What will Neftali Feliz's role be, and will he have fantasy value in it?
With this week's news, reported by ESPNDallas.com, that the Texas Rangers intend to insert C.J. Wilson into their starting rotation, it appears that Neftali Feliz's role come Opening Day will be exactly the one in which he finished 2009: middle reliever.
Those two words are typically a mark against on a pitcher in fantasy baseball, but they shouldn't necessarily be. Middle relievers -- especially ones as talented as Feliz -- can have a definitive impact on a fantasy team, and the most successful ones can often put themselves into position either to close, where their value would skyrocket, or start, where it might similarly take off.
In 20 appearances for the Rangers last season (all out of the bullpen), Feliz had a 1.74 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, .124 batting average allowed and an 11.32 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio. Just as impressive is that he did it as a 21-year-old with only 26 games' experience as a reliever during his minor league career. Twelve of those minor league bullpen outings came after his conversion to relief while with Triple-A Oklahoma City in June. In those Triple-A contests he had similarly sparkling 2.16/0.78/.169/10.80 numbers in those categories.
Not that those numbers belie Feliz's talent. He throws a blistering mid-90s fastball -- averaging 95.8 mph with the pitch during his rookie year, according to FanGraphs -- and confounds left-handed hitters with his plus changeup, a package that would make life difficult for most any hitter who gets to see him only once a night.
This isn't any Joba Chamberlain situation, either, if you're concerned about the most obvious recent example of a 21-year-old, right-handed flamethrower being converted from starter to reliever midway through a minor league season, then dominating in a late-season stint for his big league club. Chamberlain, if you remember, had 0.38/0.75/.145/12.75 numbers in 19 games for the New York Yankees to conclude the 2007 regular season.
But what made Feliz's case different from Chamberlain's is that were no apparent "Joba Rules," no restrictions like Chamberlain had that mandated he could not pitch on back-to-back days and would get two days' rest for any appearance greater than one inning. Feliz, in his debut year, actually made eight of his 20 appearances with only a day's rest, and six of those were coming off appearances of greater than one inning. Plus, in 14 of his 20 games he recorded four or more outs, and in eight of them he pitched at least two innings.
Do those sound like restrictions? They shouldn't; prorating Feliz's days on the Rangers' active roster to a full season, he'd have pitched 83 2/3 innings in 2009, a number matched or exceeded by only three big league relievers last season.
Don't count on the Rangers allowing Feliz, one of their most promising young hurlers, to amass quite 83 2/3 frames in relief in 2010, but a full-time reliever's workload is indeed likely. He might record 70-75 innings as the Rangers provide him the occasional day off, and considering his career K/9 ratio is 10.67, 83-89 strikeouts wouldn't be an unreasonable expectation.
If there's any concern about Feliz, it might be that the Rangers consider pulling him out of the bullpen and inserting him into the rotation midseason, which can be a risky venture even if it typically strikes fantasy owners as a positive move. Returning to the Chamberlain example, that's exactly what the Yankees did in June 2008. It took him four starts to build his pitch count to 100-plus, and while he did enjoy a nine-start stretch during which seven were quality starts, he succumbed to shoulder problems shortly thereafter that ruined his final two months of that season. All told, he made only 12 starts in 2008.
Of course, the Rangers might be smarter about the process; if they decide to return Feliz to the rotation, they might do so by first demoting him to the minors, where the pressures of building up his workload are lessened. He also might not be handled with the kid gloves that Chamberlain was. And considering Feliz had a 3.48 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and 8.66 K/9 ratio in 23 starts combined between the Double- and Triple-A levels the past two seasons, there's no saying he can't make a seamless transition and be an above-average to borderline top-25 starter.
Now -- preparing for the obvious reply that Feliz would breeze past those aforementioned 83 2/3 innings if he starts for a healthy chunk of 2010 -- sure he would. But he'd also get more rest between outings, would need to pace himself instead of coming out of the 'pen throwing peak-effort darts pitch after pitch, and might need an even stricter innings cap than a typical starter than he might have had in relief. There might be "Joba Rules" of sorts for him as a starter that wouldn't exist as a reliever, and we all saw what those silly directives did to the young Yankees hurler last year. People sometimes measure innings as the same for every pitcher regardless of role; that's not exactly how it works.
Feliz's immediate future, however, appears to be the bullpen, and if you're drafting this week, it's best to assume his upside is ERA/WHIP/K-helping reliever with an eye on possible saves. Fantasy owners appear to be selecting him accordingly, as a ballpark 22nd-rounder whose average draft position (222.3) ranks him 30th among relief pitchers. That's above current closers such as Matt Capps and Franklin Morales, but based on his upside, it's not an outrageous price tag.
What of those possible saves? Here's something to think about: Current Rangers closer Frank Francisco has hardly been the healthiest pitcher throughout his career, with a 2005 Tommy John surgery on his résumé, not to mention three trips to the disabled list last season alone, the first two of those for shoulder injuries. Francisco also had a 3.83 ERA in 2009 and is an extreme fly-ball pitcher in hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark, which isn't the most pleasant mix.
The Rangers, who fancy themselves contenders, can't afford to be patient with a closer who struggles with injuries or ineffectiveness, so Francisco might spend a good chunk of 2010 looking over his shoulder. When he does, he'll see Feliz, armed and ready to take over the ninth-inning duties at a moment's notice. After all, with Wilson now in the rotation, who else is going to do it, Darren Oliver?
Our current Feliz projections have him posting a 3.23 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 89 K's in 78 innings, with six saves and 22 holds, and that hardly scrapes the surface of his immense potential as a reliever. In fact, with the exception of his K's-per-nine (10.27), Feliz's projections are generally better than that of Tampa Bay Rays closer Rafael Soriano, forecasted for 32 saves.
Not that those who draft Feliz late should bank on 32 saves, but accounting for his talent, if he manages that many, should any of us be surprised?
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.