As the World Series wrapped up, and talk turned to Rangers starting pitcher C.J. Wilson potentially leaving as a free agent, whispers of closer Neftali Feliz filling that void began to get louder. News of Joe Nathan signing a two-year contract worth $14.5 million all but assures the speculated move of Feliz to the rotation happening in 2012. What can be expected of both players this coming season?
Nathan missed the entire 2010 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March of that year. He didn't immediately bounce back when returning to the bump in 2011, and struggled to get hitters out before landing on the disabled list at the end of May. Prior to his disabled list stint, he threw 15.1 innings and tallied a 7.63 ERA, 1.70 WHIP with a 5.28 BB/9 and 8.80 K/9. Brutal numbers for the former All-Star. Things went much better for him after returning to the Twins. He reduced his ERA and WHIP to 3.38 and 0.89 respectively, and fined tuned his control sporting a pristine 1.53 BB/9 while maintaining a strong 8.59 K/9.
Beyond making strides with his control, improved stuff also aided Nathan in turning things around. According to PITCHf/x data, he added 1.4 mph to his four-seam fastball, 0.4 mph to his slider, and a full two mph to his two-seam fastball, while dropping 1.5 mph on his change-up and curveball. Somewhat surprisingly, his whiff rate dropped on both fastballs, but was more than offset by seeing a jump from a 13.3 percent whiff rate to 24.6 percent on his slider. Nathan turned to his wipe out pitch 23.6 percent of the time down the stretch. His flyball profile could bite him in the rear on occasion in Texas, but if he's able to continue to strikeout nearly a batter an inning while limiting walks, he'll be able to mitigate the long ball damage. Nathan is a solid closer target for those that don't want to pay top dollar for his elite closing brethren, and given his track record, could rejoin that group by this time next year.
Less clear than Nathan's value is what to expect from Feliz in making the move from the bullpen back to starting. Feliz was developed as a starting pitcher in the minors, but has never started a game at the major league level. His stuff is electric, and offers him ace potential if everything clicks. Few pitchers are able to actually put everything together, there are only so many aces in the league after all, but a better than zero percent chance is encouraging. Regardless of what his ultimate ceiling is, it's unlikely he'll reach it next year.
One of the reasons Feliz was transitioned from to a relief role was because of struggles with his control. In 10 Double-A starts for Frisco in 2008 he had a 4.57 BB/9, and in 13 Triple-A starts in 2009 he had a 4.01 BB/9. The improvement he was able to make moving up the minor league ladder from Double-A to Triple-A lends hope that he can take further steps forward in the majors. That said, he'll never need pinpoint control or great command to have success with his premium stuff that includes a fearsome heater. Depending on what outlet you choose to trust, his breaking ball is either a curveball or a slider. Semantics aside, it's a lethal offering when he's got a feel for it. Feliz also throws a change-up, but rarely used it in the bullpen throwing it just 21 times all year! In fact, he has rarely deviated from his fastball throwing it over 80 percent of the time the last two seasons combined. If he hopes to successfully navigate through lineups multiple times, he'll likely need to mix in his secondary offerings more frequently. That will be especially true if he loses some bite and velocity on his fastball, as he almost certainly will now that he'll be unable rear back and let it rip in one inning spurts.
The name brand value that comes with Feliz will make it difficult to get him at a value on fantasy draft day. Those trying to determine what to expect from him next year and going forward may find it somewhat valuable to glance at Brandon Morrow's FanGraph player card
. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus strongly dislikes the usage player comps for prospects because they aren't overly informative, and I agree with his line of thinking. Every player develops differently, and Feliz's development may look nothing like Morrow's even considering the similarities that exist between the two. However, in this case, Morrow's development can be used as a reasonable base line for projecting Feliz from a fantasy perspective. I expect him to be inconsistent flashing brilliance in some starts, and struggling in others. Draft him for the strikeouts and hope for a neutral contribution to ERA and WHIP. Reaching in drafts for Feliz, and hoping he reaches his tantalizing ceiling in year one is likely to lead to disappointment at season's end.