The Rangers made a move that will help to shape their ballclub in 2012 on Monday. The club from Texas signed Joe Nathan to a 2-year deal worth $15 million (with a club option for a third year). What does this deal mean for Nathan, and more importantly, the young arm that has filled the role of closer for the Rangers the past couple of seasons?
Nathan was brought into Texas to close. The 37 year old reliever, coming back off Tommy John surgery last season, pitched just 44.2 innings with a 4.84 ERA in 2011 which might cause many to wonder what the Rangers were thinking here. What they realized was that Nathan looked just like his old self in the second half of the season – a very common occurrence for pitchers coming back from TJ surgery who often need some time to round back into shape. Nathan posted the following numbers over his last 24 outings last year: 8.61 K/9, 4.40 K/BB, 1.00 WHIP with a .207 batting average against. That was good enough for the Rangers to believe Nathan will be in 2012 what he was every year from 2004-09, and that was an elite relief pitcher (in those six seasons Nathan’s lowest save total was 36). Nathan was brought in to close for the Rangers in 2012, and he should be very successful in that role.
Now we have to deal with the aftermath of that signing, and that is what happens to Neftali Feliz, who racked up 72 saves the past two years? Teams realize that it’s much easier to find someone to pitch one inning out of the bullpen than it is to find a hurler who can dominate out of the rotation every five days. As such, the plan has always been for Feliz to start for the Rangers. Given the success that the Rangers had in converting C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando into starters the past two years, they clearly have a nice blueprint in place to help aid their hurlers in that transition. The move of Feliz into the rotation might also be an admission that the Rangers do not feel confident that they will be able to retain Wilson who is the top free agent arm on the market.
So what should you expect from Feliz in 2012? Good question. While the move to the rotation will likely reap major rewards at some point, it’s tough to see how he could become a dominant starter this coming season. There are a couple of reasons for that.
(1) A youngster at 23 years old, Feliz has thrown a total of 132.2 innings the past two years for the Rangers. Given that smallish workload, there are serious questions about how far the Rangers will let Feliz go in 2012. Ogando transitioned to the starting rotation and threw 169 innings in 2011 (Wilson was allowed to go 204 innings, but he was much older and had five years of big league experience under his belt). If Feliz was allowed to reach that rather modest total of 170 innings that would be 100 innings more than he has thrown in either of the last two seasons. That’s a huge increase. Given the importance of pitching in the game, and repeated instances of young hurlers having arm issues with major innings pitched increases, Feliz could be looking at a late season shut down, or periodic skipping of starts throughout the year to keep the innings under control.
(2) Feliz effortlessly tosses 96 mph cheese at hitters and that has led to an impressive 164 Ks in 162.2 innings in his career. However, his K-rate fell from 11.32 as a rookie down to 9.22 in 2010 and then 7.80 last season. If he could only strike out 7.80 batters per nine as a reliever last season, how many will he punch out when he is stretched out as a starter?
(3) After posting a BB/9 mark under 2.35 his first two years, Feliz saw that number explode in 2011 up to 4.33. If he can’t bring his walk rate back down, success will be elusive, especially if he repeats his awful 1.80 K/BB ratio from last season.
Let’s add everything up. Granted we’re talking only three years here, and with no season of even 70-innings it’s not a huge sample size, but in the following categories Feliz has seen his performance regress each of the past two years: ERA, WHIP, K/9, BB/9, K/BB, BAA, BABIP, LOB%, xFIP. Is that a trend you wanted to see?
Nathan will be fine as the Rangers’ closer, and barring a physical setback, he should be good to go with his normal 35 saves. As for Feliz, his outlook is less clear. There is no disputing that he has an elite arm, and that one day he could easily vie for the Cy Young award. Still, given his almost across the board struggles last year, and the fact that he’s never thrown 70-innings in a big league season, I’m not going to be one of those folks out there paying for a hurler that I expect to pitch 200 innings with 180 strikeouts and an ERA in the mid 3′s.
By Ray Flowers