By David Heck, Special to CBS Local Sports
CBS Local Sports will be profiling one young player from each Major League Baseball team every day for the next 30 days as part of our "30 Players 30 Days" spring training feature.
Neftali Feliz, Starting Pitcher, Texas Rangers
2011 season: 64 G, 62.1 IP, 32 SV, 2.74 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 54 K, 30 BB
Like several other young hurlers this year, Feliz is being converted from reliever to starter as his team looks to maximize his value and impact. But unlike two of the other notable ones – Chicago's Chris Sale and Boston's Daniel Bard – Feliz actually has significant experience starting in the pros. He started in 54 of 80 career minor league games, compiling a career 3.02 ERA. His stuff proves that those numbers are no fluke, either, as he possesses a hair-raising fastball, a strong changeup, and a slider and curveball that are workable.
Though Feliz dominated throughout his minor league career, he was called up as a reliever in 2009 as the Rangers made a playoff push – a common tactic with young pitchers. Feliz might have been a victim of his own success in that role, as his 1.74 ERA in 31 innings that year prompted the Rangers to make him their closer. That worked out well for the team, as it allowed Texas to make C.J. Wilson their No. 1 starter en route to two straight World Series appearances, but it might not have been the right move for Feliz's development. Thankfully, Texas has decided to give the right-hander a shot this year.
The big question about Feliz starting will be how long he can hold up. He's got only 162.2 big league innings under his belt, which is less than a MLB starter should accrue in one healthy season. Last year, the Rangers had initial success converting Alexi Ogando from a reliever to a starter, but he appeared to wear down a bit as he posted a 4.48 ERA in the second half. Feliz has better stuff and higher ceiling than Ogando, but the issue of fatigue is the same.
The other question surrounding Feliz is why his peripheral numbers dropped last season. After striking out over a batter an inning in his first year and a half, he failed to reach that mark last year by a healthy margin. His walks also rose sharply as he compiled a 1.15 WHIP that was well above the previous year's 0.88 mark. The good news is that those numbers were posted over a small sample size, meaning it could have been little more than bad luck.
If Feliz can stay healthy, he has upside as a true ace – a pitcher who can overwhelm hitters and accrue high strikeout numbers. Though he was named an All-Star and the American League Rookie of the Year for his work as the Rangers' closer in 2010, he belongs in the rotation to make full use of his talents. Turning 24 in August, Feliz has a long and potentially dominant career ahead of him as a starter.
Next up on March 15: Oakland Athletics
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