After watching Neftali Feliz hurl an impressive first four innings of Monday's 5-4 exhibition win over the Los Angeles Dodgers here in Surprise, Arizona, I sat down with general manager Jon Daniels to find out exactly where the 22-year-old fireballer fits in this season.
Closer? Or starter?
"I think that door is still open," Daniels said at Surprise Stadium. "If we have a quality starter who can throw 200 innings that's something of real value and he's looking better and better. I understand the fans' hesitancy to move a guy from a position in which he's enjoyed lots of success, but this may be a situation where Neftali can help our team even more as a starter."
Against L.A. Feliz was hitting 98mph with his fastball, 77 with his knee-buckling curve and 84-86 with ... something? Turns out it's a cutter, the fastball-looking pitch with the late, boring tail that winds up on left-handed hitters' knuckles and persuades righties to hit weak grounders to second. It's the pitch - taught to him in the last 10 days by pitching coach Mike Maddux - that the Yankees' Mariano Rivera parlayed into millions of dollars and a Hall of Fame career as perhaps baseball's best all-time closer.
Feliz struck out five in his four innings, allowed three hits and a run and hit a batter. I like him as an elite closer. One of the reasons I'd be careful about moving to a starter is that I'm not sure who would step into the closer's role.
But if Feliz can be as dominant yesterday for seven innings every fifth day, I see what the Rangers are salivating at. Besides, somebody real important in the equation is suddenly on board with the move.
"I want to try to win a spot in the rotation," Feliz said yesterday. "Right now, that would be my preference. The cutter gives me more confidence."
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A week after saying his heart is in the bullpen, Feliz now wants to start. He's 22. Who knows? Next week he might want to play right field.
The important thing is he's giving the Rangers options, if not also a difficult decision. Maintain an elite closer who last year saved 40 games and helped Texas into the World Series by nailing down the most difficult outs against New York? Or, like the St. Louis Cardinals did with Adam Wainwright, take a closer and transition him into being even more valuable as an ace.
Feliz, groomed to be a starter all during the minors, will make another long appearance before the Rangers decide on or about March 20th about his 2011 role. I'm torn. While I cringe at Mark Lowe or Alexi Ogando being handed the ball in the 9th inning, I was also here Sunday when the San Francisco Giants slapped around Tommy Hunter for seven runs and nine hits in 3.2 innings, and I think the Rangers need help in the rotation in the event that C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis can't match last year's career-best years.
"Of all the good, young arms we've had here," Daniels said, "Neftali has the best chance to be a dominant starter."