I love what the Texas Rangers did in signing Joe Nathan to be their closer, thus moving Neftali Feliz to the rotation (though a year too late!). This bold move makes the team better as it seeks a third consecutive trip to the World Series, and there is certainly value to be had here for fantasy baseball owners as well.
Nathan was arguably fantasy's top closer from 2004-09 (yes, even better than the exalted Mariano Rivera). Nobody had more saves during that span, and Nathan also had a 1.87 ERA over those six seasons (Rivera's was 1.90) and plenty of strikeouts. Of course, Tommy John surgery ruined his 2010 season and on the surface, his 2011 season as well.
Ah, but look a bit closer at that 4.84 ERA over 44 2/3 innings. Nathan's WHIP was 1.16. He held left-handed hitters to a .198 batting-average against. His ERA after a rough April was 3.53, and I'm not particularly concerned about the seven home runs allowed (one per month after April). It's major surgery. The guy is 37. He brought a good portion of his strikeout rate back with him.
And he's definitely among the names I'm considering for my top-10 2012 closers. I trust Nathan is back, or back enough to throw 60 decent innings for a really good team, posting a 2.75 ERA and 35-plus saves. He'll likely be strictly a ninth-inning option, and overuse shouldn't be an issue with Mike Adams certainly capable of filling in. Nice work by the Rangers, as this allows a top starting pitching prospect to actually start games. This Rangers team was already pretty good, and it just got better.
As for Nathan's fantasy rank, I have Craig Kimbrel, Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, John Axford, Drew Storen, Brian Wilson, Heath Bell, Jose Valverde, Joel Hanrahan and J.J. Putz in my current top 10. For now, Nathan looks like my No. 11, ahead of Carlos Marmol, Jordan Walden and Ryan Madson, though Madson will soon find work as a closer. We have months to finalize rankings, but for comparison/perspective, check out my colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 250 (here is the relief pitcher part.) Clearly I like Nathan a bit more, but I have never been afraid to rely on older players, especially when it comes to one-category fantasy producers such as closers.
Of course, there is at least some risk with Nathan, but I'll say the reason Mike Adams makes my list of top five fantasy setup men is more because that guy is just filthy, and potentially dominant in ERA/WHIP. I wouldn't expect more than a handful of save chances for Adams. This is Nathan's gig.
As for Feliz, despite being 23 and certainly capable of great things in the rotation, he still has yet to prove himself as a starting pitcher at the big league level. He might be awesome, perhaps Michael Pineda of the Seattle Mariners awesome. But I'm skeptical when it comes to young starting pitching, often just waiting in drafts for the likes of Tim Hudson and John Danks. Feliz closed for the past two seasons, and he was considerably better in 2010 than he was in 2011. The walks scare me. The durability scares me, too. Basically, to me Feliz is starting over as a fantasy option. I'm not even looking at his numbers closing; the 2009 starting stats at Triple-A Oklahoma City are perhaps as critical to predicting future performance.
The Rangers have moved relievers to the rotation with success recently, as shown with free agent C.J. Wilson and right-hander Alexi Ogando. Is Ogando a reasonable comp? Feliz is younger and has more upside, but he also walked 30 hitters in 62 1/3 innings last year and had this problem in the minor leagues. Now he'll have to utilize all his pitches on a regular basis as opposed to simply relying on his exceptional fastball. I think we'll see some top-notch outings in April and May, good win and strikeout potential, but like Ogando last season, I'll be selling high by July. The difference is for keeper leagues I could see Feliz being a potential top-20 starting pitcher by 2014. He has time to put things together.
Let's put it this way: I'll take a chance on Feliz around the top 40-45 fantasy starting pitchers on draft day 2012, or after Round 15 of a standard draft. I'm sure someone in each league will reach higher. I don't doubt the upside, but I think the Rangers will keep him well short of 200 innings in his first season starting. Let's not get greedy. In a startup dynasty or keeper format, Feliz would make my top 40. I just think there has to be some growing pains -- and caution by the Rangers -- in 2012. I project roughly 170 innings with a 3.30 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 150 strikeouts. Those are good numbers, but numbers I think fantasy owners will reach for before I'm ready. I applaud what the Rangers did here, but fantasy owners need to look at both Nathan and Feliz differently than they did a few months ago.