Neftali Feliz tries to rebound with Pirates after a tough 2015 campaign
March 26, 2016 12:00 AM
Associated Press photo
Pirates' relief pitcher Neftali Feliz is working toward a comeback in 2016.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
FORT MYERS, Fla. — The pinnacle of Neftali Feliz’s career came before the hardships. He was a ruthless strikeout machine as a 21-year-old. By 22, he was an All-Star, a American League rookie of the year and the closer for the Texas Rangers.
The next five years were harder.
Feliz needed elbow surgery in 2012. He pitched through an abscess in his armpit in 2015 for two weeks before having it removed, then was designated for assignment. He was not tendered a contract in the fall. The Pirates, who signed him in January, hope for some semblance of the pitcher he once was.
Feliz drew what positives he could from his experience.
“Last season was a terrible season for me, but it was a good season — now I’m more experienced,” he said. “I’ve never had a bad season in my career.”
He did in 2015 — a 6.38 ERA in 48 innings with two teams.
This is what the Pirates do. They find a guy who struggled, who is at the point in the salary arbitration ladder where his previous employer deems him too expensive for the production he will provide. Except the Pirates have different thoughts about the production he’ll provide, because they see ways they think they can help him.
Antonio Bastardo, Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton left in free agency. It was Soria, years ago, who helped Feliz rediscover his form.
The Atlanta Braves originally signed right-handed Feliz in 2005 out of the Dominican Republic. They traded him to Texas, along with Elvis Andrus, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Harrison and Beau Jones to acquire Mark Teixeira. By 2009, Feliz was pitching his way to a 1.74 ERA and 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
The next season, the Rangers moved C.J. Wilson to the rotation and Feliz took the closer’s role, ahead of incumbent Frank Francisco. The result — 40 saves. He racked up 32 more in 2011.
An ill-fated move to the rotation in 2012 resulted in Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. He returned for six games in 2013, but pitched tentatively. Soria, Feliz’s teammate in Texas in 2013 and 2014 and a survivor of two Tommy John surgeries himself, helped.
“Soria told me one time, ‘Hey. Don’t be scared,’” Feliz said. “‘Throw the ball. There’s no pain anymore.’”
In 30 relief outings in 2014, Feliz had a 1.99 ERA.
In 2015, Feliz struggled from the beginning. For two weeks, he pitched through a raised, tender, painful growth in his right armpit known as an axillary abscess. Feliz missed more than a month recovering from the procedure to treat it. Though he pitched two scoreless innings in his return July 3, the Rangers designated him for assignment when Harrison came off the disabled list the next day.
Feliz elected free agency and joined the Detroit Tigers. He wasn’t much better there. In 30 games, he had a 7.62 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP. Near the end of the year, however, he had hope thanks to a 3.75 ERA in September.
“I felt like 100 percent,” he said.
Rather than pay Feliz $5 million-$6 million in his final year of arbitration after he earned $4,125,000 in 2015, the Tigers non-tendered him. The Pirates signed him for $3.9 million.
Feliz had allowed one run and four hits in six innings this spring before he pitched a scoreless inning with one strikeout Friday night against the Boston Red Sox.
“I feel good,” he said. “Everything is perfect. I feel 100 percent [ready] to go and I try to do my best every time I go to the mound.”
The Pirates expect him to contribute to what was baseball’s best bullpen in 2015. They hope his adversity is out of the way.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.
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