BRADENTON, Fla. – For a few weeks, I’ve been trying to think of some way to write about Neftali Feliz. He’s a guy who is guaranteed to make the Pirates’ bullpen this year, due to his $3.9 M contract that he signed over the off-season. He’s been a great pitcher in the past. He had an electric fastball when he first came up, which slowly declined due to injuries. He’s dealt with control problems. This is the type of pitcher the Pirates usually target, and then proceed to let the Ray Searage magic go to work.
It should be an easy task — find out what Searage is working on with Feliz, what changes will turn him around, and write about it.
So far, there have been no revelations of adjustments or a new approach for Feliz from Searage. Instead, everyone from the Pirates have been talking about how they liked what they saw from Feliz at the end of the 2015 season. He had a 3.75 ERA and a 4.15 xFIP in September, which wasn’t great, but also was an improvement over his numbers the rest of the year.
“What we saw in September out of him, and the conversations we’ve had early where he believes that he finished strong,” Clint Hurdle said. “He was able to re-identify some things, and some pitching anchors to get back in place. Sometimes you get moved around, you deal with a little bit of an injury, it gets confusing. He’s got a clean slate, and I think that’s big for anybody.”
But the improvements Feliz showed late in the season go beyond just the overall results. He had a horrible season with the Rangers, was designated for assignment and became a free agent, and then signed with the Tigers. Breaking down the season, there were two key areas where Feliz saw improvements with Detroit. The first area was with his velocity, where he went from averaging 93.8 MPH to 95.3 MPH. The second area was with his control, seeing a 9.9% walk rate drop to 7.4%, his best rate since 2009-2010 when he first came up.
So far in Spring Training, those trends are holding up. Feliz has been consistently hitting 94-95 MPH, and hit 97 MPH in today’s outing. He did walk three batters today in 0.2 innings of work, but prior to this he had gone seven innings with no walks. This is a small sample size, and so was his late season run with the Tigers. But the Pirates seem to think these trends are sustainable, all for one main reason.
“The biggest thing that works for us right now is that he’s healthy,” Ray Searage said. “Now that he’s healthy, he’s letting it go, he’s being aggressive.”
Feliz had Tommy John surgery in 2013, and then was down for a little over a month again in 2015 with an axillary abscess on his right side.
“We like what we saw at different points of the season,” Hurdle said of Feliz in 2015. “He dealt with a health issue as well. He’s had a couple of those, and then some stretches where his health has been fine. We’re betting on the guy. A change of scenery. … A fresh start sometimes as much as anything else helps. The age is on his side. His experience, the back of that card, he’s done some very unique things for a man of his age. He’s very hungry and he’s very motivated to come out and do well. Those are all contributing factors. We thought his arm had a lot of life left in it.”
There are still some minor things that the Pirates will work on with Feliz, but it won’t just be Ray Searage doing the work. Hurdle mentioned that Euclides Rojas might play a big role here, due to his past experience closing for the Cuban National Team, and the way he’s able to relate to Feliz.
“Euclides adds a lot to our program out in the bullpen,” Hurdle said. “This guy can have a sit down with you, and there’s a whole different level of attention. I think that also might provide some benefits for Neftali moving forward, the relationship he’s developed with Euclides.”
One thing working in favor of Feliz is that the Pirates don’t need him for a big role. They can keep him in the seventh inning, or even have him working in a long-relief role, with lower pressure. If all goes well, he’s got the stuff to be a closing option later in the year, and could even shorten games as a dominant seventh inning guy, kind of like what the Pirates were going for with Joakim Soria at the end of the 2015 season, pairing him with Tony Watson in the late innings.
There might not be a lot of Ray Searage magic at play here, which means this isn’t an exciting story. But if the walk and velocity trends hold up, then things will be looking good for Feliz being the next bounce back reliever with the Pirates.
**Clint Hurdle said that Gerrit Cole is still on track to start the season in Pittsburgh, despite only going 4.2 innings today in his start against the Twins. Cole gave up two runs on eight hits, with a walk and four strikeouts. Hurdle noted that he retired ten hitters on three pitches or less, and only went to three ball counts three times.
“I thought the outing was good, I thought the stuff played,” Hurdle said. “He mixed all his pitches. He threw the fastball in and out, up and down. Moved it around. Threw his curveball, threw his slider, threw his changeup.”
Cole’s next outing will be on Saturday, and could be a sim game, although Hurdle wasn’t specific on the details. The game will most likely be in Bradenton. The team leaves on Friday, and Cole could still join them on Opening Day, even if he stays behind on Saturday to pitch in a warmer location.
**Matt Joyce had a double and a homer today, and that’s good timing, as the Pirates need to make a decision on him tomorrow. If they want to keep him, they need to pay him a $100,000 retention bonus to keep him in the minors, or add him to the active roster. I’ll have more on tomorrow’s roster decisions in tonight’s First Pitch.
“He came here to win a job,” Hurdle said. “That’s the mission that he’s on. I think he’s shown us a lot of things that we like to see. The on-base percentage plays. The battle in the box plays. He’s gone out and has been a capable defender.”