The Rangers' early-offseason plans to give closer Neftali Feliz a tryout as a starter haven't changed just because they traded Frank Francisco, the reliever who had been deemed most likely to take over ninth-inning duties if Feliz was moved to the rotation.
Even after dealing Francisco, who saved 25 games for the Rangers in 2009, to the Blue Jays for catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli, Texas management reiterated on Tuesday that Feliz will follow a throwing program that will prepare him to be a starter.
"It will still be decided in spring training," Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine said.
Levine stressed that the club was going to remain open-minded about its options, noting that relievers Darren O'Day, Mark Lowe and Alexi Ogando would be among the other closing candidates. He said the decision would "very much be a collaboration" amongst general manager Jon Daniels, himself, manager Ron Washington, team president and co-owner Nolan Ryan, pitching coach Mike Maddux and bullpen coach Andy Hawkins. It's the same braintrust that decided to convert C.J. Wilson from reliever to starter in 2010, a move that worked wonders for the Rangers as Wilson led the team in wins and the starters in ERA, going 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA.
Feliz, the reigning American League Rookie of the Year, trained as a starter in the minor leagues but has worked exclusively out of the bullpen in the majors, serving as a set-up man in 2009 and Texas' closer in 2010, when he saved 40 games with a 2.73 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings. His 0.88 WHIP was the lowest among all AL pitchers who threw at least 65 innings.
Feliz, who was in New York City this weekend to get his Rookie of the Year award on Saturday night from the BBWAA and be filmed in a motion capture suit for the MLB 2K11 video game on Sunday, told SI.com through an interpreter, "I like to be a closer, but it is the decision of the team. I will do whatever they want."
The 6'3", 215-pound righthanded Feliz projects to be an ace starter because his fastball (which averaged 96.3 mph last year, third among all major-league relievers) is complemented by more than one pitch -- a sharp curveball and a little-used change
"I am working harder on my breaking pitches and try to add a different pitch or two," Feliz said. "I want to work more on my changeup."
A larger repertoire is typically needed for a starter as he goes deeper into games and faces hitters multiple times. Feliz got at least four outs (and as many as eight outs) in 14 of his 20 appearances when he wasn't the closer in 2009. During that season he threw his changeup 10.6 percent of the time, according to data at fangraphs.com. In 2010, when he was the closer, he lasted more than one inning just six times in 70 outings and threw his change on just 3.2 percent of his pitches.
The Rangers may need Feliz in the rotation this year. They lost out on retaining starter Cliff Lee, and while free-agent signing Brandon Webb should help, Texas lacks a dominant starter, which Feliz could be.
During spring training last year, Daniels raved about Feliz's long-term potential, saying, "Based on ability, down the line we think he'll be a top-of-the-rotation starter. He's got three pitches. He's intelligent. He's got effortless delivery and arm action."
Managers are typically geared to winning in the present, while general managers often have a better eye for the future, and that could be the crux of the club's collaborative debate.
In a separate interview earlier this month Levine said, "There is one guy whose last name is Washington who seems to like him pitching in the ninth inning, and we certainly can't fault him for that. At some point we're going to have to pry him away from Washington in the ninth inning and let him pitch in the first inning."
When asked on Sunday if he thought Daniels or Washington would have greater influence in the decision, Feliz said, "Jon Daniels."
Of course, that's just his speculation. Most importantly, the pitcher seems accommodating to either role. "I'm going to be prepared as a starter or as a closer and help the team the most that I can," said Feliz, who says he began throwing at the end of last week.
While Feliz's future will wait to be decided later this spring, there are a few other players who -- unlike the endless speculation surrounding Yankees Derek Jeter and Joba Chamberlain -- actually will try a new position this spring:
He played all but one game of his minor league career in the infield and all but one game of his major league career in the outfield, so Coghlan is used to adjusting. Two years ago he moved from second base to leftfield and won the National League Rookie of the Year award. At the beginning of the winter, the Marlins wanted to try Coghlan at third base (where he played in college at Ole Miss and a little in the minors), but now, after dealing Cameron Maybin to the Padres, they want Coghlan to switch to centerfield even though he's never played a professional inning at the position and despite having a negative-8.0 Ultimate Zone Rating in leftfield.
Detroit is hoping Coke can replicate the success Texas had with moving Wilson moving from the bullpen to the rotation. Coke was a minor league starter who spent the first 157 games of his major league career coming out of the 'pen before starting his most recent game in the final weekend of the season for the Tigers (it didn't go well; Coke allowed five hits and two runs while lasting only 1 2/3 innings). He had spent the year diversifying his arsenal, throwing his changeup 14.9 of all pitches, which was nearly triple the rate he used it in 2008 and '09. That was a result of his changed role; in his previous two seasons with the Yankees he was almost exclusively a lefty specialist but he became and a more versatile set-up man last year with the Tigers. But his facing more righties didn't mean he was any better at getting them out, as he allowed a .276 average and .355 on-base percentage against them. But Detroit desperately wants a lefty starter, a role that Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson have been unable to consistently fill recently.
This pair of former outfielders will both carry first basemen's mitts this year. They each got a small head start on the new position last season -- Lind playing 11 games at first and Hawpe nine -- but will be expected to fill it fulltime this season. Hawpe played 215 games at first in the minors, though none since 2003. For Lind it will essentially be a new position, but Toronto hopes he can fill in for Lyle Overbay and, if his hitting stroke returns, that Lind will be a franchise player there. He's under contract through 2013 with club options through 2016.
Arizona signed the veteran pitcher to a minor-league contract with the expectation that he will also get some playing time at first base to take advantage of his powerful bat. Though he has only a 5.11 ERA in 410 1/3 career innings, he's batting .293 with nine home runs and a .538 slugging percentage in 198 career plate appearances. His career OPS+ is 117.
The newly acquired outfielder will be moving from center, where he won three Gold Gloves and has played almost exclusively, to left in deference to precocious Angels centerfielder Peter Bourjos, who already moved another Gold Glover (Torii Hunter) off the position. In the case of Wells, the move to left is probably in his best interest too, as he has not rated well in center the last few years by the advanced defensive metrics.
Critical to Boston's offseason makeover, in which they traded for Adrian Gonzalez, was that Gold Glove first baseman Youkilis was willing to move back to third base, where he has averaged 31 games per season in the majors (though he played only two games there in 2010). UZR/150, which measures runs saved per 150 games played, rates him almost equally at both positions with a 7.4 rating at first and 6.9 at third. Youkilis has said previously that he has no preference between first and third -- as long as he has the whole offseason to prepare. But he won't play 162 games at third, either. Given the club's lefty-heavy lineup, Youkilis is likely to DH in place of David Ortiz against lefthanded starters with backup infielder (and switch hitter) Jed Lowrie playing some third base.
Feliz's teammate -- presuming he remains Feliz's teammate come spring training -- will be moving off third base to accommodate free agent Adrian Beltre. Young's primary new lineup spot will be designated hitter, where in the small sample size of 113 plate appearances he's hit .388 with a 1.006 OPS, but he'll also backup all four infield spots. First base will be new, but he's played at least 293 major-league games at each of the other three infield spots. Per UZR he was an average second baseman (though he hasn't played it since 2003) and a subpar shortstop and third baseman, making DH an attractive fit.