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November 23, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Bear a Starter's Fruit: The Three Acts of Feliz

by Jason Parks

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On the evening of October 27, 2011, flame-throwing closer Neftali Feliz was one pitch away from lighting the fuse on an explosive World Series celebration. The Texas franchise had never tasted the sweet substance of the ultimate reward, and after nearly 40 years of play, they were only seconds away from the pinnacle experience offered by the sport. The Rangers were going to be world champions.

We all know what happened to Feliz and the Rangers in Game Six, and we all know what happened in the deciding Game Seven, played the following evening. The Cardinals became world champions, and the Rangers were sent back to the drawing board. As of this writing, the Rangers have put pencil to paper on their first off-season sketch, signing free-agent closer Joe Nathan to a two-year deal (with an option for third year). The signing reinforces the speculation that Texas intends to convert Feliz back into a starter. Cue the Whitesnake and let’s take it from the top.

Act I
Feliz signed with the Atlanta Braves as a 17-year-old in 2005. In the summer of 2007, Atlanta sent the Dominican righty to new parents, the Rangers, as part of the Mark Teixeira trade. At the time of the parental switch, Feliz was splitting time between the rotation and the bullpen, showcasing a special fastball with questionable command. His secondary arsenal also had question marks. The ease and fluidity of Feliz’s delivery made the pure intensity of his fastball all the more perplexing; his 80-grade velocity arrived to the plate in a posse with complementary attributes like late-movement and explosion from the hand. Given the easy cheese, the physical projection, and the characteristics of the arm itself, Feliz owned top-of-the-line rotational projection. He was raw, but his future was painted with the blood of unicorns and bottled sunshine. Ah, the sweet optimism of conceptual space.

After a summer of workload management and developmental evaluation, Feliz started his full-season campaign in 2008. He started with the Clinton Lumberkings of the slightly-chilled Low-A Midwest League, then jumped two levels to join the Double-A Frisco Roughriders of the unable-to-hold-a-chill Texas League. Hyperbole and arousal were side effects spectators endured during Feliz’s 2008 journey; he rarely failed to impress. He pumped his overpowering fastball down the throats of overmatched hitters, and mixed in a promising secondary combo that featured a curvy/slurvy/slidery breaking ball and changeup.

The power of Feliz’s heater allowed him wiggle room in the zone; he had some feel for control, but room for improvement in the command department. He was still a thrower, and his secondary flash was still just a flash, but the eyes of baseball were now open to his arrival as a top-tier arm in the minors. Some scouts pointed to a relief future, where Feliz’s fastball could touch triple-digits and his feel for command and secondary development could enjoy larger meals from the tit of the fastball. His delivery was still very fluid and easy and the deficiencies remained projectable, but the force of the fastball forced Feliz into an accelerated developmental plan, one that pushed him to the majors the following season.

Feliz started 2009 at Triple-A, logging 77 innings in both the rotation and ‘pen. He sometimes struggled, but it was with a developmental purpose. The fluid pitch-and-catch delivery and the ¾ release were still intact and producing a well above-average fastball. As a starter, Feliz was making progress in sequencing, situation, and pace—all necessary components for major-league success. But a funny thing happened on the developmental road to the top of the rotation…

Act II
The sex appeal of velocity and electricity has long driven man to alter developmental paths in order to maximize these attractive characteristics. In union with these temptations, the Rangers called Feliz up to the majors in August 2009 and told him to throw smoke. Feliz threw smoke, but he also brought the slurvy/curvy/slidery breaking ball and the “Hey fool, you geeked up to hit the fastball, but I threw you a changeup with some fading action and deception and now you are screwed. Laters” changeup to the big stage; both pitches showed the potential of plus major-league offerings. His command was sharper than it was in Triple-A, and the package as we saw it in the fall of that season was as impressive as any young arm at the level.

