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January 8, 2013

Western Front

What Will Become of Neftali Feliz?

by Geoff Young

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Neftali Feliz enjoyed early big-league success as a reliever, then was moved into the rotation and got hurt. In a recent chat, reader AJ wondered what might become of Feliz, who had Tommy John surgery last August and is on-target for a return in the second half of 2013. My answer waffled, but I mentioned the risk of making such a conversion.

In the chat, I cited Byung-Hyun Kim as a cautionary tale. Have there been others?

After trying several criteria, I settled on all pitchers who had made at least 150 big-league appearances by age 24, with 95 percent of games as a reliever but at least one start. This yields 13 names, which we'll call Group A:

Player

Years

G

GS

IP

ERA+

Neftali Feliz

2009-2012

162

7

205.1

169

Byung-Hyun Kim

1999-2003

292

13

402.1

144

Oscar Villarreal

2003-2006

172

5

222.0

130

Lance McCullers

1985-1988

229

7

392.0

125

Mike Jackson

1986-1989

191

7

321.1

124

Mitch Williams

1986-1989

308

1

356.1

121

Willie Hernandez

1977-1979

172

3

248.2

110

Shane Rawley

1978-1980

159

5

309.1

109

Neil Allen

1979-1982

202

5

327.2

106

Felix Heredia

1996-1999

217

2

184.0

90

Omar Daal

1993-1996

163

6

156.1

90

Larry Bearnarth

1963-1966

171

7

319.2

88

Dave Beard

1980-1984

161

2

257.2

84

Is this list perfect? No. Kim was a submariner; he and McCullers worked a lot more innings; Williams worked a lot of games; he and four others were southpaws; Bearnarth retired more than 30 years ago and wasn't good.

Still, it's a starting point. There are other ways to examine this question, but given that we already know Feliz is a terrific pitcher, the focus here is on durability rather than quality.

Byung-Hyun Kim
Kim came up at age 20 and served as part-time closer the following year. By age 23, he was one of the most dominant closers in baseball. On the heels of a 36-save season he moved into the Arizona rotation and made seven starts before being shipped to Boston, where he returned to his more familiar role. From age 25 to the end of his big-league career at age 28, Kim worked mostly as a starter for four teams, posting a 5.50 ERA. He made five trips to the disabled list for various injuries (including a shoulder strain in 2004, at age 25) during his career.

Oscar Villarreal
After primarily starting in the minors (most of these guys did, so this is the last time I'll mention it), Villarreal made his debut in 2003 at age 21, getting into 86 games for the Diamondbacks. His numbers were great, but the workload may have been too much for someone who had never pitched in more than 27 games in a season. He missed most of 2004 due to elbow surgery and most of 2005 with rotator cuff issues. Villarreal returned to pitch three more seasons before undergoing Tommy John surgery and spending the last three years in Triple-A bullpens. His last big-league game came in July 2008, when he was 26.

Lance McCullers
“Baby Goose” made 21 relief appearances for the Padres in 1985 and impressed enough to be anointed Rich Gossage's successor as closer. That never quite happened, although McCullers did enjoy a few good years in San Diego before being traded to the Yankees and quickly fading. He was pretty healthy until July 1990, when he landed on the DL with a blood clot in the artery of his right shoulder. It eventually required surgery that cost him all of 1991. McCullers made five appearances for Texas in 1992 at age 28, then spent the next season getting shelled at Triple-A Calgary in the Mariners organization before retiring.

Mike Jackson
If you're looking for a reason to believe in Feliz's future, Jackson might be it. He made at least 62 appearances in every non-strike-shortened season from ages 23 through 34. Other than five trips to the DL from 1993 to 1995, he enjoyed good health. Jackson sat out his age-35 campaign due to labrum surgery, returned for two more full seasons, missed another (not injury-related), and got into 45 games for the White Sox at age 39 in 2004. Jackson retired with 1,005 games to his credit (14th all-time in MLB history) and a 126 ERA+. Feliz should be so lucky.

