Rangers' plan for Feliz is shutdown starts in September, and not a September shutdown
The Nationals say that because Stephen Strasburg threw just 44 1/3 innings last year, there's no way to expect him to make it through a full season this year. Thus, they say he'll be shut down at some point. The Rangers are taking a different approach with Neftali Feliz, in hopes that he can pitch through September and into October.
|The Rangers want to make sure Feliz is ready for a playoff run September. (Getty Images)|
One is in his first full season coming back from Tommy John surgery. The other is simply in his first season as a starter, after pitching as a closer.
But here's the similarity: Strasburg pitched just 44 1/3 innings last year, and Feliz pitched just 62 1/3. It may not be possible -- or advisable -- for either to take on a full-season starter workload.
And here's the difference: While the Nationals have announced to the world that Strasburg will be shut down before the end of the season (and certainly before any possible playoff appearance), the Rangers want to find a way to get Feliz through September and into October.
"You need all your horses for the pennant chase," pitching coach Mike Maddux said Tuesday.
The Nationals started Strasburg on opening day, and manager Davey Johnson has said he plans to start him in regular rotation up until the time they shut him down, whenever that is.
The Rangers didn't start Feliz until the fifth game of the season, have already had him skip one turn (when a rainout and doubleheader made it convenient), and say that they will "push his starts back when it's convenient," as Maddux said.
"We didn't do that with [Alexi] Ogando last year," manager Ron Washington said. "We learned our lesson."
Ogando moved from the bullpen to the rotation, was so successful that he made the All-Star team, then hit a wall in August (7.14 ERA) and barely started after that.
Ogando became an important part of the Rangers' postseason bullpen (and is back in the bullpen this year). The Rangers could theoretically see the same thing happen with Feliz this October (assuming they make it to October), but that's not the plan at all.
"Part of the genesis of the decision to put Neftali in the rotation was that we saw him as one of the rare pitchers with the ability to neutralize vaunted offenses -- which is what you see in the playoffs," Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine said.
You could certainly say the same about Strasburg.
None of this is to say that what the Nationals are doing is wrong. The Rangers, who have been to the World Series in back-to-back years, are a much better bet to be playing in October, even with more limited appearances from Feliz. The Rangers already have a four-game lead in the American League West; the Nationals began play Tuesday one game ahead in the National League East, in a race that seems likely to go deep into the season.
Also, while Strasburg is already the Nationals' best pitcher, Feliz isn't an obvious No. 1 with Texas. And the Rangers have Scott Feldman in their bullpen, available as a spot starter any time they want to skip Feliz.
Feliz looked dominating at times Tuesday night against the Orioles, when he gave up one run in six innings in his fifth start this year, lowering his ERA to 3.38. He showed off the qualities that convinced the Rangers to take a big-time closer and turn him into a starter.
"I wasn't sure what to expect from him, because I saw him as a fastball thrower," Rangers reliever Mike Adams said. "I never realized his off-speed pitches were as good as they are.
"He's gone beyond what I expected."
According to fangraphs.com, Feliz's average fastball has been 94.3 mph, down just a little from the 96.3 he averaged as a one-inning closer (and a little lower than Strasburg's 2012 average of 95.7).
Some scouts who have seen Feliz wonder how he'll do if the velocity goes down more as the innings add up. The thinking is that Feliz needs the velocity, because his command isn't always perfect.
Maddux said he's not concerned, in part because he's not so sure that Feliz's velocity will go down as the year goes on.
"That guy's a horse of a different color," Maddux said. "He's young, and he's strong. I think he'll be able to sustain it."
The idea is that he'll sustain it through September and into October. The Rangers, of course, can't guarantee that will happen.
But the plan is to try to make it happen.