What Happens To Neftali Feliz?
By Jared Book
The side story to Roy Oswalt becoming a Texas Ranger is that Neftali Feliz will probably lose his spot in the rotation even when he comes back from injury. Now, this shouldn’t be seen as a demotion. Feliz will likely be the set-up guy as otherwise having Joe Nathan would be pointless, but he would be able to pick up saves as well.
Now, a lot of people are saying either this is good to save his arm or this is horrible because it will limit his value. Closers do tend to grow on trees. Yes, that’s the narrative. But they don’t really. At least not good ones. It has been well documented that at least half of the 30 closers to start the season as such have lost their jobs due to injury or to bad performance. But the elite ones – Craig Kimbrel, John Axford, and others are fine.
Neftali Feliz is an elite closer. Since 1990 (to limit to the current closer usage), Feliz is fifth in saves through age-24. (Sixth if you count Gregg Olson who was a modern closer but started his career prior to 1990). But, Feliz is unique in that group. Huston Street, Chad Cordero and Olson never started a game in the minors prior to their Major League debut. They were drafted and brought up as relievers. Byung-Hyun Kim started 10 of his 47 minor league games and went back to starting after he couldn’t close anymore. Turned out he actually couldn’t really pitch anymore. The top person on that list is Francisco Rodriguez. What’s interesting about Rodriguez is that he actually started the closest percentage of games next to Feliz in that list. Rodriguez started 42/96 minor league games but the Angels made him a reliever in the minors. He didn’t start in his last 50 minor league games and famously came up in 2002 and was the heir to Troy Percival’s throne. Feliz started 54/80 minor league games, but only 13 of his last 25 in AAA in 2009. The Rangers made him a reliever then and he came up in 2010 and became the team’s closer.
So, the track record around Feliz on this list is not too impressive. Kim and Cordero retired before young major leaguers usually should retire. Olson dealt with injuries. Street and Rodriguez both have pretty solid careers but are at different stages.
The fact is, Feliz is more useful healthy as reliever than injured as a starter. It will never be known whether Feliz’s injury is because he has been a starter. But the fact is, he was only on the disabled list once before, April of last year, with shoulder inflammation (this time it is elbow inflammation or a strain). If the Rangers can limit Feliz’s injury by having him as a reliever, why not. Come playoff time, he may not have even been in the playoff rotation anyways.
So, Oswalt is probably going to be more reliable than Feliz has been, and the Rangers still have Feliz. He may be worth less as a reliever, but he can be just as important.