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Six Innings to Opening Day: Neftali Feliz

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We're getting close to Opening Day and that means it is time to focus in on nine of the stories worth following this Rangers season. We'll run them down one a day between now and April 6th, with Neftali Feliz up for discussion in the fourth inning.

On the list of problems to face in life, having a talented pitcher that you think is capable of both starting games and closing them ranks somewhere around lacking enough storage space for your collection of Picassos.

It's still a problem, though, and the Rangers are facing it with Neftali Feliz right now. After last year's wishy-washy approach to having Feliz prepare as both a starter and a reliever, the Rangers have totally committed themselves to using Feliz as a starter. It has not gone smoothly.

Feliz's shoulder tightness has caused the team to limit his innings, which naturally slows the transition from throwing one inning to throwing six or more in a start. It has also limited his chances to experiment with pitches other than his fastball, something he's going to need to get through an order multiple times in the same game. Throw in command issues and it has not been a spring to remember for Feliz.

All of these things can come with time, but the question as we approach the regular season is whether or not the Rangers will give him enough rope to make it happen. That's been a problem with some other shifts from the bullpen to the rotation, most notably Joba Chamberlain's shift in roles with the Yankees a few years back.

The biggest stumbling block is the innings cap the team will put on Feliz. It isn't something you can start worrying about come July because the idea is to build up Feliz's arm over the course of the entire season. Throwing caution to the wind in April and May will make it much harder to figure out what to do with Feliz in the second half and, the Rangers hope, the playoffs without putting undue stress on his arm.

At the same time, you can't treat him with total kid gloves because part of learning to start is learning how to work out of jams and make your way deep into games. It's a pretty big balancing act and, frankly, those kinds of things have never really seemed to be Ron Washington's strong suit as a manager.

There's another potential trouble spot. What will the Rangers do if June 15 rolls around with Joe Nathan struggling to close games and Feliz still feeling his way around in the rotation without great success?

Making this switch work is going to mean taking some lumps and, perhaps, losing some games while you work toward a bigger victory. That's hard to do on a team with championship aspirations and a race for playoff spots that figures to go all the way down to the wire. There's going to be temptation to pull a switch and move Feliz back to a role that you know he can do well.

It's something the Rangers have to resist. Switching horses in midstream will only lead to more confusion. If the season ends and the team feels that Feliz is only suited to closing, so be it, but you need to give it a real chance before making any kind of decision to send things in the other direction.

That takes a strong stomach and an ability to feel a little pain. We'll find out if the Rangers have them soon enough.

Related Topics Neftali Feliz, Rangers, Opening Day
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