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03/08/12 7:20 PM ET

With first start, Feliz officially in rotation mix

Righty gives up homer, but more concerned with offspeed stuff

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- For Ron Washington, the seeds of this year's Neftali Feliz experiment were planted during last year's Spring Training.

The manager saw Feliz, the Rangers' closer at the time, take on the starting role a few times during camp. Feliz had been a starter in each of his Minor League seasons from 2006-09 (he started in all 27 of his appearances in '08 and 13 of 25 in '09), so Washington knew the young right-hander had the goods.

Now, following Feliz's 2012 Cactus League debut Thursday, the transition is officially under way.

"You just feel like you can't continue to go out and buy players and starters, so you develop one," Washington said. "And he was one in the Minor Leagues, so we wanted to give him the opportunity to see if he can be a front-of-the-rotation type guy. This year is the opportunity for him."

Feliz, 23, has a plus-fastball, but made a concerted effort to work on his offspeed arsenal Thursday against the White Sox. About one-third of his 36 pitches (24 strikes) were changeups, and he also mixed in nearly as many sliders to complement his fastball.

"I know I'm not going to pitch like that, but I'm really working hard on them," Feliz said of his breaking pitches. "I'm obviously going to use my fastball more, but I know this is the time to work on all that stuff and not worry about the results."

Feliz said afterward he wasn't at all concerned with his line -- two innings, including a three-run first that featured a mammoth home run by White Sox slugger Adam Dunn -- and had vowed to work on his offspeed pitches. The fastball, which topped out at 94 mph, will take its course.

"I don't think you can stand out there and just rear back like you're a closer and throw fastball after fastball," Washington said. "You've got to mix in something else -- changeups, cutters, whatever. You have to do it. And I think, each outing, he'll become more comfortable with what he's doing and following the catcher and things will continue to do get better."

Mike Napoli, Feliz's catcher Thursday, also said the right-hander's repertoire will have to change from what it has consisted of from the back end of Texas' bullpen the last three years.

"Closing and starting [are] way different," Napoli said. "You can go all out in the ninth inning and rear back. As a starter, you still want to be aggressive, but you're trying to go deep into the game. He's going to have to use his offspeed pitches."

Feliz debuted with 20 appearances in 2009 (1-0, 1.74 ERA), but really dazzled in '10, when he notched 40 saves to go with a 2.73 ERA and was named the American League's Rookie of the Year. He had 32 saves last year, a season that was preceded by a Spring Training conversation that alluded to Feliz making the transition to the rotation.

Now the conversation has materialized into action. Washington has declined to say how and where Feliz fits into the rotation as the Rangers aim for a third straight World Series appearance, but he said "no doubt about it" that this time the young hurler will be locked in.

"It feels better to know that I'm going to be a starter," Feliz said. "My goal has always been to help the team and do what the team has asked me to do, but it feels better to be a starter."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.