Neftali Feliz to remain Rangers' closer
"I think if we weren't in such a need for him as a closer, he would be starting for us this year," Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan told Galloway & Company on ESPN 103.3 FM in Dallas. "I think what it means is that we have a year to find somebody within our system or through trade or a free-agent acquisition to come in and take that role.
"At the end of [this season], we'd like to be in position to tell Feliz to go home this offseason and be ready to be a starter for us next year ... do what you need to do to come into spring training with that mindset and physically being in a position to take that."
The decision means the Rangers were set to go with a rotation of left-hander C.J. Wilson, right-hander Colby Lewis, righty Tommy Hunter, lefty Matt Harrison and left-hander Derek Holland to start the season.
That plan, however, was short-lived as Hunter had to leave the third inning of Thursday's spring training game with a right groin strain. Michael Kirkman, who was optioned to Triple-A Round Rock on Thursday morning, could be a possible replacement if Hunter were to miss the start of the season.
"The young kids are going to have to throw more strikes and they're going to have to utilize their pitches better, but they're very capable," Ryan said of Hunter, Harrison and Holland. "I think with the experience they got last year, I'm going to be disappointed if they don't take the rotation spots and do good things with it."
Manager Ron Washington told Feliz the news Thursday morning, and said he took it well and is ready to close again.
"It was their decision to make," Feliz said through a translator. "I'm proud of the work that I did preparing to be a starter or a closer. I feel like that was their decision and I'm going to do the best I can to do the job as a closer."
Washington said Feliz has been one of the club's best starters this spring and he told him that he had showed he could start. It's likely something the team will revisit next year.
"Right now, for our organization, he's better in the bullpen," Washington said. "We haven't closed the door on him being a starter. It's just not now. We wanted to make sure that we continue to be strong in every area. With Feliz being at the closing end, we're certainly strong."
Washington said there are two spots to fill in the bullpen. Besides Feliz, Alexi Ogando, Darren O'Day, and lefties Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes have spots. That leaves Pedro Strop, Mark Lowe and Mason Tobin fighting for a setup job and Dave Bush and Brett Tomko competing for the long relief role.
Washington said he is excited about how the rotation lines up. Holland has pitched well this spring and was determined from the start to earn a spot. Harrison came in with a slower delivery and has had success, getting strikes and pitching efficiently. Hunter has struggled this spring, but got the job because of his track record.
The choice of keeping Feliz in the bullpen comes after the 22-year-old right-hander spent spring training working as a starter. He was stretched out so the club could evaluate his readiness to change roles, allow him to spend more time working on his secondary pitches and then see how the team's roster came together before deciding how he could best help the team in 2011.
"I've had more repetitions and been able to throw to more hitters and throw more innings," Feliz said. "I'm more ready than I was last year. I'm ready to do whatever it takes to help the team win."
Feliz didn't disappoint. He showed solid command, got out of jams and impressed Ryan, a Hall of Famer. But in the end, the club believed what is best for the team right now, a season after the club's first World Series appearance, is for Feliz to get the final three outs of the game.
"He was convinced in his mind that he could do it," Ryan said. "I really think the personal battle he was having with himself -- whether he wanted to give up being a closer to take over a rotation spot -- I think he had come to grips with. But I think he's also very comfortable with the decision to be the closer."
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and his baseball operations staff have contended all spring that Feliz's future is as a starter. But with the struggles of some bullpen hopefuls and the fact that teams aren't ready to trade closers so close to Opening Day, Feliz will stay the closer.
"It was about the makeup of the club as much as Neftali," Daniels said. "It's a tough call because here's a guy we think does have the abilty to start, obviously not a finished product at this point, but it's tempting. But where we are as a club and the makeup of the bullpen, alternatives in the rotation, we think this is the best club in 2011 with him in the pen."
Feliz won American League Rookie of the Year honors in that job in 2010, saving 40 games. He ended up 4-3 with a 2.73 ERA in 69 1/3 innings with 71 strikeouts and 18 walks. He made his first All-Star team, though he didn't play in the game.
Feliz was on the mound when the Rangers clinched the AL West against Oakland in late September and he struck out Alex Rodriguez (with a breaking ball) to finish off the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the ALCS in Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, sending Texas to its first World Series.
Feliz's secondary pitches improved in the Arizona desert. He learned a new pitch -- a cutter -- and his changeup is better. The ability to change speeds and get more movement from his secondary pitches makes his 100 mph fastball even more effective.
Feliz said in early March that he was willing to start, but preferred to close. He felt more comfortable coming into the game in the ninth and getting those final three outs. But less than a week after making his feelings public, Feliz said he wanted to start. The success of his cutter probably had something to do with his change of heart.
The Rangers were faced with a difficult choice: Give Feliz a chance to start and affect the team by pitching about 180 innings or so (maybe less as a No. 5 starter so that they could monitor the stress on his arm better) or keep him in a role that he showed in 2010 he could handle.
The fact that the club doesn't have any experienced options at closer probably factored into the decision. Feliz will start to get work in relief before Opening Day, which likely includes pitching in back-to-back games. Otherwise, the club believes he can transition back into closing without much issue.
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.
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