DALLAS -- In an upstairs suite at the Anatole Hilton, members of the Rangers' front office were bracing from the possibility of not being able to sign free-agent pitchers C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle.Rangers president Nolan Ryan left the hotel after lunch and said that he wasn't optimistic about signing either one, and Buehrle agreed to a four-year, $58 million deal with the Marlins on Wednesday. That would leave the Rangers with a rotation that includes returning starters Alexi Ogando, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Colby Lewis. The rotation will also include Neftali Feliz, Texas' All-Star closer who will move into a starting role in Spring Training. After all the negotiations that took place here at the Winter Meetings, it has become increasingly clear that the Rangers' best hope for taking another step forward as a team in 2012 is having Feliz achieve the high expectations they have for him as a starter. Manager Ron Washington remains confident that Feliz will be able to make the adjustment. Feliz was a starter through the Minor Leagues and the Rangers looked hard at him as a starter last spring. Feliz was close to making the switch until the Rangers decided he was too valuable as closer. They won't have such worries this spring unless something unexpected happened. The Rangers have signed Joe Nathan to be their closer and their commitment to switching Feliz is complete. "He adjusted to it last spring, and he'll have enough time in Spring Training to adjust to it, and he will get better as the year progresses," Washington said Wednesday at the Winter Meetings. "We're certainly not expecting him to come out right away and all of a sudden he's going to dominate. He will dominate before it's over, but it's a process."
Feliz has never started in the Major Leagues. He made his debut on Aug. 3, 2009, and has made 154 relief appearances since then. But he made 54 starts in the Minor Leagues, including 27 in '08 when he was 10-6 with a 2.69 ERA at Class A Clinton and Double-A Frisco. He finished with 127 innings that year, a career high.Washington talked about some of the key factors for Feliz to be successful as a Major League starter. "Just not trying to do too much, trust his stuff, throw the ball over the plate, make sure that he's in tiptop condition," Washington said. "That's the difference in being a reliever and a starter. You've got to be in tiptop condition at all times. Everything that he may have to go through, we're here to help him. "He's not going to go through this battle all by himself. We do feel like he has the repertoire and he will refine it starting before Spring Training, through Spring Training until the season opens, and then we'll give him the ball and let his talents and whatever knowledge we're able to impart to him help him make it through the season." Much has been made about Feliz being able to establish the secondary pitches to be successful. He has a fastball that hit 98-101 mph as a closer and a breaking ball that produced mixed results. Last season, he threw a fastball 79.7 percent of the time and a changeup just 3.3 percent of the time. The rest was the breaking ball, a pitch that Feliz started using more as the season progressed. "He began to use more often, and he began to command it a lot better," Washington said. "He had a pretty good changeup when he was a starter in the Minor Leagues, so I mean, we certainly have to work for him to get the feel back for that. That's why you have Spring Training. "It may take him getting to some point in the season before he finally gets a good feel for it. It's not all of a sudden everything falls into place. We're willing to wait for it." The Rangers have had two relievers make a successful transition to starter in the past two years. C.J. Wilson spent four years as a reliever for Texas before going 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA in 33 starts and 204 innings in 2010. Ogando went from setup reliever in '10 to starter last year and was 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA in 169 innings. Ogando's ERA went from 2.92 in the first half to 4.48 after the All-Star break as he seemed to wear down at the end of the season. He was used as a reliever in the postseason. Ogando had also missed almost five complete seasons after being banished from the United States due to his role in a visa fraud scandal. Wilson, on the other hand, had made 73 starts in the Minors and probably was in better position to make a quicker transition to the rotation. Feliz is also further along than Ogando, although it may be unrealistic to expect 200 innings out of him. "Could be," Washington said. "But maybe Neftali might fool us. Maybe at some point during the course of the year we're going to have to monitor it and monitor his innings. It just depends on what he shows us once we get into the season. "He might be strong as an ox throughout and may weaken somewhere. It's up to us to decide if he weakens and we have to make an adjustment or if he's strong as an ox, we can let him go. We've just got to put him out there and watch him." Right now, that is the plan and what has transpired at the Winter Meetings has confirmed that.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.