All-Star closer wants to be a starter

Updated: March 15, 2011, 1:38 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Now right-handed pitcher Neftali Feliz's goal is to earn a job in the Texas Rangers' starting rotation.

That's a reversal from four days ago, when last season's American League Rookie of the Year said he'd be most comfortable returning to the closer role. The reason Feliz cited for changing his mind is the confidence he has developed in his cutter, a potentially dominant secondary pitch to complement a four-seam fastball that occasionally hits 100 mph.

"I'd like to be a starter," Feliz said through a translator after allowing one run in four innings in Monday's start against a Los Angeles Dodgers split squad. "I'm working right now to be a starter."

Feliz, 22, set a major league rookie record for saves with 40 last season, when he had a 2.73 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings. The Rangers, who believe he has potential to be an ace, opted to stretch him out this spring and prepare him for a starting role.

The plan all along has been to decide which role best suits Feliz and fills the biggest need during the late portion of spring training. That didn't change when Feliz expressed his comfort as a closer, and it didn't change Monday when he revealed that he had changed his mind.

"Who knows?" said Nolan Ryan, the team president and Hall of Fame pitcher. "He has mixed emotions, so I don't know what to make of it."

Manager Ron Washington joked that Feliz would make up his mind sooner or later. However, Washington and Ryan both said that they'd seriously consider Feliz's feelings on the issue before making a decision about his role.

"It means everything to my decision," Washington said. "It matters what he thinks because he's the one out there who has to do the job. You want his heart where it's supposed to be and you want him totally committed. We've still got time here. If that'll happen, it'll happen."

Feliz has a 1.00 ERA in three Cactus League outings, striking out nine in nine innings. A wide smile crossed Washington's face when he was asked whether Feliz looked like a starter during his outing against the Dodgers, when he allowed three hits and one walk while recording five strikeouts and throwing 59 pitches. He threw an additional 20 pitches in a bullpen session after the outing.

"He threw very well today. He really did," Washington said. "He changed speeds, used all his pitches, pounded the fastball, got more on his fastball when he had to. He looked good out there today. He really did. And when he got that fastball down in the zone ... it had some explosion on it."

Washington said the development of Feliz's cutter should allow him to keep his pitch count down, an important factor to his ability to convert back to a starter, the role Feliz filled for most of his minor league career.

"Now he's got a swing-and-miss pitch besides his fastball," Washington said. "With this cutter, you can get a swing and miss on that and it doesn't have to be in the strike zone."

Left-hander C.J. Wilson and right-hander Colby Lewis, who played key roles during the Rangers' World Series run last year, are the only pitchers guaranteed spots in the Texas rotation. Right-hander Tommy Hunter, who went 13-4 with a 3.73 ERA last season, is likely to return to the rotation. The Rangers also expect former National League Cy Young winner Brandon Webb to join the rotation, but he's working back from a two-year layoff due to a shoulder injury and won't be ready for Opening Day.

Young left-handers Derek Holland, Michael Kirkman and Matt Harrison and hard-throwing righty Alexi Ogando are among the other candidates to be starters.

The consensus opinion is that Feliz has the best stuff on the staff. However, Ryan said that doesn't necessarily mean it's in the Rangers' best interests to make him a starter this season.

"We don't have a defined closer right now to step in that position," Ryan said. "Obviously, we have some talent that might be able to do it, but we don't have somebody in mind."

Ogando and right-hander Mark Lowe would be the leading candidates to replace Feliz as the closer.

"I have confidence in [general manager] Jon Daniels and our scouts," Washington said Tuesday morning. "If that's the case, I'm 100 percent sure they'll go out there and find somebody to close ballgames down for us."

Washington likes the depth in his bullpen. He just doesn't know whether anybody other than Feliz can handle the closer role on a consistent basis. And the Rangers, who intend to earn another pennant, don't want to deal with uncertainty in such an important role.

"Who do we have in our bullpen that's closed ballgames down?" Washington said, knowing that Feliz is the only pitcher on the roster with a double-digit career saves total. "We ain't talking about 'might be able to.' This ain't about 'might be able to close a ballgame down.' We need somebody that's bona fide to close ballgames down. But, like I said, if we need to stay in-house, we'll figure that out."

But the Rangers aren't ready to make those decisions.

"It's open," Washington said. "I'm hanging on to my same line. It's open. We'll see what happens as we go along."

Tim MacMahon is a reporter and columnist for ESPNDallas.com.

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