Milwaukee finally followed through on one of their major offseason goals this week, agreeing to terms with RHP reliever Neftali Feliz on a one year, $5.35 million deal that includes incentives.
Feliz burst onto the scene with the Texas Rangers in 2010, winning Rookie of the Year in the American League on the strength of 40 saves and a 2.73 ERA. He seemed destined for a greatness as an elite closer but a blown save in the 2011 World Series seemingly changed all that, with the Rangers deciding to convert Feliz to a starting role in 2012. The decision proved disastrous, as an elbow injury forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery in August and robbed a season and a half from him.
He seemed his old self again in 2014, to the casual observer, but the wheels came off in 2015, leading to his exit from Texas and his early entry into free agency. Milwaukee will be Feliz’ fourth team in three years, following a half-season stint in Detroit and a season with the Pirates in 2016.
Feliz bounced back last season after the disastrous 2015 campaign, a fact many have pointed to as further evidence that Pittsburgh pitching guru Ray Searage is an actual wizard. The fact that he was several years removed from Tommy John surgery likely had as much to do with it as anything else, however. I have brought you a chart:
Feliz appeared in a handful of games in 2013 then came back full time in 2014, and while he had a sparkling 1.99 ERA, it was artificially depressed by an unsustainable .174 BABIP. The drop in velocity and a massive drop in his strikeout rate (17.1%, down from a previous career norm of about 25%) telegraphed what was to come the following year, when Feliz limped to a 6.38 ERA. He was designated from assignment by the Rangers, caught on with Detroit where he remained ineffective, then was non-tendered in the off-season.
Seemingly fully recovered from his injury last year, and with his velocity all the way back, Feliz looked back in form in the Pittsburgh bullpen. He posted his highest strikeout rate since his rookie season (28.0%) while logging his most innings pitched since 2011. He was victimized by an extraordinarily high 19.2% HR/FB rate, which was more than twice his career norm and only partially explained by a jump in his rate of hard contact allowed (37.5%, up from 30.5% the previous season).
A normalization in his HR rate drops Feliz’ 2015 ERA down around 2.50, which coupled with a double-digit K/9 makes him an elite bullpen option. This isn’t buying the foreclosed fixer-upper and draining resources in renovations, hoping you can flip it for a profit. The repairs are done and the Brewers have swooped in, buying a fully furnished house for bargain price.
Feliz is basically a two-pitch guy at this point in his career, having abandoned his curveball, a pitch he used often at the beginning of his career but hasn’t thrown since returning from surgery. He has an effective slider in addition to his high-90s heater, the former generating a 19.3% whiff rate. He also sparingly sprinkles in change-up, which generally sits in the high 80s.
Milwaukee is in the valley of a full-blown rebuild, and it’s tough to see at this point if we’ve reached the nadir and are now climbing back toward a peak. Either way, the kneejerk reaction after any free agent signing is to wonder what sort of prospects can be had for the incoming player in a deadline trade. Feliz won’t command anywhere near as much as the trio of relievers Milwaukee dealt in 2016 did, since he’s much older and is only signed through this season. He’s not ancient by any means, however, and if he can prove that his velocity is truly back, he’ll be an attractive option in July should Milwaukee choose to shop him.
For this reason, and because the Brewers don’t currently roster anyone with closing experience, I would expect Feliz to be given every opportunity to win the closer gig in 2017. He’ll be the best man for the job if he’s what they hope he can be, and a dozen saves in the bank will only drive his price higher — both for the Brewers’ ask at the deadline, and for Feliz on the open market next winter. It’s likely that the opportunity to close games was a motivator in Feliz choosing Milwaukee over his other suitors.
The signing doesn’t change Milwaukee stars for the upcoming season, but it’s exactly the type of free agent move a rebuilding team should be making — one that likely makes the team better today with the potential to add long-term value down the road. Still likely to enter 2017 with by far the league’s lowest payroll, there’s plenty of room for more signing of this sort over the next two months.