Power Arm Propels Feliz Through Rangers System
When the Texas Rangers acquired five prospects for Mark Teixeira at the trade deadline a year ago, righthander Neftali Feliz was one of the youngest of the new Rangers. Just 19, he had flashed electric mid-90s heat in two-plus seasons of rookie ball, but his secondary pitches suggested he was years away from the major leagues.
A year later, after a terrific first half at low Class A Clinton, Feliz is already in Double-A Frisco. Before his Fourth of July promotion, which bypassed high Class A Bakersfield, he was 6-3, 2.52 with a Midwest League-high 106 strikeouts in 82 innings and just 28 walks in 17 starts.
Although the Dominican native continued his career-long trend of striking out more than a batter an inning, he used more than his fastball to get the job done at Clinton this spring.
"Now I'm comfortable throwing my changeup and curveball," Feliz said through an interpreter, Clinton catcher Carlos Dominguez. The lanky righthander added that he considers his changeup his second-best pitch, and he's just as willing to call on his curveball.
Feliz grew up in the Dominican province of Azua along the southern coast of the country, five minutes from the provincial capital of the same name. The nation's capital, Santo Domingo, is an hour to the east. Another hour away on the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic are the famous, picture-postcard beaches of Punta Cana, with miles of white sand and palm trees.
His command of the English language will take some time, but other cultural adjustments have gone smoothly. Feliz said he has come to like American food, though he still enjoys a more traditional Dominican dinner. The Latin players on the LumberKings often get together for rice and beans, chicken and other familiar dishes. The 22-year-old Dominguez said he has the most cooking experience among the group; Feliz added that he prepares the best rice.
Originally signed by the Braves in 2005, Feliz spent his first pro season in the Dominican Summer League and moved on to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2006. Throwing effortlessly in the mid-90s, he mowed down hitters with his overpowering fastball before advancing to Rookie-level Danville in the Appalachian League to start 2007. On July 31, the Braves traded Feliz to the Rangers.
"There are plenty of guys who can light up a radar gun," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "There are two things that stand out with Neftali and how he does it. One is the ease with which he throws the ball with very little effort. Some big flame-throwing guys have very unsound mechanics in order to generate all that force behind the ball. It almost looks like Neftali is playing catch and the ball just explodes out of his hand.
"Secondly, a lot of guys who throw with that velocity can't command it. The pitch might be 97, 98 on the radar gun, but it's a foot out of the strike zone. When you actually have to throw a strike, it's much more hittable at 91, 92. Neftali has shown to this point that he's able to throw a strike with that velocity."
After the trade, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Feliz was promoted to short-season Spokane. He began focusing on his secondary pitches more, yet deftly handled the move up. In one start and seven relief appearances, Feliz had a 3.60 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 15 innings.
Then it was off to Clinton this spring. Feliz said LumberKings pitching coach Danny Clark had been instrumental in making his curveball better.
"Danny likes to work hard," Feliz said. "He likes to push pitchers. He said I had an OK curveball when I came here, but we have worked hard on it and I can throw it whenever I want now."
Clark said it was easy for Feliz to dominate Midwest League hitters with his fastball, so it was necessary to get the young prospect to call on his offspeed stuff more as the season progressed. In his last few weeks with Clinton, Feliz had to throw his curveball enough to meet a certain percentage of his overall pitch count.
Feliz also showed marked improvement in other areas of his game this spring, according to Clark, by shortening his time to the plate and learning to hold runners more effectively.
"He's got a vision, he's got a goal of getting to the major league level," Clark said. "He's developed a routine as a starting pitcher. That's a big deal for starters to learn how to do a pre-game and the side work. Getting himself into a routine, he knows exactly how much time he needs to get loose."
Feliz is in uncharted territory in terms of his workload. He's already pitched more innings this year than he did in his three previous pro seasons combined. Feliz said he feels good, and it's likely he has been energized by the challenge of facing Double-A hitters.
In his first outing with Frisco, the righthander went five innings, allowed three runs on six hits and a walk, and fanned six against Arkansas. He also hit 100 mph with his fastball.
From others in the organization, Clark said he's heard that Feliz had a good feel for what he was trying to do, shown good velocity, and his change was especially effective against Arkansas hitters. More advanced hitters will show him what parts of his game need work.
Daniels said Feliz's promotion had little to do with his velocity. He noted that the prospect's overall command and changeup have been markedly better in 2008, and he's shown a much-improved curveball in many of his starts, making the entire package more effective.
"He really needed a new challenge," Daniels said. "He wasn't being challenged in that league, and we felt he was ready for the next step."
STATS LLC's Thom Henninger is a freelance writer based in Chicago.