Mitch Williams
 “Wild Thing” pitched often (71 games per year from ages 21 to 28) and well (118 ERA+) for eight seasons despite having zero control (6.8 BB/9). Then he gave up a famous home run to end the 1993 World Series, was traded that December, and then released the following May at age 29. He made a couple of more stabs at a comeback, but those didn't work. After a three-year absence, Williams got into 11 games for Atlantic City of the independent Atlantic League at age 36, and five more the following season.

Willie Hernandez
Hernandez worked out of the bullpen for the Cubs at age 22 and continued in that capacity for the rest of his career. He pitched at least 45 games every year except 1981 and 1989. He also won the AL Cy Young and MVP in 1984, back when notching 32 saves and pitching 140 innings in the same season was possible. After missing all of 1990, Hernandez toiled in Triple-A at age 36 and again at age 40.

Shane Rawley
Rawley spent his first four years working mostly in relief for Seattle. He wasn't great, although he led the Mariners with 13 saves in 1980, at age 24. The Yankees traded for Rawley before the 1982 season and kept him in the bullpen until July, when they moved him to the rotation, where he remained for the rest of his career. He averaged 30 starts a year from age 27 to his final season at age 33, never making fewer than 23 in any year.

Neil Allen
The Mets' nominal closer from 1980 to 1982, Allen lost his job the next year at age 25, was traded to the Cardinals for Keith Hernandez, and moved into the St. Louis rotation. He worked mostly out of the bullpen for the next two years, then became more of a swingman at ages 28 and 29, during which time he suffered various arm and leg injuries. After rebounding as a reliever for the Yankees in 1988, he pitched three terrible innings for Cleveland (and broke his hand while “moving a trunk in his hotel room”), spending most of 1989 and part of 1990 at Triple-A before retiring at age 32.

Felix Heredia
Heredia was a durable if marginal LOOGY from ages 21 to 28. He pitched poorly for the Yankees at age 29 and made three final big-league appearances for the Mets a year later before missing the remainder of 2005 with a shoulder aneurysm (he reportedly had “battled numbness in his left hand for more than five years”). Heredia spent a few years starting in the Mexican League and retired from summer ball in 2009 at age 34, though he did get into some Winter League games in 2010 and 2011.

Omar Daal
Daal took the Rawley path, albeit in a more roundabout way. Used almost exclusively as a reliever from ages 21 to 25, Daal was not good (80 ERA+ in 205 games). He enjoyed immediate success on moving into the Arizona rotation in 1998, had a second good season the next year at age 27, fell apart, rebounded with two mediocre seasons, then stunk again at age 31 before rotator cuff problems struck. Before that, he stayed healthy enough to pitch nearly 1,200 innings over parts of 11 seasons.

Larry Bearnarth
Bearnarth spent most of his age 21-24 seasons in the big leagues because that's where the Mets played in the early-'60s and they needed arms. By the time he was 25, they were content to lose 101 games without his services, as he pitched for their Triple-A club that season and the next three. Bearnarth got into two games for another recent expansion team, the Brewers, in 1971. After three more the following year in Triple-A at age 30, he retired, later becoming the Rockies' first pitching coach.

Dave Beard
After pitching well as Oakland's closer at age 22, Beard flopped in that role the next year and missed a month with a shoulder strain. Then he went to Seattle and pitched poorly there at age 24, missing 5 ½ weeks with an elbow strain. Beard worked nine games for the Cubs at age 25 and two more for the Tigers at age 29. He spent the years in between in the minors and/or out of baseball. Beard was neither good nor healthy but makes for a nice retroactive cautionary tale: He worked a combined 376 innings at ages 18 and 19, completing 31 of his 49 starts. Maybe that wasn't such a great idea.

* * *

I mentioned trying different criteria to find matches for Feliz. Here's one based on his performance through age 23, before he became a starter. Including Feliz, seven guys had pitched in at least 150 games by that age without making any starts (call this Group B):

Player

Years

G

IP

ERA+

Chad Cordero

2003-2005

155

168.0

184

Francisco Rodriguez

2002-2005

199

243.0

180

Neftali Feliz

2009-2011

154

162.2

177

Huston Street

2005-2007

184

199.0

170

Jonathan Broxton

2005-2007

165

172.0

150

Matt Capps

2005-2007

165

163.2

144

Victor Cruz

1978-1981

170

246.0

125

Overall, these are better pitchers (average 2.76 ERA, 9.4 K/9 vs. 3.62 ERA, 7.1 K/9) than those in Group A. But the question remains: How did they fare in the future? Most are still active, so we can't reach definitive conclusions, but they're still worth examining.

