Another start looms for Neftali Feliz, Thursday night in front of a split squad (and a TXA21 television audience) against the Padres, but the support for his transition from the ninth inning to the rotation could gain or lose momentum before he ever takes the mound.
Yes, Nolan Ryan thought Feliz “looked more starterish” with his solid five-inning effort on Saturday, but on Sunday Jon Daniels vocalized what is probably the primary concern at this point:
“[Feliz’s] role on the club influences more than just one guy. It influences how the dominos fall.”
If Feliz were to be lifted from the bullpen, someone else has to close, and that could force more than one other reliever into higher-leverage roles than those earmarked for them in the version that includes Feliz in the ninth.
“It’s all part of the same discussion,” Daniels added. “You can’t make the decision on Neftali in a vacuum.”
Alexi Ogando had allowed 14 hits plus walks in 8.2 Cactus League innings – with much of the damage coming a third time through the opposing lineup as he too auditions as a starter – before firing five scoreless innings against Seattle’s AA squad on the back fields yesterday, scattering four hits and a walk as he fanned seven hitters in a lineup full of guys awaiting assignments to AA West Tenn, if not High A High Desert. Better than Ogando getting knocked around, of course, but he’s still a pitcher with very little experience, and how comfortable would you be asking him to nail down wins for a team coming off a World Series and expecting to compete for another? Ogando wants the job and has the stuff to get it done, but this isn’t Mariano Rivera taking over for John Wetteland.
Still, he’s a stronger option to succeed Feliz than is Mark Lowe, who was reportedly the frontrunner candidate coming into camp but has been so ineffective in Arizona (12 runs [11 earned] on 14 hits and five walks in seven innings, four strikeouts) with a fastball clocking in at 97 but without any life. One problem in making Ogando the closer means someone else would have to assume the role of eighth-inning righty, charged with getting outs that in many cases are bigger than those in the ninth, and Lowe’s not doing anything yet to claim any key role.
Darren O’Day? He’s fanned six and walked none in seven spring innings, but location doesn’t only mean throwing strikes. It means throwing good strikes. Stated another way, control is not the same as command, and O’Day is getting ripped right now – eight runs on 16 hits, including five home runs (three of which came in succession on Saturday) in those seven frames. Even if he’s done enough in his two full big league seasons to earn some patience as he struggles to find a groove over the next week and a half, ask yourself this: If Ogando, Lowe, and O’Day are the three key righties in a pen without Feliz, how secure do you feel right now if they’re asked as a group to take on more late-inning responsibility?
Rule 5 pick Mason Tobin has had an impressive camp, but let’s be honest: He didn’t pitch in 2010 and threw only 2.2 innings in 2009 and 37.1 innings in 2008 – all at the Class A level. Even if you were to make the huge leap and predict anything approaching an Ogando-like level of instant effectiveness, how many innings can Texas really count on from the 23-year-old?
Pedro Strop may be in the process of earning an Opening Day spot on this staff. But how big a role would the club be comfortable entrusting to him in April?
If your mind wanders to the deal that sent Frank Francisco to Toronto for Mike Napoli two months ago, realize that Francisco is scheduled to see orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham tomorrow, as the Blue Jays seek a second opinion on the lingering soreness in his right pectoral muscle. Francisco is a question mark himself right now (though, for what it’s worth, Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos isn’t claiming damaged goods, noting that an MRI on Francisco on Friday was clean).
A trade? There’s no rule against making a deal late in camp (Matt Treanor and Andres Blanco were acquired last year during this week), and theoretically you can transition in a new closer more painlessly than any other key position, but don’t count on it. Teams aren’t going to move a closer now unless it helps them fill another immediate need (a Francisco-Napoli type of deal) or brings a blue-chip prospect in return. When John Hart acquired Dave Burba from the Reds days before the 1998 season and made him Cleveland’s number three starter, he parted with Sean Casey, an elite prospect at the time.
Said Daniels over the weekend: “If you look at the transactions the last 10 years, how many dominant players at any position get traded [during] spring training? It’s few and far between. We’re operating as though the group we’ve got is the group we’re breaking with, and we’re happy about that.”
That’s not to say the Rangers aren’t making calls and checking in with other teams – they always do, constantly – but don’t expect Joakim Soria or Heath Bell jogging out to the first base line a week from Friday as Chuck Morgan introduces the 2011 Texas Rangers to us.
Lowe and O’Day have minor league options and no service time hammer to prevent Texas from using them. But I don’t even want to think about that, particularly in O’Day’s case, and would be thrilled to see reports from Surprise that he got a bunch of San Diego minor league hitters out this afternoon, weather permitting, that his fastball is sinking again, that he’s found his command and isn’t piercing the middle of the plate.
Because if this trend continues with O’Day and Lowe right up until camp breaks next week, no matter what Feliz does Thursday night there’s going to be a sense of uneasiness as far as the right-handed component of the relief crew is concerned. Elevating roles isn’t the key concern right now. Getting those guys back into form is taking on a feel of semi-urgency.
Daniels said of Feliz: “As a group, we feel like he’s capable of starting. . . . It’s just a matter of what’s best for the team.”
The spring work turned in by a key pair of Feliz’s fellow righty relievers has made that last part more of an issue than anyone could have expected.