Spring postcard: Feliz's role one of few questions for lethal Rangers
Neftali Feliz won AL Rookie of the Year as a closer but projects as a starter
Adrian Beltre has been signed to give the offense a significant boost
Chris Davis is having another terrific spring but can he carry it into the season?
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Three observations after spending a few days in Rangers camp.
Rangers GM Jon Daniels expressed a couple of concerns related to his young fireballer, should he open the season as a starter. One was the need for an innings limit, to protect his arm -- "160, 170 maybe" Daniels said -- and the other had to do with Feliz's ability to consistently exploit his full repertoire of pitches. "He's got a fastball, a changeup and a curveball," Daniels said. "His changeup's really good. His breaking ball is the one that he works on the most."
The above constituted Daniels' concerns not this spring, but last spring, a full year ago. Feliz, of course, ended up in the bullpen, and it all worked out rather well. The 22-year-old saved 40 games (plus one in the World Series), struck out more than one batter per inning and was named the AL Rookie of the Year. All of that made it easy to forget that Feliz was in the running to join last season's rotation, and that the long-range plan has always been for him to start, as he did in 53 of 79 outings as a minor leaguer. Feliz seemed to have forgotten it himself. This spring, initially anyway, he said that if it were up to him, he'd like to close.
"What he said is he's most comfortable as the closer, which I would be too," Daniels says now. "He was an All-Star, went to the writers' banquet and got the Rookie of the Year award. He knows he's most likely to be dominant in that one role, and the other's a bit of a question mark."
It is a question the Rangers owe it to both themselves and Feliz to answer definitively this year. While C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis proved to be solid starters somewhat out of nowhere in 2010, neither seems to have quite the stuff to become a dominant ace who will undoubtedly start Game 1 of every playoff series if he's available, as was the case with departed free agent Cliff Lee. That is the type of pitcher the Rangers, a favorite to get back to the postseason, need, and Feliz is the most likely current Ranger to become that pitcher. It would be foolish to ink him in for 70 innings a year, when the club could get 180-plus instead. "I think any manager would want 180 innings out of a body and a talent of that caliber," says manager Ron Washington. "But when you have a kid of his age and his inexperience level, you also want to do the very best you can to keep him in his comfort zone. When he's in his comfort zone, you're going to get the results you're looking for."
If any pitcher is adaptable enough to become "an ace out of thin air," in the words of pitcher Darren O'Day, it's Feliz -- even if that means significantly changing his pitch selection (as a closer last season, he threw his fastball more than 82 percent of the time). "Not many people noticed, but last year, about halfway through the year, he started throwing a sinker," O'Day says. "I saw him throwing in the bullpen once and the ball was moving all over the place. I said, 'What the hell are you throwing?' He said, 'I learned a sinker!' Two or three guys hit really slow infield groundballs that day, and his balls are usually hit much harder than that. He was throwing that sinker." In three outings so far this spring (through Thursday) -- two starts, with each lasting between two and four innings -- Feliz has allowed a total of one run.
Feliz's conversion to a starter would, of course, weaken a Rangers bullpen that was the AL's second-best (3.38 ERA) during the 2010 regular season, but struggled during the club's playoff run, when it had a 5.19 ERA to the rotation's 3.04. "It's a tough deal to take a strength away from the club like that," says Daniels of Feliz. "You're fighting perception a little, fighting conventional wisdom -- the thought of, if it's not broke, don't fix it." (Indeed, this from Mariners reliever Brandon League, on the potential move: "If something's not broken, why fix it, is my thinking.").
Even so, the Rangers' roster does possess at least two power-arm types, either of whom could become a proficient closer: Mark Lowe, a 27-year-old who was acquired from the Mariners along with Cliff Lee last July, and who is now fully recovered from the back surgery that led him to make only 14 appearances in 2010; and Alexi Ogando, 27, who in '10 had a 1.30 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings in his first season as a major leaguer.
The bullpen was further fortified by the signing of free-agent lefty Arthur Rhodes in December to a one-year, $3.9 million contract. Rhodes is 41 and a veteran of 19 seasons, but he was a first-time All-Star as a Red in 2010 and has finished with an ERA of 2.53 or lower in four of his past five full seasons. "He just chews hitters up," says Washington. "Throws all his pitches for strikes, down in the zone, [doesn't] waste anything."
The relief corps could also benefit from the fact that a number of varyingly talented starters -- including Derek Holland, Scott Feldman, Matt Harrison and Michael Kirkman -- might not make the rotation, and could be shifted to the bullpen. All of this is to say that even without Feliz, the 'pen should be fine.
