Neftali Feliz began the 2015 baseball season as the closer for the Texas Rangers and finished the season closing games for the Detroit Tigers. It’s a role that he has become familiar with, off and on, during his five-plus years in the major leagues. All five of those years were spent with Texas until July, when he was released by the Rangers, cleared waivers, and signed with Detroit. It is the role that he held while he did the best work of his career, during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, when he notched 72 saves for the Rangers as they reached the World Series twice.
Feliz has been plagued by injuries over the past four seasons. After being shifted to the starting rotation in 2012, he was sidelined for Tommy John surgery in May and did not return to the major leagues again until September of 2013 when he was back in his familiar role in the Texas bullpen. He then missed the first half of the 2014 season, but returned in July, eventually reclaiming the closer's job. He was expected to be the Rangers' closer in 2015, and that's where he started the season.
In his first 17 1/3 innings, Feliz struggled to the tune of a 5.09 ERA with a 1.75 WHIP. He was taken out of the closer's role and wound up back on the disabled list with an axillary abcess in his side. He didn't show enough progress on his return and the Rangers let him go, eating his $4.125 million contract for the 2015 season.
Desperate for bullpen help, the Tigers signed Feliz as a free agent. While he returned to the major leagues in short order, it took him a while to start showing some promise of regaining his form. In his first 16 appearances as a Tiger, Feliz had an ERA of 11.93, giving up 22 hits and six walks in 14 1/3 innings. But from August 28 through the end of the season, he allowed just five earned runs (two in his last game) in 14 innings, with an ERA of 3.21, FIP of 2.42 and a WHIP of 1.00.
While his strikeout rate was down in that span to just over seven strikeouts per nine innings, Feliz walked under two batters per nine and did not allow a home run, while holding opponents to a batting average of just .216. It was just a sample of 14 games, but if he could post those kinds of numbers going forward, he could be a valuable part of the Tigers' bullpen in 2016.
When the Tigers got overly desperate for bullpen arms just before the All-Star break, they got Feliz. What he gave them was more instability with momentary flashes of doing kind of alright. When Rondon was sent home, Ausmus said that Wilson and Feliz would share closing duties, but it was Feliz who ended up in the closer's role. If you've watched the season until the bitter end you would see that it didn't go well and Feliz performed about as he was expected to -- which is to say he wasn't good at all.
Expectations for 2016
While the Tigers had the benefit of Feliz's services for a pro ated share of the major league minimum salary in 2015, they would have to pay his full salary in 2016, and he will be eligible for arbitration for the fourth and final time this winter. The club has to make a tender offer of at least 80 per cent of Feliz's salary in 2015 by December 2nd, and that would start them on the road to arbitration, where he is estimated to get $5.2 million. Salaries don't go down in arbitration, where salary history and service time are the two most important factors at a potential hearing.
In the alternative, the team could not tender Feliz a contract and let him walk as a free agent, or they could work out a contract with him, possibly for multiple seasons or possibly with incentives based on games played or games finished. With a recent history of injuries for the past three seasons, being released during the past season, and having a 6.38 ERA in 2015, Feliz would stand to take a pay cut as a free agent, so the Tigers are not likely to tender him a contract by the deadline on December 2. However, the Tigers bullpen needs help more than any other team in the league, so it makes sense for both sides to work out a deal.