Don't Mess With Success: Rangers Should Resist Moving Neftali Feliz Into Rotation
In the comments of yesterday's blog, commenter "sporty" posed the question of whether Neftali Feliz should be moved into the rotation since we both agree the Texas Rangers rotation needs help desperately. He said the "transition makes a lot of sense." I disagree.
The argument for Feliz becoming a starter is largely based on his experience as one during his minor league career. Of the 79 games he appeared in from 2006 to 2009, he started 53 times and was mostly dominant when doing so.
However, the vast majority of the game's best closers throughout the years started their careers the exact same way. Mariano Rivera, perhaps the greatest closer of all time, started in the minors and even made 10 starts in his rookie season with the New York Yankees. Billy Wagner, Lee Smith, Jeff Reardon, John Franco and Jonathan Papelbon also pitched as starters in the minor leagues before becoming big-league closers.
Trevor Hoffman started six games for Double-A Chattanooga in 1992 as a 24-year-old and posted a 3-0 record, 1.52 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings. That's top-of-the-rotation talent. Yet he didn't make one start in his 18-year career in the majors and instead racked up a record 601 saves along the way.
Then there's Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who was a 20-game winner and two-time All-Star in 12 years as a starter in the majors. But it was the next 12 years he spent as a closer that secured his spot in Cooperstown, as he made the All-Star squad four more times and added MVP and Cy Young awards to his résumé.
Eric Gagne had very little success as a starter, but when he became the Los Angeles Dodgers closer in 2002, he reeled off one of the most dominant three-year stretches in baseball history, tallying 152 saves with a 1.79 ERA and picking up a Cy Young of his own in 2003.
While there are examples of closers turned starters that have become aces (Adam Wainwright comes to mind), history proves that once a pitcher proves he can close games, it makes little sense to mess with that success.
And Neftali Feliz's success has been hard to miss. He emerged as one of the game's top closers last year, saving 40 games with a 2.73 ERA and sparkling 0.88 WHIP. He also won the American League Rookie of the Year Award and struck out Alex Rodriguez to advance the Rangers to the World Series. Not too shabby for a 22-year-old.
With all that said, I agree with the argument that a dominant starter is worth more than a top closer, but the key word is dominant. If Feliz can pitch as a legit No. 1 or No. 2 starter, then pencil him in. But if he's merely a solid No. 3 or really good No. 4 or No. 5, then the move makes little sense.
As he'll turn just 23 in May, the likelihood that he can step out on the mound this year and pitch like a true No. 1 or No. 2 is slim. Has it been done before? Sure. But it's rare.
Of course, now we know Feliz wants to stay in his current role, which doesn't mean he should be able to call the shots, but it should be part of the consideration. Comfort at his age and experience level cannot be underestimated. Joba Chamberlain can attest to that.
In a couple years, maybe it will be time to give Feliz a shot as a starter. But for the time being, general manager Jon Daniels should pull the emergency break on this experiment and find another way to improve the rotation.
Follow the author on Twitter @SamMerten.
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