt to make Chamberlain a starter, it appears as though the Yankees have all but destroyed Chamberlain’s once promising career.

While he will still be a serviceable reliever, (barring further injury) it is now doubtful he will ever regain the confidence he owned when he dominated the league in his rookie campaign.
Why did the Yankees feel compelled to fix what wasn’t broken in 2008?

Had they simply kept Chamberlain in the setup role, the “problem” of having an excess of closer-caliber pitchers in the bullpen would simply have led the Yankees to be able to finish off opponents by the end of the seventh inning.

Maybe the Yankees should blame John Smoltz for Chamberlain’s demise. Smoltz made the transition from starter to reliever and back to starter seamlessly. Hank Steinbrenner undoubtedly looked at Smoltz’s success and figured, “If Chamberlain fails in the rotation, we could easily move him back to the bullpen.” Unfortunately, Chamberlain’s confidence fizzled as he struggled as a starter. As he started to overthink on the mound, Chamberlain also started to overthrow his pitches – leading to a serious rotator cuff injury.

Now, as I look at the Texas Rangers’ decision to move Neftali Feliz from the bullpen to the rotation, I can’t help but hope for the best yet anticipate the worst for Feliz.

Feliz looked like he would be among the league’s best closers for the next ten years after saving 40 games (the most by a first-year player ever) in his Rookie of the Year season in 2010.

Having a dominant closer in general is a luxury capable of transforming a mere contender into a favorite. While the same could be said about an ace-caliber pitcher, Feliz has already proven himself dominant in relief.

It is far from certain this dominance from the bullpen will translate to dominance in the rotation.

Just because a successful closer could potentially become a dominant starter, it doesn’t mean he should. After all, two of the league’s best closers, Mariano Rivera and Jonathon Papelbon were initially conditioned to start in the Major Leagues until their successes as relievers convinced their teams to keep them in the bullpens.

While Rivera’s initial failures as a starter prompted his move to the bullpen, many believed he could have successfully returned to the rotation after finding confidence and developing his cutter in 1996.

Meanwhile, Papelbon was a top starting pitching prospect who had been moved to the bullpen simply out of need.

While there were concerns with his arm throughout his minor league career, Papelbon had success in limited starting appearances in 2005 and the Red Sox were still held confidence that he could have succeeded in the rotation even after moving him to the bullpen.

While it is indisputable that Feliz has the arm and confidence to become an ace, I am still skeptical of whether it’s worth the risk for the Rangers. Feliz has already proven himself to be a dominant closer.

While there is a chance he translates that success to the starting role, there is also a strong chance he doesn’t.

Yes, C.J Wilson and Adam Wainwright both moved from closer to starter without difficulty and have become proven top starters.

However, for every Wilson or Wainwright out there, there are dozens of failed starters who went on to succeed as relievers yet were unable to ever successfully return to the rotation.

While Feliz never failed as a starter, it is possible that his two years of a relief pitcher will both mentally and physically hinder his pitching approach as a starter. As a reliever, Feliz was taught to simply throw the ball as hard as he could for one inning. High velocities became Feliz’s biggest weapon as his electric arm (his 103.4 MPH fastball from September of 2010 is the third fastest pitch recorded in MLB history) led him to a respectable 2.74 ERA last season.
However, now that Feliz is expected to pace himself to 100 pitches a game, it is certain that his dominant velocity will be toned down.

Even after signing closer Joe Nathan – a failed starter himself – over the winter, it would make sense for the Rangers to move Feliz back to the bullpen.

As managers say, you can never have too strong a bullpen.

Originally Published in The Emory Wheel on 04/12/2012

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