Chad Cordero
Unlike the members of Group A, Cordero was strictly a reliever, even back to his college days. He was terrific through age 25, then tore his labrum and has pitched 14 big-league innings since. Cordero split 2011 between the PCL and the independent American Association, posting a 9.89 ERA in 16 games. He did not pitch last year, in what would have been his age-30 season.

Francisco Rodriguez
Here's a success story—so far. Rodriguez was brilliant through most of his 20s before falling off last year at age 30. Even though his numbers were down, he still broke 70 appearances for the fourth time in five seasons. Rodriguez has averaged 68 games a year over his first 10 full seasons and been very effective for most of that time. Aside from a forearm strain in 2005 and a torn ligament in his thumb sustained while fighting with his father-in-law in 2010, he has been healthy. Like Feliz, he once was a top-10 prospect according to Baseball America.

Huston Street
Another college reliever, Street was named American League Rookie of the Year in 2005. He has been good but not great since then. He also has made six trips to the disabled list in the last seven years with a dazzling array of injuries. He'll pitch 2013 as a 29-year-old, but with a lot of wear and tear.

Jonathan Broxton
Broxton averaged 74 very effective appearances through his first four full seasons. At age 26, he got hurt and hid the injury, with his numbers suffering. Elbow surgery the next year limited him to 14 games. Last season he rebounded at age 28, albeit with fewer strikeouts.

Matt Capps
Capps had a decent rookie campaign and followed it with a great sophomore showing. He ran into shoulder trouble the next season at age 24, pitching well when healthy but missing nearly two months. He stayed off the shelf the following year but was terrible. He rebounded in 2010, slumped in 2011, and made only 30 appearances last season due to rotator cuff inflammation. Now 29, Capps has battled injuries and inconsistency throughout his career so far.

Victor Cruz
Cruz had a great half-season at age 20 for Toronto in 1978, then pitched fairly well for Cleveland the two years after that and again for Pittsburgh in the strike-shortened 1981. After spending his entire age-24 campaign at Triple-A (the 98-loss Rangers couldn't find room on their staff for someone with a 3.86 ERA at Denver?), he pitched well in 17 appearances for Texas the following season. After two more lackluster years at Triple-A, Cruz retired at age 27.

* * *

Where Jackson was the lone bright spot in Group A, there are a few in Group B: Rodriguez pitched well and often throughout his 20s but had his worst season last year at age 30. Street has been effective but fragile. Broxton? The Reds signed him to a three-year extension this winter, so they believe.

We don't know how some of these stories will end, but the conventional wisdom about elbows and shoulders appears to apply. The pitchers with short careers had shoulder problems (Kim, Villarreal, McCullers, Beard, Cordero), weren't very good (Bearnarth), or were Cruz. On average, though, relievers who worked as hard as or harder than Feliz at his age continued to pitch for a while:

Group

N

Total

Post-sample

Comments

G

IP

G

IP

A

12

456

812

253

520

Only Villarreal was active (in minors) in 2012

B

6

422

448

249

249

Four pitchers were active in 2012; these totals could rise

If we combine Group A and Group B, Feliz's predecessors have averaged roughly 250 appearances and 430 innings for their careers following the period examined. At the high end, Jackson and Hernandez each worked more than 500 games (Rodriguez should join them this year), while Rawley and Daal each broke 1,000 innings pitched.

If history is any guide (and we don't know that it is), the future doesn't look great for Feliz, but neither does it look terrible. If he had shoulder problems, there might be greater cause for concern. Elbows are a different matter, with a better prognosis. Even if Feliz doesn't pitch much (or well) in 2013, he should be okay after that, although in what capacity and for precisely how long remain to be seen.

4 comments have been left for this article.

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Baseball ProGUESTus: H... (01/08)
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Premium Article Western Front: An Almo... (12/18)
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Premium Article Western Front: Zeroes ... (01/15)
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