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Neftali Feliz auditioning for bigger role in Tigers’ bullpen

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Former Rangers closer Neftali Feliz has quietly become one of the Tigers' most effective relief pitchers in recent games.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Neftali Feliz struggled mightily in the Tigers’ bullpen after being released by the Texas Rangers in July. 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. Since that time, he has settled down and begun to find his groove again. If the club is playing out the 2015 season with an eye on next year, they may want to consider trying Feliz in a late inning role, perhaps even as the closer. What happens the rest of this season could impact the Tigers' offseason plans.

The last five appearances for Feliz have come in the seventh inning or later, and they were all Tiger victories. He worked key innings in the Tigers’ three extra inning victories over the Twins and the Royals in high leverage situations. While the Tigers have gotten their answer as to whether Bruce Rondon is ready to step into a ninth inning role in the bullpen, the jury is still out on Feliz, despite his earlier struggles with Detroit.

In nine appearances since August 28th, Feliz has an ERA of 1.86 with an FIP of 1.90, allowing just six hits, no home runs, one walk and nine strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings of work. He has held opposing hitters to a .171 batting average with a WHIP of 0.72. It’s a small sample, to be sure, but Feliz has a significant history of success on his résumé which led the desperate Tigers to sign him off the scrap heap in July.

Feliz began the 2015 baseball season as the closer for the Rangers. It’s a role that he had become familiar with, off and on, during his five years in the major leagues, all spent with Texas up to that point. 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 made 64 appearances in 2011, throwing 62 1/3 innings with 32 saves and an ERA of 2.74 as the Rangers came within one out of winning the World Series. The following spring, Texas gave Feliz a spot in their starting rotation, where he made eight starts with an ERA of 3.16 before requiring season ending Tommy John surgery in May, keeping him out of action until September of 2013.

Plagued by injuries, Feliz did not return to the major leagues 2014 until the fourth of July. He worked his way back into the closer’s role, pitching 31 innings in relief with an ERA of 1.99 and 13 saves.That is where he began in 2015.

Feliz struggled to start the 2015 season, posting a 5.09 ERA, 1.75 WHIP and 15/9 K/BB in 17-2/3 innings, logging six saves before being replaced as the Rangers’ closer. His fastball velocity had dipped from 96.3 miles per hour prior to his surgery to 94.5 miles per hour in the three seasons since. He went on the disabled list with an axillary abcess in his side. After being activated from the disabled list at the start of July, he was designated for assignment, cleared waivers, and was traded to Detroit after refusing a minor league assignment.

The Rangers are on the hook for Feliz’s $4.125 million contract, minus a prorated portion of the major league minimum paid by Detroit. However, he does have one season of arbitration eligibility remaining. If the Tigers want to retain him, they will either have to negotiate a new contract, or tender him a contract worth at least 80 percent of his present salary for 2016, which would be $3.3 million, and take their chances in arbitration.

The Tigers signed Feliz with an idea that he could bounce back from his injuries and play a role in their bullpen at a bargain rate. He was the classic low risk/high reward gamble, but the move has not paid off just yet. Unless the club is ready to give up on the experiment, they are wise to find out how close Feliz is to being the late inning pitcher that they hoped he could once again become when they signed him.