Commentary

Feliz's preference is to close, for now

Decision yet to be made, but last year's closer's comfort with role is crucial

Updated: March 8, 2011, 8:59 AM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Most of the signs point toward Neftali Feliz staying in the closer's role for the Texas Rangers in 2011.

No decision has been made and likely won't be until Feliz takes another couple of turns on the mound as a starter. But the fact that the 22-year-old would prefer to remain the guy that gets the final three outs is telling. Feliz is a team guy and he's not opposed to starting. But there's a difference between a guy that wants to start and one that would prefer to close.

Ask C.J. Wilson. The former reliever begged the club to give him a chance to start. Club president Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels agreed and Wilson worked all last offseason toward that one goal. He acted as if he needed to start. And that's what happened. Of course, Wilson was 29. His secondary pitches were established and he was heading toward another season as a setup man.

Feliz is in a different place. He doesn't feel the same way Wilson does about starting. And he's told some club officials how he feels, including Ryan. It's hard to blame Feliz. He's coming off a record-breaking season for a rookie closer with 40 saves. He won the AL Rookie of the Year. He struck out Alex Rodriguez (on a breaking ball, no less) to give the Rangers a victory over the Yankees in Game 6 of the ALCS. When you're a young player and you show you're really good at your current job, you don't want to leave it.

"I've done it before," Feliz said, through a translator (teammate Julio Borbon), of closing. "I did it in the past and I'm comfortable in that role. I know what it takes and know the preparation."

This decision isn't solely up to a 22-year-old. But the Rangers certainly care about how he feels, and that can impact how hungry he is to earn that job.

"Determination is part of the baseball frame of mind," manager Ron Washington said. "It helps you reach success and deal with adversity."

That's not to say Feliz isn't determined to succeed. He is. But he's comfortable. The Rangers must decide if now is the time to get him out of that comfort zone and find out whether he can start or whether they postpone that decision for a year. It still comes down to the same factors it did when spring training started:

• Is his secondary stuff good enough to warrant giving it a try?
• Do the Rangers have a suitable replacement for him as closer?
• How are the other starting pitching candidates doing in camp?

Now, you have to add in Feliz's desire to close over starting. That is a factor in the decision, too.

Right now, Feliz isn't completely ready to start. The secondary stuff so far this spring is better, but it's still a work in progress. And he knows he can't get through an opposing lineup two or three times simply by throwing his 100 mph fastball and mixing in a few sliders. But the other side of that issue is that if he's forced to start, he'll have no choice but to use more of that secondary stuff and develop it as the season goes along.

The advantage to stretching Feliz out is that he's been working hard on those secondary pitches, especially the changeup, all spring and could feel more confident about working it into his repertoire even as the closer.

"If he does that, wow, he might save 60," Washington said.

Will Feliz feel the need to use those pitches even though that ultra-fast fastball is so effective when he's pitching just one inning? We'll see.

The Rangers do have Mark Lowe and Alexi Ogando as closer candidates, but neither has been a full-time closer. So to make Feliz a starter, the club would have to put Feliz and one of those two relievers into the unknown as they enter the season as the defending American League champions.

That's what makes it a tough call. It would be one thing if this were the Rangers of three years ago with limited starting pitching. Then they could run Feliz out there, let him make all his mistakes and allow him to learn even if the losses mounted. But these Rangers are contenders and must decide which combination of players in what roles gives them the best shot at winning the AL West and a chance to win a championship.

The other thing that makes it appear that Feliz is heading for a repeat performance as closer is that a handful of the starting pitchers in camp continue to pitch pretty well. Tommy Hunter, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Michael Kirkman have shown good focus and are viable candidates for the rotation.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux said there's a window in a few weeks when they'll decide where everyone is slotted. Until then, Feliz will continue on his starter track and we'll see how those off-speed and breaking pitches look. If he pitches great or some injuries to potential starters pop up, that could alter what happens.

The Rangers aren't choosing Feliz's future this spring. He could close in 2011, gain more experience, refine some of the secondary pitches and come in as a starter for the 2012 season. He'd still have some questions to answer but would have a little more maturity, too.

But as for 2011, Feliz says less than a month before Opening Day that he prefers to close. The circumstances suggest that's where he'll end up.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.

Richard Durrett joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He writes about colleges, the Dallas Stars and the Texas Rangers. Richard spent nine years at The Dallas Morning News covering the Rangers, Stars, colleges, motorsports and high schools.

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