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Neftali Feliz decision will haunt Rangers

3/30/2011 - MLB Neftali Feliz Texas Rangers + more

It won't really be "Roll Back the Clock Day" at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Friday when the Texas Rangers and the Boston Red Sox tip off the 2011 season, it may just look that way to longtime Rangers fans.

No, it's Opening Day, the grandest day in sports, better than the Indy 500, the Kentucky Derby and The Masters all rolled into one, and sorry Jerry Jones, but the NFL doesn't have anything that even comes close. For Rangers fans, however, it may look discomfortingly familiar.

There's not a team in the AL West and perhaps only two or three in all of baseball -- the Red Sox happen to be one of them -- that can roll out nine bats like the Rangers will Friday at 3:05 p.m.

But haven't we seen this movie before? Don't we already know how it ends?

The Rangers are embarking upon their first defense of an American League pennant and their clubhouse may still bear the faint aroma of championship ginger ale. But at some point in the five months since the World Series ended, did they forget what got them there in the first place? Or did circumstances just conspire against them in a vapid offseason and spring in which few things seemed to go right?

Whatever happened, the team that will take the field Friday afternoon looks suspiciously like all those Rangers teams of yesteryear, which tried repeatedly to bash their way into the postseason ... and inevitably floundered to disappointment instead.

The name of the game is pitching. Always has been. Always will be.

Nolan Ryan knows that, which is why even his exuberance and normally brimming confidence has been somewhat tempered as a difficult, and often painful, spring training came mercifully grinding to a close earlier this week.

Obviously, Ryan's concern has nothing to do with the offense. The Rangers will hit and they will score runs. History, however, tells us that formula ultimately leads to early hunting dates and tee times in October.

When ESPNDallas.com baseball writer Richard Durrett asked me for my preseason Rangers prediction a week or so ago, I sent him an email picking the Rangers first in the West. My comment: "Who needs Cliff Lee when you have Neftali Feliz in the rotation?"

Kind of flip, I suppose, but the point was that Feliz's immense talent in the rotation should help ease the loss of Lee. Yes, losing Feliz as a closer would certainly hurt, but teams can find or develop closers. A potential staff ace, like Seattle's Felix Hernandez, however ... those are rare gems, to be treasured, hoarded and, most of all, used at the front of a rotation to match up with other teams' best starters.

When the Rangers announced they were putting Feliz back into the bullpen "because of need," all bets were off. I sent Durrett another email, dropping the Rangers to second in the West, behind (gulp) the Oakland Athletics.

Boy, did I hate having to do that.

The Rangers don't have the second-best team, but they have, until proven otherwise, the worst starting pitching in the division. Again, haven't we learned that that's what it's all about.

Let's talk about "need" for a moment. Feliz fills a "need" wherever he winds up. Sure, the bullpen can use him. Any bullpen in baseball could use him. But so could any rotation, and the Rangers' in particular.

A team cannot have a minimum of three major question marks in its rotation and expect fans, or media, to do handstands over the upcoming season, because some of the answers to those questions are invariably not what any of us want to hear.

We won't even talk about whether C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis will be impacted by their career-high innings pitched last season. You have to believe in something in this rotation, and I believe in those two guys. If they fail or get hurt, the season probably goes into the toilet anyway.

It's the next three spots that most concern me, the ones with Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando, or whomever draws the short straw to be the fifth starter. I'm pulling for all of them. They all have talent. But has a team fresh from a World Series ever gone into a season with three more unproven starters in the rotation the following Opening Day? And I wouldn't feel much better about it if Tommy Hunter were there either, to be frank.

If anything should give the Rangers hope, it's that the A's just settled on Brandon McCarthy as their fifth starter, and it's always a coin flip whether he makes it to the end of April before seeing the disabled list for the first time. But Oakland will trot out four legit starters in front of him in Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden.

The A's offense is highly suspect, but with those four pitching, it doesn't have to be great.

Somehow the Rangers won last year despite getting virtually nothing from their top two starters when the season began, Scott Feldman and Rich Harden. Wilson and Lewis were outstanding. Hunter somehow contributed 13 wins.

It's entirely possible that this year one or more of their unproven starters will have breakout seasons. Maybe Feldman will be his old self by midseason, or Eric Hurley or Michael Kirkman will come riding to the rescue. Or maybe general manager Jon Daniels will pull another rabbit out of the hat at the trade deadline, like he did last summer with Lee.

Depending on those scenarios to unfold every season, however, is nerve-racking at best and doomed to inevitable failure at worst.

The Rangers have an "ace" they can play every five days in Feliz and they should be doing that. In his heart of hearts, Ryan knows that, too.

Feliz has growing pains ahead of him as a starter. He's no lock for immediate success. But he brings something special to the rotation, there's no denying that.

Having him out on the mound every five days for six or seven innings or, if they're lucky, every two or three days for one? Which makes more sense for a team desperate for starting pitching?

Winning with pitching, defense and timely hitting or trying to bash their way into the playoffs? Which has historically worked best for the Rangers?

On Opening Day, this team will look suspiciously like the Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Rangers of old.

Somebody pass the Pepto-Bismol.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.