When the Detroit Tigers acquired Neftali Feliz from the Texas Rangers in July, they picked up a low risk, high reward bargain. The hope was that the former closer would regain his form, giving the Tigers' beleaguered bullpen some much needed help in the late innings. The Tigers were responsible for only $228,000 of his 2015 salary while the Texas Rangers, who had released him, were on the hook for the remainder of his $4.125 million contract.
Feliz has five years and 151 days of major league service time, leaving him just shy of the six years required for free agency, so he has one year of arbitration eligibility remaining. If the Tigers want to retain Feliz for the 2016 season, they will either need to tender him a contract worth at least 80 percent of his current salary (which equates to $3.3 million) or reach an alternative agreement prior to December 2nd, the deadline to tender a contract offer to non-free-agent players.
Feliz is not in a strong bargaining position. He missed almost the entire 2014 season, and spent part of 2015 on the disabled list as well, all the while struggling before being released by Texas. While salaries generally increase through the arbitration process, Feliz has lost his status as a closer. He has battled injuries for three consecutive seasons, and his declining numbers have hurt his market value.
After joining the Tigers, Feliz posted a 7.62 ERA in 28 1/3 innings. Opponents hit .303/.358/.495 against him in 30 appearances. He improved in September, working 12 innings with a 3.75 ERA and holding hitters to a .227 average without a home run. He finished the season as the Tigers' closer, for lack of a better option. This would help his case if it ever came down to an arbitration hearing, but it's very unlikely that the Tigers would take that chance. If a deal isn't done by the time an offer is due, the club would be wiser to see what they can find elsewhere.
Tigers general manager Al Avila talked to reporters on Thursday about Feliz's status with the organization.
"I would say that we like Feliz, and we’ll be evaluating, we’ll be discussing him along with a lot of other guys," Avila said. "I guess you could throw him in the mix."
Feliz is the classic reclamation project. He has a history of success in a role that the Tigers desperately need help. After free agents like Joe Nathan, Tom Gorzelanny, and Joba Chamberlain are removed from the Tigers’ roster, Feliz remains as the Tigers reliever with the most major league experience in his career. He would also be one of the youngest relief pitchers on the free agent market if he does not come to terms with the Tigers on a contract for the 2016 season.
If the Tigers could be assured that Feliz would be anything like the pitcher that he was before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012, tendering him a contract would be a no-brainer. But if he is anything like the pitcher that he has been since then -- including his first six weeks with the Tigers this season -- the club would be wise to let him walk away.
There may be a happy middle ground for Feliz and the Tigers. The two sides could negotiate a contract with incentives for games pitched, games finished, or perhaps even an option that automatically vests upon Feliz reaching certain performance levels. Either way, the Tigers are likely to make their pitch to Feliz and his agent before a decision whether to tender a contract comes due on December 2. An arbitrator tends to look at salary history moreso than saves and strikeouts, but general managers look harder at recent performance.
From the Tigers’ perspective, the free agent market for closers this coming winter is very thin. Most potential free agent closers and some setup men are former Tigers. Detroit had nothing to lose by signing Feliz for the minimum salary in July, and would likely be interested in another low risk, high reward deal to give Feliz a shot at playing a role in their bullpen in 2016.
Having gone all in for a "proven closer" in recent years with little success, the Tigers may be ready to try a shotgun approach, acquiring a number of relief pitchers with a strong track record, including taking some low risk gambles on a few lottery tickets. Feliz could be in that mix.