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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Signs point to Rangers switching Feliz from closer to starter


SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Question No. 1 for the Texas Rangers:

How on Nolan Ryan's green earth is it not in their best interest to immediately name Neftali Feliz a starting pitcher, so that they can get some 100 innings more out of him in 2011 than they did last summer?

Question No. 2 for the Rangers:

Neftali Feliz has added a cut-fastball to his repertoire this spring. (Getty Images)  
Neftali Feliz has added a cut-fastball to his repertoire this spring. (Getty Images)  
How is it not obvious that a kid who was the AL Rookie of the Year and scooped up 40 saves should remain a closer?

You see the dilemma.

"My view on Neffy is, whatever role he fulfills, we're a better team," Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said after watching Feliz deliver another virtuoso performance on Wednesday against the Athletics. "It's going to come down to what our biggest need is."

Feliz's future -- both short- and long-term -- is one of the hottest issues this spring, in Arizona or Florida.

But after watching him throw thunder and lightning to the A's, the clouds are quickly parting and the answer is being revealed.

Install Feliz into the rotation now and move on to your next decision.

The kid is sensational, becoming a breakout star in his rookie year, and no, none of that is news.

But oh, by the way, this is: He's added a cut-fastball to his repertoire this spring. As if opposing batters didn't already have enough reasons to lie awake quivering all evening before facing the Rangers.

Feliz now throws a fastball, changeup, curve and cutter. That, combined with his right arm, talent and youth, is the DNA of a starting pitcher.

The Rangers clearly are stretching him out -- along with Alexi Ogano -- to keep their options open.

What they know is that Feliz, at 22, is too game-changing to be pigeonholed into one inning a night, two on occasion. Texas is low-keying it, carefully leading Feliz down the path of making a decision that he will be able to take ownership of as his own.

But it is clear that the brass likes the idea of him starting -- if Ogando or Mark Lowe can handle the ninth inning.

"We've said all along he's our closer until something changes," general manager Jon Daniels said. "We feel like if he wants to do it, if his heart's into it and he shows a few things, then we're better off short and long term with him starting.

"He's got a unique talent. But that doesn't necessarily have to be right now. And his heart's got to be in it."

That last part is the important part. The Rangers are not going to do this unless everyone -- most importantly, Feliz -- is on board.

Yes, he told reporters the other day, he's more comfortable as a closer.

After surrendering only one hit, fanning four and walking two in three innings Wednesday, he said he is "still feeling like a closer."

"Because the whole season I was a closer," he said through interpreter Pedro Strop, a young teammate. "But the more time I get on the mound, as a starter, I'm going to start feeling better, like I felt today."

Would he be happy as a starter? Comfortable?

"If I can help the team win, I'm going to feel good and comfortable," he said. "Whatever decision they make."

It is the Rangers' most critical decision of the spring.

"His future as a starter depends on someone else stepping up to close," Maddux said, noting at the same time that "you want to go to bed at night feeling like we did last year" -- knowing the next ninth inning the Rangers would face while holding a lead would be locked down."

The Rangers are going to have to decide within the next 10 or so days, because if Feliz is going to close, then instead of stretching him out, they need to slot him for back-to-back appearances a few times in the last half of the Cactus League schedule. That's the process for preparing closers.

Maddux was coy about plans for Feliz's next appearance, though it sounds as if he'll go at least three and possibly four innings. In other words, for at least one more outing, Texas will continue to stretch him out.

"The guy saved 40 games and was the Rookie of Year," Daniels said. "Of course he's comfortable in that role. A year ago, he was saying he preferred starting because that's more or less what he had done to that point.

"We're not going to force him to do something he doesn't want to do. But at the same time I don't think we can afford to close the door on the possibility."

How much should a player's preference factor into such a decision?

"If you're a baseball rat and you have a passion for the game and the team has a need. ..." Maddux said. "That would be a good question for John Smoltz, or Derek Lowe, or Dennis Eckersley."

Each of those men left the rotation to become a closer based on team need, though Smoltz and Lowe later went back to the rotation. But all three were veterans. Feliz is a kid.

"You've got to have a closer," Maddux said. "Your team is only as good as your bullpen."

The slam-dunk part of the equation, though, is that it is far more difficult to latch onto a true No. 1 starter than it is to a closer. Especially in Texas, in this post-Cliff Lee period.

And with the new cutter, Feliz looks even more like a developing No. 1.

His final pitch to finish three innings Wednesday? It was clocked at 98 m.p.h.

"One thing about Neffy is, he's a monster," Maddux said. "He's young, but he's a man. He weighs 235 pounds.

"He has a lot of arm strength, and his endurance is there."

Mmm-hmmm. Only thing that isn't is the chance for him to dominate over significantly more innings than he already is.


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