The Rangers should expect to improve upon last season's regular-season output of 787 runs -- fifth most in the majors, yes, but the club's second-lowest total since 1995 -- due, in part, to the additions of third baseman Adrian Beltre (via free agency) and catcher Mike Napoli (via trade). Beltre hit 28 home runs with 102 RBIs with the Red Sox in 2010, while Rangers third basemen totaled 21 and 89. Napoli hit 26 homers with 68 RBIs with the Angels last season; the Rangers' five catchers combined for 13 and 59. The loss of free agent Vladimir Guerrero should not prove to be too detrimental, as Guerrero tailed off significantly during last season's second half, and Michael Young (.871 OPS against lefties) and David Murphy (.847 against righties) should make for a fine DH platoon.
The offense should also improve because the club has to expect that the heart of its lineup -- Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz -- will be healthier than last year, when that trio missed an average of 47 games. Of course, any manager will say that an avoidance of injury will be his club's primary key (this is why, when you ask a skipper to discuss such keys, it's best to add the proviso "besides health"), and Washington is no exception. "We got a target now," he says. "Our boys better stay healthy." There is no reason, at this point, to expect that Hamilton, Kinsler and Cruz won't in 2011 average at least, say, 140 games. And that -- and a pitching staff that should remain, at worst, above-average -- is why there is no reason to expect that the Rangers won't again challenge for the AL West crown.
Brandon Webb, SP
As a Diamondback, Webb had a major league-high 56 wins, a 3.13 ERA and three top-two NL Cy Young finishes from 2006-08. Since then, he has thrown a total of 77 major league pitches, all coming on Opening Day in 2009, due to ongoing shoulder trouble.
Even so, Jon Daniels' office wasn't the only one to court Webb, a free agent, early this offseason; the Reds, Cubs and Nationals were also after him. But it was the Rangers' enthusiasm that won out, and that translated to his signing of a one-year, $3 million deal on Dec. 27 (with $5 million more in potential performance and roster bonuses). "I felt after talking to J.D. and [assistant GM] Thad Levine that it was the place for me," Webb says. "They sold me that they really wanted me here, and I didn't get that from the other teams."
"That's good to know," says Daniels. "In talking to him, I felt like he had something to prove, which is always good." Webb likely won't be ready to start the season, but he could soon thereafter be injected into the Rangers rotation. The results could be very good, as his sinker should be extremely effective with the club's skilled infield behind him and in a home run-friendly ballpark.
Chris Davis, 1B/3B
The third base job should belong to Beltre, at minimum, for the next five years. First base ought to belong to 25-year-old Mitch Moreland, who as a rookie hit .348 in the playoffs (and .462 against the otherwise all but unhittable Giants in the World Series) and who, after gaining over the winter what is said to be 15 pounds of muscle, had an OPS of 1.086 through his first 39 spring at-bats. That leaves Davis as the odd man out, though he is hitting better that even Moreland this spring: His OPS is 1.236, with a .405 batting average, three home runs and 11 RBIs through Thursday.
Davis, though, always hits well during the exhibition season. In 2009, he batted .304; in 2010, .384. He followed up those springs with regular season averages of .238 and .192. A reason for that, suggests one scout, is the nature of the pitches that Davis, 25, sees during spring training, particularly early on. "You don't want to put a whole lot of importance on what happens in the spring, as starting pitchers aren't using their whole repertoires," the scout says. "Chris Davis, he kills fastballs, but he has a tough time handling breaking stuff. That's why his strikeout rate has been as high as it's been, and his average so low, along with not great plate discipline."
The Rangers would be best served to trade Davis -- a potential development he apparently wouldn't mind -- for pitching help (possibly even a potential closer) as soon as they can, before pitchers start throwing him their best curves and sliders. It is, of course, possible that Davis has figured out how to be a productive regular-season hitter, but the Rangers have a surplus of those, and they shouldn't wait to find out. If Davis reverts to his old ways, his trade value will immediately plummet, perhaps for good.
The Rangers sent top outfield prospect Engel Beltre -- at 21, the youngest player in camp -- down to Double-A on March 12, thereby making things somewhat easier on their equipment managers. At camp's beginning, the clubhouse contained a trio of Beltres: Not only Engel and Adrian, but 29-year-old reliever Omar Beltre, too. ... Young, the 34-year-old second baseman-turned-shortstop-turned-third baseman, and the club's longest-tenured member, continues to be unhappy with the Rangers' current plan for him -- to make him a (perhaps) part-time DH -- though Daniels remains in no rush to trade him. "For something to change, we feel as it it'd have to improve the team, improve the organization," says Daniels. Young, while disgruntled, has not been disruptive, off or on the field: through 28 spring at-bats, he was hitting .393 with an on-base percentage of .500. ... During a brief walkthrough the Rangers' complex last week, Daniels, 33, was once and again stopped by autograph-seeking fans. (He signs his full first name, Jonathan.) At each stop, a crowd formed around him. "That's new, by the way," he said. "I've signed a couple in the past, but no one really waited on me." Another result of being the architect of a winner.
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