With peak value and rotational opportunity tickling the Rangers, Feliz was given some looks as starter during spring training in 2010. Again, it wasn’t that the results proved insufficient; rather, it was that the short-burst arsenal could impact the back-end of the major-league ‘pen. That’s a difficult drug to abstain from.

Though he was penciled in as a the set-up man out of the chute, Feliz quickly emerged as the closer, and according to a growing community, the closer for the future as well. Feliz didn’t disappoint in the role, saving 40 games, earning an All-Star selection, and winning the Rookie of the Year award. You know, no big deal. Feliz wasn’t a proven commodity in the role, and the more he relied on his fastball its intensity, the more his secondary arsenal was affected. The slurvy/curvy/slidery breaker, thrown with good—not great—arm speed and from an often inconsistent slot continued to flash, but it was a better pitch when the rotation was tight and the movement had two-plane depth. When he commanded the pitch, it was an above-average offering. When the arm dropped and he didn’t stay on top of the pitch, the offering had more breeze than break, forcing more reliance on the heater for success. Like the slurvy/curvy/slidery breaker, the changeup had its moments; unfortunately, those moments were few and far between. The pitch went from second-best secondary offering, to solid third offering, to a pitch that showed up every once in a while, didn’t stay long, and didn’t offer much to the conversation. Feliz had become a true grip-it-and-rip-it power reliever, and as a result, his fastball was a short-burst monster, while his secondary offerings were afraid of the dark.

The Feliz-to-the-rotation movement was in full throttle during spring training 2011; the Rangers appeared to be giving the young Dominican a legitimate audition. He looked sharp at times, maintaining a fastball-heavy arsenal, while mixing in a new cut fastball to go with his slurvy/curvy/slidery breaker and a changeup that started to look more like a splitter as camp rolled along. The addition of the cutter was an interesting move; I thought the pitch would play better off the fastball at max intensity (99-100) rather than at a more controlled starter’s pace, where his fastball would sit 94-97, touch higher when necessary, and the mid- to upper-80s cutter could disguise itself on the same plane. Regardless, it was a good pitch to add.

Feliz didn’t earn a spot in the rotation, and the movement to elect him as a future ace had lost some of its steam. I was vocal at the time that his best role (at present) was in the bullpen, where his brand of smoke could continue to play at the level regardless of Feliz’s overreliance on the fastball at the expense of his secondary offerings. I didn’t see the pace and feel for sequencing necessary for success in the rotation, and I wasn’t shocked when Feliz was once again closing games for the defending American League champs.

During the ’11 campaign, Feliz was great at times and iffy at others—iffy thanks to questionable command and a secondary arsenal that still offered more flash than fire. The arm itself was still smooth and easy, and the fastball still jumped out of his hand and exploded as it neared the zone, showing some arm-side wiggle as it approached the box. He was still a monster in the making, with a thicker build on his 6-foot-3 body and a prolonged serving of major-league action to help build experience and maturity. The design of the high-ceiling arm still existed, but as a closer, Feliz’s overall development as a pitcher was suffering.  

Game Six happened, and comments started to fly that perhaps 2012 would be the year the Feliz-to-the-rotation movement might actually move somewhere. Words were tossed around about mental states and closer mentalities and inferences sprang forth. Before you knew it, the Feliz-to-the-rotation movement had a hitch attached to its bumper belonging to the Feliz-to-the-roation-because-his-Game-Six-performance-showed-that-he-isn’t-tough-enough-for-the-role movement. They are having stickers made. They are large stickers.

Side rant: I’m not a fan of the latter movement. I think Feliz would be more than up to the task of closing in 2012, both mentally and physically. Feliz blew the most important save in team history, and I’m sure it affected him. Hell, it affected me. But last I checked, Feliz has emotions and can recognize what really sucks from what doesn’t. I’m not surprised that a 23-year-old kid was upset after blowing a two-run lead in Game Six of the World Series. But there is a difference from being distraught and affected (perhaps overly so) in the intensity of the moment, and being distraught and affected by that moment the following season. In my opinion, suggesting Feliz lacks the mental fortitude to close based on the events of Game Six is shortsighted and disrespectful to the player. It’s one thing if a manager makes mention of a player’s emotional state as it pertains to a specific moment in time; it’s another when people with access to letters on keypad suggest something much larger and much more demonstrative.

