Early this morning, I engaged my good friend and fellow BBTiA cohort Mike Hindman in a discussion about spring training that quickly swerved in an interesting direction, and ended with us concurring on this single point: all things being considered, this has been an especially boring spring. So much so, in fact, that in the five years I've been writing for BBTiA, this has easily been the toughest spring for me to get up every day and try to write something that transcends the perpetually recycled and contrived storylines. The Michael Young trade imbroglio got everyone's pulses going a bit, I think, but that died down a full month ago and in the intervening period between then and now, there's been unnervingly little out there that has managed to hold my interest for any length of time.
A big part of it has to do with the lack of compelling roster battles -- the Rangers' 13 position players have been virtually set in stone since the Mike Napoli trade was consummated, as has also been the case with the principal rotation and bullpen pieces. The Brandon Webb Rehab Watch should probably excite me more, but the catastrophic failure of the Rich Harden experiment and Webb's health chronology have greatly tempered my enthusiasm on that front. We do have the crop of young guns jockeying for position in one of the tightest rotation competitions in recent memory, but even my interest in that wavered as the perception of Neftali Feliz being tentative about being used outside of the late-inning box spread, and as it become increasingly apparent that the only rotation spot truly up for grabs would be filled by one of Michael Kirkman, Matt Harrison, or Dave Bush.
So when anything whatsoever surfaces that might be able to sustain my baseball interest until the regular season actually starts, I cling to it for dear life, and it appears that I have, for the moment at least, found that 'anything' (via MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan): "Neftali Feliz said he wants to be in the Rangers rotation. Feliz, reversing what he said a week ago, is now saying that his goal this spring is to make the Rangers rotation. Feliz said earlier that he was more comfortable in the bullpen as the closer but has changed his mind after talking to pitching coach Mike Maddux. Feliz has grown more confident after coming up with a cut fastball that he has added to his repetoire."
It never ceases to fascinate me how stark the difference of opinion can be between several people who are all presumably rendering their judgment based on the exact same visual evidence. Five days ago, Yahoo.com's Jeff Passan quoted a scout who characterized Neftali Feliz's brand new cut fastball -- or 'cutler,' or 'slutter,' or whatever you'd prefer to call it -- as "unfair" and a "hell of a fourth pitch." More recently, Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News has deemed it a "devastating new pitch."
And yet today, we have Professor Parks and Jason Cole passing along these various and sundry observations from Feliz's four-inning effort earlier this afternoon: "Cutter same as last start -- major work in progress." ... "He's almost certainly going to open the season at closer." ... "Feliz was solid; fastball heavy [with] bat missing slider, but cutter wasn't effective and command was spotty against AAA lineup. Doesn't tell you much." ... "I think everything at this stage is by design. He showed two pitches and a poor cutter; reliever outing, basically." ... "Too hard to say [how far away the cutter is from being effective]. Slider flashed [promise], but wasn't consistent. [Change-up] was non-existent."
A short time back, general manager Jon Daniels made reference to C.J. Wilson's burning desire and absolute commitment to becoming a starting pitcher in the 2009-2010 off-season as being one of the big contributing factors to his ensuing success in the Rangers' rotation. I think the unspoken implication in that quote was that the absence of a similar commitment on Feliz's part would, to some extent, diminish the Rangers' confidence in him being able to complete a similarly successful transition -- and hell, why not? I can readily buy into that notion. So if we're now looking at a situation where Feliz has really and truly committed himself to becoming a starting pitcher, I would have to imagine that amplifies the Rangers' confidence in barrelling full speed ahead.
Is this actually going to happen right now? Well, the scouting-oriented types that are the closest to me maintain quite a bit of outward skepticism, and I'd be lying to you if I said that I didn't rely heavily upon their assessments, or lend their observations quite a bit more weight than what the local reporters have to say about such matters. From that standpoint, I'm really still quite skeptical about this. But I can also acknowledge that the Rangers may want to plow ahead with Feliz as a starter even if there are multiple aspects of his skill set that very much remain works in progress, and that they're willing to endure the inevitable early-season hard knocks in exchange for the later-season potential of a legitimate playoff-viable starter. And that's the thing -- what makes the most sense to us in our bubble doesn't necessarily make the most sense to the ballclub, and vice versa.
In short, the already raging Feliz optimism has today been fortified with steroids. And that's okay, because baseball fandom -- or fandom in any sport, really -- without at least some modicium of underlying optimism and excitement wouldn't be worth the time investment. The realist in me isn't quite ready to buy in wholeheartedly yet, but it's getting a bit closer -- and, if nothing else, I now have that life-saving piece of floating driftwood to cling to that can hopefully sustain my baseball interest over these next two interminable weeks.