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02/20/10 4:30 PM ET

Rangers still determining Feliz's role

Spring Training offers glimpse of young fireballer's future

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Ace No. 1 starter or All-Star closer?

Which would you rather have? Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux will take the No. 1 starter.

"There are more closers out there than aces," Maddux said.

Manager Ron Washington takes the opposite view.

"There's no substitute for a guy who can shut a ballgame down," Washington said.

The debate is pertinent at Rangers camp. The club believes it has a 21-year-old right-hander in Neftali Feliz who can be both. But it has to be one or the other, and this spring will ultimately offer a glimpse of which way the powers that be are thinking as they evaluate one of the most talented pitchers to ever come their way.

"It's a special talent," Washington said. "If this kid stays healthy ... there's no telling what he can be."

Feliz was a setup reliever for the Rangers last season but will be given a chance to start this spring. He is one of at least six candidates for the final two spots in the rotation. But he could also remain in the bullpen as a setup reliever with a possibility of ending up as the closer one day.

Both scenarios have been discussed internally, but right now the goal is to build him as a starter and see where that goes this spring.

"I get a lot of questions about that, but it's up to the team to decide," Feliz said. "I think I will be better as a starter than a reliever. I'm confident I can do better as a starter."

The Rangers will base their decision on team need. They also know that what they decide this spring will not necessarily be a long-term decision. Both Scott Feldman and Derek Holland started in the bullpen last year before moving to the rotation.

Top 10 in strikeouts per nine innings last season*
Pitcher Team K/9
Jonathan Broxton Dodgers 13.5
David Robertson Yankees 12.98
Rafael Soriano Braves 12.13
Joakim Soria Royals 11.72
Michael Wuertz Athletics 11.67
Joe Nathan Twins 11.67
Daniel Bard Red Sox 11.49
Neftali Feliz Rangers 11.32
Carlos Marmol Cubs 11.31
Luke Gregerson Padres 11.16
* Minimum 30 innings

"Things change," Maddux said. "We're going to stretch him and then at some point in Spring Training we'll all get our heads together and decide which way we are going to go. Injuries happen. Right now we have a lot of starters, but will we have a lot of starters five or six weeks from now?

"Let the kid establish himself as a Major Leaguer and we'll take it from there. He might be a closer; he might be a starter; he might be setting up."

Feliz is talented, but there are still some unknowns. Feliz can throw hard -- he hit 101 mph in his Major League debut -- but the Rangers want to see three quality pitches as a starter. His changeup was solid and his curveball made dramatic improvement at Triple-A Oklahoma City before he was called up to the big leagues at the beginning of August.

"At first, he was wild and erratic, especially with his offspeed stuff," Oklahoma City catcher Kevin Richardson said. "But he started commanding his fastball and made huge strides with his curveball and changeup. He's pretty special. If he's commanding his fastball and getting his offspeed stuff over, you're in trouble. Good luck."

Another unknown is durability. In his first 12 appearances for the Rangers last season, he allowed one run on five hits and a walk in 22 innings while striking out 28. In his last eight appearances, he allowed five runs on eight hits and seven walks in nine innings while striking out 11. His velocity also dropped as the season came to a close.

"There is a phenomenon in this game," Maddux said. "It's called first time playing in September. It's something you have to learn. In the Minor Leagues, you play 144 games over five months. You have to condition yourself for six months. Until you do it, you don't know how to prepare for it.

Top 10 in opposing batting average last season*
Pitcher Team OBA
Mike Adams Padres .111
Neftali Feliz Rangers .124
Jonathan Broxton Dodgers .165
Andrew Bailey Athletics .167
Robinson Tejeda Royals .167
Carlos Marmol Cubs .171
Joe Nathan Twins .171
Tyler Clippard Nationals .172
Claudio Vargas LA/Mil. .177
Tim Byrdak Astros .178
* Minimum 30 innings

"The phrase is, 'Running out of gas.' That's what happened, but he wasn't the only one."

When the season was over, Feliz had pitched a combined 108 innings between Oklahoma City and Texas. He threw 127 innings the year before. If he's a starter, that total will increase significantly. Obviously, he's not going to be targeted for 200 innings, but even 170 innings will be a significant step.

"The kid is a bulldog." Washington said. "He can handle it. If we see fatigue, we'll make an adjustment. That's something we don't want to worry about right now."

There is a reverse scenario. Another year in the bullpen won't get him any closer to building up to a 200-inning frontline starter.

If the Rangers stick to the plan of doing what's best for the team, that could mean the bullpen. There is strong sentiment for both Feliz and Wilson remaining a part of a formidable bullpen as setup relievers behind closer Frank Francisco.

There are six candidates for the last two spots in the rotation, but the Rangers have made it clear that Tommy Hunter is a leading candidate for one of those spots. That leaves Feliz competing with Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Brandon McCarthy and fellow reliever C.J. Wilson for the final spot.

Harrison and Holland are also both left-handers. That might be a consideration if the Rangers strive for some diversity in an otherwise right-handed rotation.

"I prefer to start, but I will be just as happy to make the team as a reliever," Feliz said.

He will make the team somewhere. Only the role remains to be determined.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.