Okay, I feel a little better. Now how about a little less rant, and a little more writing? Fine.

Act III
With the 2010 trade-deadline acquisition of Mike Adams and the recent signing of closer Joe Nathan, the Rangers will send Feliz to camp as a starter. This is different from previous attempts, and the timing of the move makes sense for a number of reasons. First, Feliz is still very young, and as I mentioned, the development from a thrower into a pitcher has been somewhat retarded by a prolonged relief stint. Feliz has immense raw arm strength and silky-smooth mechanics and delivery, a rare combination. The command needs work, as do the secondary pitches, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which those deficient components take steps forward when Feliz is placed in a role that encourages flame-throwing, dominating with raw stuff, and a grip-it-and-rip-it attacking mentality.

Secondly, in case you haven’t noticed, the market for young starters with upside is a little pricey. The Rangers have the pieces for trade and the treasure for free agency, but who is available that can match Feliz’s upside, especially when you factor in cost? Every team in baseball covets high-ceiling starting pitching, and every team is a potential player in the market (insert some team-related joke here___. I’ll go first: except the Astros), so it makes an already difficult endeavor even more complicated.

Another factor to consider is the Rangers’ recent success in reliever-starter conversion, even in a limited scope. Every arm is unique, and every conversion is unique, but the decision-makers, evaluators, and coaches with boots on the ground have established a good track record when it comes to recognizing (or acquiescing to) the skills necessary skills to make the transition. They know these players better than we do. I’m not always a fan of this mentality, but when it comes to internal development and decisions, the team is almost always working with information we don’t have access to or an understanding of. If you trust your team’s decision-makers (speaking directly to Rangers’ fans: the team that has made two straight World Series appearances), trust in the evaluation and development process. They aren’t trying to make foolish decisions. (Insert team joke here ___.)

So what could Feliz become? An ace? It’s unlikely, but how many aces actually exist at any given time? 10. Less?  At the top of his developmental arc, I believe Feliz could become a quality number-two starter on a championship-level team. That’s a damn fine ceiling. I’ve been adamant in the past that his best role is in the ‘pen, and that might be the case in the long run. But given his potential value in a rotation, I think attempting the conversion is a good idea. Feliz needs to throw pitches and log innings to refine his command and re-stimulate growth of his secondary offerings. He needs to learn situational pitching, to pace his fastball for sustainability, and to use his fastball to set up his off-speed offerings multiple times through an order.

These developments don’t come when you are in the pressure cooker of a ninth-inning role, and they won’t come overnight. Feliz could make a seamless transition, like success stories C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando, but I think he might stumble more given his present deficiencies. But it could prove to be worth the extra patience if Feliz’s ceiling trumps the ceiling of the aforementioned outcomes, even if he requires a dip back into the minor-league pool.

 The rest of the third act will play out in the coming months and seasons, and I look forward to the speculation, consternation, and fan ejaculation that occurs along the way. The Rangers have an arm that, even in failure, can provide a future; Feliz can always pitch out of the bullpen. But it’s smart to make every effort to extract ultimate value from a player, and given the track record of those in command of the conversion, success isn’t just a cute dream based on one special attribute. Physically, Feliz is as talented as they come, and even though his command might limit his ceiling, his raw stuff can still encourage a Pavlovian response. Mentally, Feliz can handle any role. He’s not the most vocal man in the world, and he certainly doesn’t promote his own leadership qualities, but the absence of certain intangible qualities in sports culture isn’t indicative of their actual existence. The Rangers are telling people that they exist within Feliz by making this move, whether the move proves to bear a starter’s fruit or not.   

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  A's,  Rangers,  Neftali Feliz,  Triple-A,  Rotation,  Fastball

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