It has happened before; an All-Star fireball-throwing closer is converted into a starter. The result is usually the same; closers are just not as dominant when they move to the starting rotation. The reasons for converting Neftali Feliz are obvious 8212; Feliz has a 100 mph fastball and an electric curveball, he was named the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year, and he led all rookies with 40 saves in 43 attempts. While the Rangers need more depth at starting pitching, converting Feliz into a starter would compromise the Rangers’ excellent bullpen.
The biggest problem with converting Feliz would be the additional innings he would have to pitch. Feliz pitched 69 1/3 innings last season. Compare that to the average MLB starter who throws at least 150 innings. Converting Feliz to a starter means the Rangers would have to condition his arm to be able to cope with the strain from throwing that much, and this isn’t a feat that can be done in a short timeframe. It also poses a major risk to Feliz’s arm. The risk of injury becomes much higher the more innings he throws.
Feliz would have to adjust his mental game in order to become a starter. As a closer, Feliz will only have to face each hitter once. If converted to a starter he will have to make adjustments while going through the lineup multiple times. After every at-bat, hitters make adjustments. This makes facing batters multiple times much harder. He will also have to lower his velocity so his arm will be able to make it through the entire season. This is a risky proposition. Pitchers like Feliz rely on a power fastball to get strikeouts, and if he loses even a few miles per hour off his fastball, major league hitters will make him pay.
The fact that Feliz only has two dominant pitches poses a risk in the starting role. He has a filthy fastball and an excellent curveball. He keeps hitters off-balance because they only get to see him in select opportunities. If he converts to a starter he will need at least two more pitches. He will also need to have the confidence to use them to get major league hitters out consistently. This will probably take at least a full season, and if his confidence is shaken he may lose his ability altogether.
Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon and New York Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain were both regarded as two of the best relievers in baseball. In 2006, Papelbon was a phenomenal closer. He had a 0.92 ERA and 35 saves in his rookie year. The Boston Red Sox decided to convert him into a starter the next year. The experiment didn’t last long. Papelbon was unable to adjust to the mental challenges of starting and he asked to return to his position as the closer. In hindsight, this was the right decision for both Boston and Papelbon. Chamberlain is an example of what can go wrong when a team tries to convert a top bullpen arm into a starter. Chamberlain came into the majors in 2007 and was unhittable as a reliever. The Yankees needed quality pitching early in the game, so they tried to convert him into a starter during the 2008 season. The Yankees formed the “Joba Rules.” These guidelines were in place to protect his arm from injury. The limitations placed on Joba by the Yankees hampered his efforts as a pitcher. The inning limitation meant he could not go deep into games and this burned out the Yankee bullpen. Chamberlain suffered an injury in August 2008 and has since been returned to the bullpen. However, he is no longer the same pitcher he was when he first broke into the league.
The Rangers need starting pitching, but risking the best closer in the AL just isn’t worth it. Even if it works out it will leave the bullpen vulnerable. In previous years, a weak bullpen was the Achilles heel of the Texas Rangers. Feliz solved that problem and now the Rangers risk throwing it all away.
Allen Kellogg is a sophomore journalism major from Alexandria, Virginia