The Texas Rangers signed longtime Twins closer Joe Nathan to a 2 year contract Monday and immediately announced their intention to use him as their closer. As a result of the move, Neftali Feliz will move from the bullpen to the rotation. Both players should see a bump to their value as a result.
Joe Nathan, who will play the 2012 season at the age of 37, pitched 44.2 innings in 2011 as he made a comeback from Tommy John surgery. 2011 was his worst year since 2002 by several measures, including ERA, K/9, and HR/9. There is reason to believe in a bounceback, however. Nathan's start to the season was awful, as he gave up 10 earned runs in 9 innings. When you only throw 44 innings in a season, the numbers are going to look bad with that kind of start. His second half was much better:
It's not much of a leap to suggest that Nathan's recovery from Tommy John may not have been complete, leading to the inflated numbers. There will be lingering concerns about his health, especially given his age, but we've seen enough pitchers recover from TJ surgery that this shouldn't be a major red flag. Rangers Ballpark in Arlington has a reputation for being a home run hitters haven, but homers have never really been a problem for Nathan. He's given up just 70 taters in 729.2 innings pitched, good for a 0.86 HR/9. Of those 70, only 8 have gone out to right center field, which is where RBiA plays shallow. If pitching in an unfavorable run environment hurts Nathan, it won't be to a significant degree. Since Paul Sporer and others have shown us that closing on a successful team does provide more save opportunities than closing for a less successful one, we have to consider this move a win for Joe Nathan.
The bigger story, in my opinion, is that Neftali Feliz will no longer come out of the bullpen for the Rangers. Most fans know Feliz as a flamethrowing closer, but it is worth noting that Feliz came up through the minors as a starter. The 2010 Rookie of the Year was stretched in spring training as part of an experiment to see if he could stick in the rotation, but the Rangers decided to convert Alexi Ogando (who also spent much of his amateur career as a starter) instead, opting for the stability of Feliz at the back end of the bullpen. The late decision may have messed with Feliz's head (indeed, he has already made a statement suggesting he didn't want to be similarly jerked around again), as he lost some control (scouts said he was overthrowing his fastball, which certainly makes sense) and his K/9 and BB/9 both came back to earth. Though his ERA ended up almost identical to his 2010 mark at 2.74, his ERA predictors suggest he may have been a little lucky.
As a reliever, Feliz relied on his 80-grade fastball a lot, throwing it 79.8% of the time in 2011. He obviously won't be able to get away with that in 2012, but he does have quality secondary offerings that should help his effectiveness. He has a slider and a changeup that both generated positive values, according to FanGraphs, and those should play a little better over several innings. In the minors, his fastball sat at 92-94 when he started, and he obviously possesses the ability to reach back and dial it up when needed.
The Rangers have converted relievers before, and while that doesn't mean they're going to do it again with Neftali, it's nice to know that they have a good track record. Feliz will have to learn to trust his secondary stuff again and will have to manage his stamina in a way he hasn't had to do in a few years.
Like any reliever that makes the leap to starter, Feliz should see a leap in his draft value based on pitching more innings alone. Projecting the rest of his numbers is sort of a shot in the dark, but I feel comfortable projecting an increase in K/BB over his 2011 numbers. Given his low GB% (37.2% for his career), I see a spike in ERA, but probably not to a point that we can't live with the results. He still plays for Texas, so he should get plenty of run support and will have the opportunity to put wins on the board as long as he can stay in games. I don't believe that taking him around the 10th-12th round in a 12 team league would be too optimistic. He's only 23, so maybe bump him slightly higher than that in keeper/dynasty formats.