On Tuesday afternoon, Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram indicated that one of the primary personal off-season goals established by flame-throwing right-hander Neftali Feliz was for him to further develop and refine his craft to a point where he would be able to break camp next spring as one of the Texas Rangers' five starting pitchers.
Concurrently, there is a line of thought out there that if Feliz - or his slightly older left-handed counterpart, Derek Holland - contribute significant innings at the Major League level in 2009, that it will constitute a failure on the part of the Rangers with regard to the composition of the big league pitching staff and/or the continued development of two of the most gifted young arms to ever grace the Texas farm system.
Possible? Yes. But it doesn't necessarily have to mean that.
Feliz and Holland are, by all indications, two incredibly driven and self-motivated individuals that relish new challenges and thrive off their never-ending drives to succeed at the highest competitive level. In the first installment of his exhaustive Fall Instructional League breakdown last Saturday, Jason Parks specifically mentioned Feliz as possessing a certain aura and serving as an inspiration to his teammates - or, as he put it, being "walking proof of what could happen to them."
The Rangers don't need to push or prod these two burgeoning superstars to keep them motivated, focused and on the road to success, because they're doing all the pushing themselves. Their remarkable talent and ultimate level of performance should (and, in all probability, will) dictate how fast they move, as opposed to any sort of arbitrary, management-imposed promotion schedule that prohibits them from sniffing the majors until they make a certain number of starts at each minor league level - or, for that matter, until they reach a certain age.
If that means their exposure to the majors next year is restricted to a September cameo (induced by the annual expansion of the 40-man roster) and a promise from above that they'll be in the starting rotation mix come spring 2010, that's fine. Heck, given this organization's past propensity to rush young pitchers to the majors prematurely, that wouldn't remotely represent a bad thing.
But if they not only beat down, but set alight the door that separates the minor league and big league realms, that's fine as well. If they prove physically and emotionally ready to take that next huge step, that's more than fine. If the Rangers feel confident that they can unveil one or both of their most potent young secret weapons and not have it work as a detriment to their respective psyches (and, for that matter, that they won't get absolutely torched by big league hitters), that's fine too.
Granted, there is a long line of starting rotation candidates ahead of both Feliz and Holland, and their mid-summer promotions would more likely than not signify yet another ongoing disaster with the big league pitching staff. If they're struggling with their command, movement, secondary offerings or outright mental tenacity at Double-A Frisco or Triple-A Oklahoma City, and a rash of injuries in Arlington necessitates an emergency call-up, that would obviously be a less than ideal scenario.
You don't want to create another Tommy Hunter-type situation with two immensely important long-term assets like Feliz and Holland. At the same time, you don't want to stagnate their progression. It's a delicate balance, but one that can be constructively managed so long as the Rangers employ some good, old-fashioned common sense.
And assuming the Rangers find the right balance, break them in when they're ready to be broken in and exhibit enough patience to let them take their initial licks from the bats of the world's best baseball players, they're going to emerge on the other side as better pitchers - pitchers on an accelerated, but carefully coordinated timetable that are not only going to get better and better, but also pitchers ready to begin contributing consistent, quality Major League innings, hopefully around the same time that the Rangers begin their transformation from a punch line to a legitimate playoff contender.
Keep your fingers crossed.
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Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News notes that Feliz sat primarily around 96 mph in his first FIL outing on Tuesday, flashing 98 mph heat with regularity and repeatedly showcasing his effortless delivery during his three scoreless innings of work.
Team president Nolan Ryan reportedly worked one-on-one with Feliz last week, zeroing in on his dominant heater and the location of the pitch; Ryan evidently wants Feliz to focus on pounding the low-and-away portion of the strike zone against right-handed batters, which indeed makes plenty of sense on a fundamental level.
According to John Walsh's extensive Pitch f/x-fueled study of fastball velocity/location and how that relates to run prevention, low-and-away fastballs excel at discouraging home runs and are above-average overall at limiting scoreboard damage. Sample size is presumably an issue, but then it doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell you that pitches in the outer third of the strike zone are generally going to be more effective than inside pitches or offerings down the middle of the plate.
And by the way, you have no idea just how giddy I am at the revelation that Ryan has also been working one-on-one with 2008 fourth-round pick Joe Wieland.