The Future of Feliz

Feliz
Neftali Feliz is still just 25 years old.  Let that sink in for a moment.

He’s been gone for so long, it seems more like he’s bound to be close to 30 by now.  The last time Feliz pitched in a major league game was May 18, 2012.  That was a year and three months ago.  Just how long ago was that?  Not only was Josh Hamilton still a Ranger, he was actually still productive (.392/.444/.804).

Feliz struck out six Astros in that game, but only lasted 4.2 innings, because he walked five of them.  There was no mention of an injury at the time, with Feliz saying after the game that he simply was “frustrated” by his lack of command.

It wasn’t until three days later that the Rangers announced they were placing Feliz on the 15-day DL with what was described as a right elbow strain.  Those 15 days ended up turning into almost 500, after that elbow strain was rediagnosed as a sprained UCL, and a subsequent series of attempted rehab appearances led to Tommy John surgery last August.

Feliz has been out of sight and out of mind for so long now, that it’s easy to forget he was the American League Rookie of the Year just three seasons ago in 2010, when he set the major league record for saves by a rookie with 40.  After another solid campaign as closer for the Rangers the following season in 2011, in which he posted 32 saves, the Rangers decided to try converting him to a starter.

Many blame his injury on that attempted conversion, and most feel regardless of that injury, he was ineffective as a starter.  But if you go back and look at the numbers, it’s not so clear cut.  In the seven starts he made last year before his injury, Feliz posted a 3-1 record with an ERA of 3.16 – not exactly terrible, and on the surface, actually pretty good.

But a closer look reveals that he only averaged slightly more than 5.2 innings per start, while walking 23 and coughing up five home runs.  That’s not exactly the formula for long-term sustainability as a successful starting pitcher.

So, as Feliz is finally about to make his long, long-awaited return to the mound in a Rangers uniform (he is expected to be activated from the DL on Sunday, September 1), what is his future with this team?

At least for now, he’s certainly headed back to his original home in the bullpen, though not in his previous role as closer.  The remainder of 2013 is about getting him reacclimated to facing big league hitters again, and gradually increasing the leverage of situations in which he’s placed.

If the Rangers make the playoffs, how he’ll be used will likely be a byproduct of how well he pitches during September.  He hasn’t yet regained his velocity, but that should eventually return in time as he continues to strengthen and regain his earlier form.  The likely best-case scenario is that he could be used in the 7th inning as a bridge to whoever is in the setup role at that point, be it Soria, Scheppers, Ross, or a committee of those three.

The most interesting development will come this offseason, as Jon Daniels, Ron Washington, and Mike Maddux try to determine the ideal role for Feliz moving forward.  The best-case scenario would be for him to eventually return to his role as closer, but what seems most likely at this point is he’ll probably be the setup man for next year’s probable closer: Joakim Soria.

Let’s just all hope and pray the worst-case scenario (Feliz never returning to form) doesn’t come to pass, because it would be downright tragic for a career once so blindingly bright to be extinguished so quickly.  The Rangers have overcome the odds all season so far, and it would be that much sweeter if Nefti’s return could be a success and help contribute to a third deep playoff run in four years.

ob Bland is a Staff Writer for ShutDownInning. He can be reached at Bob.Bland@ShutDownInning.com or  on Twitter @SDIBob.
Bob Bland

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