Feliz takes mulligan, sets sights on rotation

Feliz takes mulligan, sets sights on rotation

Feliz takes mulligan, sets sights on rotation
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Neftali Feliz, armed with a new cut fastball in his arsenal, is back in the running for a spot in the Rangers' rotation.

Feliz started on Monday afternoon and allowed one run over four innings in a 5-4 victory over the Dodgers. After the outing, Feliz said he would like to win a spot in the rotation.

"That's what we're working for," Feliz said. "That's what I would like to do. I'm working to be a starter."

Feliz's position is the reverse of what he said last week. It was only a week ago that Feliz said he would prefer to remain a closer and was more comfortable in that role. But after working and talking with pitching coach Mike Maddux for the past week, Feliz said he is willing to embrace the role of starter.

"He'll make up his mind sooner or later," manager Ron Washington joked.

The cut fastball appears to be the reason why Feliz has changed his mind. Feliz said he has been struggling with his changeup, and that caused some anxiety about starting. Developing a cut fastball to go with his regular fastball and breaking ball has reinforced his confidence in being able to start with the desired three-pitch-minimum arsenal. It also gives him a dangerous swing-and-miss pitch.

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"I wouldn't be disappointed if I don't make it, but that's my goal," Feliz said. "I just want to be a part of the team."

That part is a given, even if the role remains unclear. Last week, the Rangers seemed willing to accommodate Feliz's desire to stay as closer. But there is no doubt they remain intrigued about the possibility of Feliz moving into the rotation. They just want him to feel good about it.

"Your heart has to be in it," Washington said. "It matters what he thinks because he is the one who has to do the job. We want him to be committed."

The Rangers, as a club, have not committed either way. Feliz's change of heart only reopens the biggest story of the camp, but the end has not been written. The Rangers will continue to stretch him out as a starter and make a decision at the end of Spring Training.

"We're in the same spot we've been in all along," general manager Jon Daniels said. "We will talk about it and do what's best for him and the club, short and long term."

The points in the debate also remained unchanged. Feliz is a tremendous talent who has the stuff to be a No. 1 starter in the Major Leagues. He also saved 40 games last year for a team that went to the World Series. He was an All-Star and American League Rookie of the Year.

The Rangers also aren't sure who would be their closer if Feliz goes to the rotation. Mark Lowe and Alexi Ogando -- both inexperienced in the role -- would be the leading candidates from within or they could go find a closer from outside the organization.

On the flip side, the Rangers have plenty of candidates for a rotation that begins with C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis. Technically they have three spots open, but Tommy Hunter, a 13-game winner last year, has the inside track for one of those. However Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Michael Kirkman, David Bush and Ogando are all pitching well enough to merit strong consideration.

Then there is Brandon Webb. The 2006 National League Cy Young winner has missed just about two complete seasons because of a shoulder surgery and won't be ready until after Opening Day. But the Rangers believe it is only a matter of time -- probably no later than May 1 -- before he is ready to slide into the rotation.

So the Rangers have more candidates for spots in the rotation than they do for the closer's role. Even Eric Hurley can't be discounted.

Hurley has missed two complete seasons because of a torn rotator cuff and a broken left wrist, but he has pitched as good as anybody this spring. He allowed one run in four innings after following Feliz to the mound on Monday. He gave up four hits, did not walk a batter and struck out five.

The Rangers may find that Feliz just fits better in the bullpen. There is still some who strongly believe that's the best fit. Others still see the tremendous possibilities generated by Feliz being in the rotation.

"I think we have flexibility, which is unique," club president Nolan Ryan said. "We could do either, but that doesn't mean that we have a defined closer right now to step in that position. We have some talent that might be able to do it, but we don't have anyone in mind."

Feliz will be on everybody's minds over the next three weeks. The competition for the Rangers rotation is again as fierce as it was a week ago.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.