After being incapacitated by a sprained UCL for nearly two months, and then having his first scheduled rehab start postponed by rain on Sunday, Neftali Feliz finally made his long-awaited return to the bump last night at Double-A Frisco, and, as expected, it was a bit of a mixed bag: two innings on 40 pitches, with plentiful mid-90s 'oomph' on the fastball in the first inning that was undermined by lacking command, and a much improved second inning where he went full bore with off-speed stuff. He'll go three innings on Friday with Triple-A Round Rock, and then presumably tack on another rehab start or two after that, with his situation being in a to-be-determined state beyond that point.
And, indeed, it's the to-be-determined aspect of Feliz's road back to the majors that has captured our interest, and that has made this situation one that merits monitoring. There was an inescapable, widely held assumption after the Roy Oswalt signing went down that Feliz, barring further significant long-term injury to an existing member of the pitching staff, would be tabbed for a late-inning role if/when he finally did make it back this season, and that the Oswalt commitment -- which, on a prorated basis, is more akin to a $9-10 million commitment, since he's being paid $5-6 million to pitch from June 22nd onward -- would preclude any material risk to his newly awarded rotation spot.
Which is why I've been thrown for a bit of a loop by what several of the team's beat guys have asserted in the last 10-14 days in relation to the Oswalt/Feliz dynamic. Eleven days ago, Evan Grant reiterated that the Rangers were bringing Feliz back under the assumption that he would start, and expressed concern over the degree to which Oswalt had been slammed of late (concerns that were somewhat assuaged by his good, not great pre-ASB effort against the Twins), and seemed to intimate that the potential was very much there for Oswalt's rotation spot to be rescinded. And then there was MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan holding forth on the matter as recently as yesterday, with a later comment reflecting his belief that Feliz, if healthy, could be as "dominant" as any externally acquired pitcher:
Do you see the Rangers making a big trade for Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels before the Deadline?
-- Louis B., Fort Worth, Texas
The Rangers are scouting both. So is every other contender. Texas is downplaying the possibility, but that's not surprising. That's standard operating procedure.
We know the Rangers' rotation down the stretch will include Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland. That leaves Roy Oswalt now and Neftali Feliz later. Feliz could be ready to return to the rotation right at the Trade Deadline.
Oswalt has three more starts before the Trade Deadline. If he pitches like the team expects, it will lessen the need for Texas to acquire somebody else. If he falters, it will come down to how the Rangers feel about Feliz and if they are willing to aggressively pursue one of the pitchers on the market.
I, like many of you, have a strong tendency to be guarded where matters such as beat-writer opinions are concerned (suspect as they are at times), but it's interesting nevertheless to see two different beat guys closely associated with the team expressing the opinion that Oswalt doesn't have all that much room for error, and that Feliz is a viable longer-range replacement choice in spite of his relative inexperience at starting games. I realize that some -- okay, probably most -- of the enthusiasm around Oswalt has been quieted by his early struggles, but it's surprising all the same when you see the media establishment turn around on its unilateral support for the veteran like this.
If you operate under that belief, or if you side with the notion being presented by Sullivan, and you're not confident in Oswalt's chances of rounding out into mid-rotation form, it may be more like just a matter of time before Feliz supplants Oswalt ... and that would represent quite the seismic shift in how we saw this thing playing out from the point when the Rangers signing Oswalt, as well as create a very odd pitching issue, since Oswalt was pretty adamant about only wanting to start games, and since the Rangers committed a significant sum of money -- possibly enough money to hinder any serious mid-season trade efforts that may materialize -- to Oswalt for the express purpose of him starting games and being a potential playoff rotation fixture.
And, frankly, I'm not sure how much I want to see something like this play out, because, with respect to what remains of this season, I harbor quite a bit of doubt that Feliz in the rotation and Oswalt nowhere makes more sense than Oswalt chewing up innings and Feliz settling into a high-leverage bullpen role. There's even an argument to be made that the Rangers are better off cashing in Feliz's value and moving him via trade than continuing their efforts onward into 2013 to figure out whether he's going to stick in the rotation or not, although if that were to go down, it seems like it would be more of an off-season type move than something that the Rangers would pursue right now.
In any event, the most likely outcome here is still Oswalt in the rotation, Feliz in the bullpen, and everyone living happily ever after, and there's a good chance that this post is much ado about nothing ... but it's something that's going to merit watching over the next couple of weeks, as Feliz progresses further down the rehab road and as we get a few opportunities to see how Oswalt fares on the other side of the All-Star Break.