Texas would be wise to pull trigger, convert Feliz from closer to ace
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Far too much noise has been reserved for the Michael Young saga, as if it were baseball's incarnation of the NBA's Melo-drama. For one, as one GM who has inquired about the Rangers third baseman put it, "I never got the sense they are motivated to trade him. It was more window-shopping than anything else." For another, it's not even the most important story in Texas' camp.
The Rangers are serious about looking at Neftali Feliz to replace Cliff Lee as the staff ace. Taking the record holder for most saves by a rookie (40) out of the closer's role has been viewed by some observers as an unnecessary and risky move. It's neither.
In fact, it's an obvious move and Texas would be negligent not to try it.
"We may have a frontline starter right here in our own camp," Texas general manager Jon Daniels said. "It's extremely difficult to acquire a pitcher like that, and if you do, the cost is extreme. We always viewed Neftali as someone with the ability to start. Why wait two, three years to find that out?"
There is nothing more valuable in baseball than a cost-controlled frontline starting pitcher. It's important to remember that Feliz was groomed as a starting pitcher and became a closer only out of the club's necessity last April, not because he lacked the repertoire, body type or pitching intellect to be an ace. In fact, in 27 starts in the minors in 2008, Feliz was 10-6 with a 2.69 ERA, 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings and three strikeouts for every walk.
This is not another Joba Chamberlain, whose medicals coming out of college, temperament and pitchability profiled more to the bullpen or middle of the rotation than to ace. Feliz has a plus-plus fastball, plus-plus breaking ball and a decent changeup that needs rust removal this spring after mostly becoming superfluous in short outings as a closer last year.
Feliz's fastball and breaking ball are so good, and feature enough separation in velocity, that the changeup will not define his success as a starter any more than it does for pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw, Phil Hughes or, if you want to use an extreme example, a young Dwight Gooden.
It seems that manager Ron Washington would be perfectly happy to keep Feliz as a closer, and who could blame him? Managers, who worry about the next game more than player development, like the feeling of security that a closer provides. They cannot be second-guessed for using a "proven" closer. Without Feliz at the back end of his bullpen, Washington would have to make do with Alexi Ogando or Mark Lowe (combined big league saves: four) or whatever reliever Daniels can pick up by way of a trade.
But putting Feliz in the rotation -- and doing so with the possibility of having an ace, not just a rotation-filler -- is all about value assessment, and when one performs that exercise it becomes obvious where Feliz is most valuable. Here are some of the reasons why the Rangers need to try the switch:
This is especially true compared to the value of a starter. It is also true because of the often meaningless save statistic, because managers are slaves to the ridiculously named "save" stat and because the media love the drama, however phony it often may be, of the ninth inning. The Closer Starter Kit includes such prop items as the heavy metal walk-in music, the risible hair (atop the head or on the face), the throwing at maximum velocity and the celebration of finishing games that most of the time could be closed out by just about anybody.
The invention of the specialized closer, the guy who starts the ninth inning with nobody on base, really hasn't changed much about the rate at which teams hold leads. Teams that take a two-run lead into the ninth inning win about 94 percent of the time, and with a three-run lead win about 96 percent of the time.
Granted, some pitchers are not comfortable with the pressure of running the anchor leg of the bullpen and throw much freer in the eighth than the ninth. But many guys are. Thirty saves sounds like a lot, right? Well, consider how easy it is to find a guy who can save 30 games
That's not the number of times that those thresholds have been reached; it's the number of pitchers to reach them, and the 30-save closer group includes such names as Rocky Biddle, Derrick Turnbow, Danny Kolb and Shawn Chacon. Basically, it's twice as easy to find a guy to save 30 games as it is to find a frontline starter.
That list does not include John Axford, just one of the many rags-to-closer tales. Axford underwent Tommy John surgery in 2004, was signed in 2006 by the Yankees as an undrafted free agent, was released one year later, signed with Milwaukee after spring training camps opened in 2008, and finally made it to the big leagues last year -- his first time on a 40-man roster -- at age 26. He promptly saved 24 games while replacing the all-time saves leader and all-time find-a-closer story, Trevor Hoffman, a converted infielder who had bounced among three organizations by the time he was 25.
Of the past 20 World Series teams, seven -- or roughly one out of every three pennant winners for a decade -- found their World Series closer
Where do closers come from? Mostly from other teams, if not metaphorically from the sky. You can't say that about frontline starters, who almost always are homegrown high draft picks. If you're waiting for an ace to shake loose, you might have a long wait -- unless you're the Phillies, who somehow have that market cornered.
Take a look at the demographic breakdown of the top closers and starters from 2010 -- the 20 closers with at least 25 saves and the 20 starters with an ERA of 3.14 or better:
Maybe Ogando is the next Feliz. Maybe Lowe is the next Heath Bell. Or maybe the Rangers can trade for the next Rocky Biddle.
