After winning the American League pennant in 2010, the Rangers naturally come into 2011 with their eyes on a repeat, and maybe even the franchise’s first World Series title this season. However, they have seen a surprising amount of turnover among their core players. Vladimir Guerrero, the Rangers’ top RBI man last year as well as their #2 home run hitter and middle-of-the-order slugger, is gone to the Orioles for a paltry $8 million. To replace him, they added third baseman Adrian Beltre with a six-year $96 million dollar deal that will take him past his 38th birthday. Furthermore, Beltre’s best season before last year was in his 2004 contract year, when he was voted the National League MVP. He proceeded to underwhelm for his entire tenure in Seattle, never hitting better than .276 in a season. This is a perplexing decision to be sure, but I can understand Rangers fans’ optimism given Beltre’s .321-28-102 line last season during a one-year stint with the Red Sox. However, the less understandable decision by the Rangers’ front office comes with regards to Neftali Feliz, the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year.
Feliz, the Rangers’ 22-year-old flamethrower, saved 40 games last season en route to an All-Star Game appearance, his AL ROY trophy, and a sterling 1.23 postseason ERA. This Spring Training, though, Feliz reported to camp not as a closer, but as a competitor for a spot in the Rangers’ rotation. While the “experts” have not come to a consensus on the wisdom of this move, the switch has been panned in the blogosphere. Well, I’d like to add my voice to the chorus of “No” votes coming from sports blogs around the country.
As a die-hard Mets fan (yes, I am acquaintances with the creator of this blog, even though he’s a Phillies fan – it’s awkward, though), nothing delighted me more than watching the Yankees yank Joba Chamberlain back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation to the bullpen to the rotation to the…. In 2008, Chamberlain was a lockdown reliever, setting up Mariano Rivera to the tune of 11.3 Ks per 9 innings, .211 Batting Average Against, and a .231 ERA. Then, enticed by his potential, the Yankees moved Chamberlain to the rotation for 2009, where he posted much-less-glamorous numbers (see right) of 7.6 K/9, .275 BAA, and a Kyle Lohse-esque 4.78 ERA. This line, combined with his 5 innings per start average, made Joba Chamberlain look like the classic back-end-of-the-rotation guy in 2009. Clearly, this is not what the Yankees hoped for when they removed his dynamite arm from the bullpen. When they put him back in 2010, Joba just wasn’t the same as before – .253 BAA and a 4.40 ERA in a full season as a reliever. Think about what might have been had he stayed in the bullpen in 2009.
Now, after that looooooong digression, we’re back to the actual subject of this post: the Texas Rangers and Neftali Feliz (see left). Ron Washington and Rangers President Nolan Ryan would be wise to heed the unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your point of view) example of Joba Chamberlain. Sure, Feliz’s stuff does look phenomenal in the 9th inning. Sure, he really does have wicked breaking pitches, and yea, he is only 22 and still growing and maturing. But wasn’t everyone saying the same thing about Chamberlain? (They were). The bottom line is that Neftali Feliz is a phenomenal closer – one of the best – but that doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be a good or even a decent starter at the Major League level, only that he’ll be a rock in the 9th inning. For a team trying to win a title this year, for a team trying to win now: shouldn’t that be enough?