By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"The talent is not a surprise. We knew that was there," Daniels says. "We've been very pleased with how mature he is, how he's handled what we've thrown at him, how he's made adjustments and how he's really embraced some of our coaches. And that's in large part the reason why he's moved as quickly as he has."
John Sickels, author of the annual Baseball Prospect Book and former ESPN columnist, ranks Feliz as the second-best pitching prospect in baseball next to Tampa Bay Rays southpaw David Price. He expects Feliz to begin this year at Double-A Frisco, where he spent part of last season, and then move on to Triple-A Oklahoma before getting the call-up to Texas.
"I love Feliz. He's got maybe the best arm and pure fastball in the minor leagues," he says. "If he stays healthy, and that's always a big if with any young pitcher, I think he could be a No. 1 starter."
Feliz, who won 10 games with a 2.69 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 127 1/3 innings combined at Class A Clinton and Double-A Frisco last season, says Ryan has been teaching him how to throw his fastball on the outside corner and mix it with throwing his slider low and away.
Considering he doesn't turn 21 until May, Feliz appears uncharacteristically calm for someone receiving advice from a Hall of Famer and named the team's No. 1 prospect by Baseball America.
"I don't feel pressure," he says through a translator. "I just give thanks to God for being in this position and try to take advantage of it."
After the rest of the pitchers throw, the players head to the locker room for lunch and a team meeting. Fellow southpaws Derek Holland and Kasey Kiker take a seat as sub sandwiches are handed out and the inauguration of Barack Obama plays on TVs in the background.
As Holland is approached by a reporter, the other young pitchers get the 22-year-old to crack a smile by yelling "Oh, Derek!" in their best girlie voices.
Holland, a 25th-round selection in the 2006 draft, was one of the biggest breakout players in baseball last season with a 13-1 record, 2.27 ERA and 157 strikeouts in 150 2/3 innings combined at three minor league stops. The velocity on his fastball jumped from 90-93 mph in the spring into the mid-90s by summer, even occasionally touching 98.
Randy Putman, Holland's coach at Wallace State Community College, describes him as a fierce competitor who's confident and was instrumental as a leader at Wallace State. "Every time he went to the mound, we knew we were going to win because he was going to lay it on the line like it was the seventh game of the World Series," he says. "It bothered him not just to lose a game but to give up a hit."
Holland and Feliz formed a dangerous one-two punch last season at Frisco, the Rangers farm club that was named minor league team of the year by Baseball America. Holland says he looks forward to battling Feliz for the top spot in the Rangers rotation, but he stresses that there are plenty of other good pitchers in the organization with whom he is prepared to compete.
Credit for the deep pool of arms in the minors goes to Daniels, says Jamey Newberg, author of The Newberg Report, an online newsletter chronicling the Rangers minor league system. Newberg says Daniels has been "extremely impressive" and believes other executives around the league would agree.
"Some of the general media in town pick out a couple of sound bites off his track record and complain about what he's done, but he's got tremendous respect in the league," he says. "You can't show me a GM who hasn't had a couple trades over the past three years he wouldn't take back."
Tom Hicks' 2005 decision to hire the untested 28-year-old Daniels seemed the desperate act of an owner following the latest trend to shake up a stagnant ball club: hiring young, overeducated nerds as GM. Before Daniels, Theo Epstein held the title of youngest GM in baseball history when the Boston Red Sox hired him at age 28 in 2002. Epstein, also an Ivy League grad, built a team that brought a World Series championship to Boston in 2004 for the first time in 86 years. Like Daniels, whose career began as an intern for the Colorado Rockies, Epstein rose up the organizational flow chart with amazing speed after beginning his career in public relations with the San Diego Padres. Unlike Epstein, Daniels hasn't delivered so much as a playoff appearance.
Daniels wasted no time making his mark on the franchise—unfortunately it was a black mark. Only two months after he was hired, he traded Alfonso Soriano to the Washington Nationals for Brad Wilkerson and Armando Galarraga. Soriano had refused to move to the outfield to make room for second baseman Ian Kinsler, yet Soriano did just that when asked by Nationals manager Frank Robinson, and went on to hit a career-high 46 home runs in the 2006 season. Wilkerson was nothing short of a disaster with 73 more strikeouts than hits in his two seasons in Texas, and Galarraga was traded to the Detroit Tigers in 2008 for a minor league outfielder who was subsequently released.