Closers are not as important as the narrative suggests, because managers use them too often in low-leverage situations, such as getting three outs when up by three runs just to pad the closer's save total.
Critics will argue that Feliz should stay in the bullpen because of those 40 saves. But just how valuable were those 40 saves? Feliz made 70 appearances last year. Throw out those games in which teams win at least 94 percent of the time. In only 27 of those 70 games did Feliz pitch with the game tied or when protecting a one-run lead in the ninth inning or later. In four of those games he gave up the tiebreaking run or blew the lead.
So now, out of those 70 games, you are down to 23 games in which Felix made a major impact -- about 10 fewer games than he would get as a full-time starter.
If the Rangers leave Feliz as a closer, they will end up paying an exorbitant amount of money for a guy who throws only 70 innings, the majority of which are not high-leverage.
In short, would you rather have the next Jonathan Papelbon or the next Cole Hamels? The Red Sox will pay Papelbon $27.6 million for his first three arbitration years -- or $7.1 million more than what the Phillies will pay Hamels -- while the Red Sox get about 400 fewer innings for their money. Here is the value scorecard so far for Papelbon vs. Hamels (2009-10):
At least Boston will sometimes give the ball to Papelbon in the eighth inning. Still, of his 131 appearances over the past two years, 47 began when Boston was tied or up by one run, or 36 percent of the time. (Feliz was at 39 percent last year.)
The Red Sox didn't have much of an option with Papelbon. They didn't think that he would hold up physically to 200-inning seasons. Mariano Rivera didn't hold up well as a starter.
But pitchers with a good complement of pitches and with the frame and medical history to start maximize their value as starters. Rivera, the greatest closer now or ever, never has earned the average annual value paid to starters such as Jason Schmidt, John Lackey and A.J. Burnett.
The excess attention given to Chamberlain and his troubles shuttling between the rotation and bullpen have clouded the obviousness of this truth. Far less attention was given to how the Cardinals handled Adam Wainwright.
Wainwright pitched out of the bullpen in 2006 and wound up replacing the injured Jason Isringhausen as the St. Louis closer in the postseason. The Cardinals won the World Series with Wainwright as their closer -- the alpha version of Feliz. Did the Cardinals believe it was unnecessary or risky to move him from the closer's role? No, they put him right into the rotation the next year.
How did it work out? Until he blew out his elbow this spring (a pitching time bomb for Wainwright, no matter his usage) and since he was put into the rotation, Wainwright had the lowest ERA (2.93) of any regular starter except Roy Halladay and more wins (64) than anybody but CC Sabathia (76), Halladay (74) and Justin Verlander (66). He would have been wasted as a closer.
Similarly, the Rays did not keep David Price in the bullpen after he emerged as a postseason closer in 2008. They knew that he was more valuable as a starter, even though, like the Rangers this spring, they had no obvious closer to replace him. They wound up using J.P. Howell, a 26-year-old left-hander with three career saves whom they picked up three years earlier in a minor trade with the Royals.
The Braves had Smoltz as their closer for four postseasons (2001-04). Smoltz would become frustrated with his inability to impact a game or even a series the way he did as a starting pitcher. Too many events would have to break just the right way for Smoltz to get a chance to impact a postseason game.
Smoltz was the closer for 23 postseason games in those years. Only twice in those 23 games was he called on to protect a one-run lead. He came in once with the game tied, five times with a lead of three runs or greater and three times with his team trailing.
On the other hand, Smoltz started 27 postseason games for the Braves. Atlanta was 17-10 in those games, a .630 winning percentage.
The Rangers got a glimpse of the Smoltz Factor last year. Of the 15 postseason games for Texas, Feliz had one save opportunity. He pitched seven times --
So give Texas some credit here. The Rangers know what they're doing. And it doesn't matter much how Feliz looks this spring -- are they really going to blow up the trial if he doesn't throw great changeups in notoriously hitter-friendly Arizona in a tiny sample size? He deserves the time to condition his arm and his windup at least through several turns of the rotation into the regular season.
There is, however, one catch to the switch. Feliz is 22 years old and has thrown 69 1/3 and 77 1/3 innings in the past two seasons. He is not ready to carry the workload of an ace because the bullpen use has slowed his development. He did throw 127 1/3 innings in 2008, so Texas could probably push him into the 150-160 range this year. That kind of schedule could mean giving him extra days of rest and skipping starts, similar to how Detroit limited Rick Porcello to 27 starts and 162 2/3 innings in 2009.
In any case, the Rangers have to try the switch now. Delaying it another year only will make the transition harder, and in the meantime waste the possibility of finding the next Verlander, Wainwright or Price right in their own camp.