Feliz a cautionary tale for Mejia

Posted on April 12, 2010 by

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The Rangers announced that Neftali Feliz is their new closer. Normally this would not be of much interest to Mets fans but given the team’s insistence on taking Jenrry Mejia, the top starting pitching prospect in the farm system, and moving him into the bullpen in the majors, it is a warning about how pitchers get trapped in sub-optimal roles.

Here is what minor league prospect maven John Sickels said about Feliz prior to the 2009 season:

“[H]e’s one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, possibly second only to David Price. … But if everything goes well, Feliz can be a legitimate Number One starter and rotation anchor.”

Instead, he was moved to the bullpen. Feliz did exceptionally well in 2009, where he put up a 1.74 ERA with 39 Ks, 8 BB and just 2 HR in 31 IP. The Rangers did not transition him back to the rotation this year and now they have elevated him to be a closer.

Having a closer is great and no one questions the value that Mariano Rivera has provided the Yankees over the years. But the simple fact is that there is no way a reliever who pitches 70 innings a year is as valuable as an ace starter who pitches three times as often. You can look for proof of this in a variety of ways. Last year Jonathan Broxton led all relievers with a 2.9 WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Meanwhile, 49 starting pitchers had a WAR of 3.0 or greater.

If you prefer a more traditional way of looking at it, Rivera led all relievers in 2009 with a $15 million salary. Seven starting pitchers made more than Rivera. And Rivera is a special case, a legendary closer on the highest-payroll team in baseball. The next highest-paid reliever is Brad Lidge, who makes an average of $12.5 million per season. According to Cot’s, 17 starting pitchers made as much as Lidge.

It is not just stat-savvy people who value starters much more than relievers, baseball general managers do the same thing.

A club needs five starting pitchers and only one closer. And with Francisco Rodriguez firmly established as the team’s closer, moving Mejia to the bullpen was simply a move of desperation by Jerry Manuel, one made with the idea of prolonging his time as the team’s manager, not one in the best interests of the club.

Manuel did not mean to break Mejia into the majors gradually, giving him multiple innings per outing like Johan Santana had. He planned to use him like Feliz, as a setup man to bridge the gap to Rodriguez. And successful setup men do not transition back to the starting rotation.

Closers and setup men are made from pitchers who could not handle the workload of a starting pitcher in the majors. It is a shame that the Mets are on a path to create a reliever out of a stud prospect with an uncertain future, rather than create one out of a failed starter who showed no signs of hacking it in the rotation.

Perhaps Mejia was destined to become a reliever. But there is no reason to start that conversion any sooner than necessary. Mejia should be in Double-A, going through a lineup three times per outing, picking up innings and experience and hopefully developing into an ace to team alongside Santana.

Instead, Mets fans are left hoping that he either falls flat in his first exposure to major league hitters and forces the Mets to send him back to the minors or that Manuel gets fired and the new manager realizes that the team’s top pitching prospect does not belong in the bullpen at age 20.

Rangers fans are stuck with a starting rotation led by overachieving Scott Feldman and injury-prone Rich Harden. They are hoping that a stint in Japan will help Colby Lewis turn into a major league quality pitcher. This is a team that could use a stud starter. Unfortunately, that guy is now their closer. Mets fans should be hoping that two or three years from now that Mejia is not still wasting away in the bullpen and is instead starting every five days.

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Posted in: Perspectives