Neftali Feliz: The Rare Desirable July Free Agent

NeftaliFeliz

By Gabe Isaacson

The most exciting transactions that come in June are almost always trades. Contenders are making moves, often sacrificing valuable young talent for short-term fixes. Bullpen arms are usually among the most sought after commodities – players that pitch very little but are often very costly to acquire around the deadline. That brings us to Neftali Feliz.

Neftali Feliz is barely 27 years old. In his four seasons where he’s pitched over 20 innings, he’s never had an ERA over 3.20. As a reliever, he has pitched 220 innings with a 2.62 ERA. He strikes out about a batter per inning, has a WHIP of 1.03, and has a very strong strikeout-to-walk rate. Neftali Feliz has all the makings of a very valuable bullpen arm. Feliz is now a free agent.

Year Age ERA G GS GF SV IP ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W BABIP
2009 21 1.74 20 0 3 2 31.0 269 2.48 0.677 3.8 0.6 2.3 11.3 4.88 .172
2010 22 2.73 70 0 59 40 69.1 165 2.96 0.880 5.6 0.6 2.3 9.2 3.94 .225
2011 23 2.74 64 0 56 32 62.1 162 3.57 1.155 6.1 0.6 4.3 7.8 1.80 .236
2012 24 3.16 8 7 0 0 42.2 139 4.64 1.195 5.9 1.1 4.9 7.8 1.61 .213
2013 25 0.00 6 0 2 0 4.2 3.26 1.500 9.6 0.0 3.9 7.7 2.00 .357
2014 26 1.99 30 0 22 13 31.2 200 4.90 0.979 5.7 1.4 3.1 6.0 1.91 .179
2015 27 4.58 18 0 12 6 19.2 90 4.15 1.678 11.0 0.9 4.1 7.3 1.78 .344

On July 3, Feliz was designated for assignment by the Texas Rangers. He was making a little over $4 million and had one year of arbitration remaining. No team claimed him for that salary. After going unclaimed on waivers, Feliz rejected the assignment to AAA and opted for free agency. Though he may not match the salary that he would’ve received had he stayed with the Rangers, he is more likely to see a quick return to the major leagues on the free agency market.

Throughout the month of July, we are going to see many teams overpay for mediocre bullpen arms. An acquired bullpen arm is likely to pitch at most 35 innings the rest of the season, and small sample size noise is likely to cloud much of that performance anyway. Why trade prospects and/or take on substantial salary when you could simply sign Neftali Feliz?

The signing team will have the option to offer Feliz arbitration for next season, giving the acquiring team the no-risk ability to maintain control of Feliz for 2016 if they so desire. Feliz’s performance certainly has not been at the same level of his previous seasons, but there is reasonable hope that for 35 innings he could recreate that.

BABIP misfortune accounts for a significant amount of Feliz’s poor performance, and there is real hope for recovery. The biggest non-luck factor that can lead to a dramatic increase in BABIP is a decrease in the quality of a pitcher’s stuff. While velocity, movement, and release point do not tell the whole story, they sure do tell us a lot. Comparing Feliz’s pitch data from this season (top) to his career entering this season (bottom), it is hard to find a substantial difference. Brooks Baseball is a phenomenal resource for this sort of data, and this information is certainly Feliz’s best friend.

Trajectory and Movement – from 01/01/2015 to 01/01/2016

Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 227 63.41% 95.21 -6.29 9.15 -1.42 5.92
Change 30 8.38% 87.65 -7.76 4.27 -1.64 5.74
Slider 101 28.21% 82.88 4.30 -0.08 -1.52 5.79

Trajectory and Movement – from 03/30/2007 to 12/31/2014

Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 3643 74.24% 96.53 -6.52 9.45 -1.53 6.11
Change 383 7.81% 87.18 -9.05 4.53 -1.84 5.88
Slider 771 15.71% 81.35 5.40 0.31 -1.78 5.89
Curve 20 0.41% 79.16 4.45 -2.47 -2.22 5.85
Cutter 89 1.81% 87.86 -0.66 3.84 -1.60 5.94

In terms of potential landing spots, I wouldn’t look further than the AL East. Toronto has been the most frequent point of discussion for potential reliever trades. They rank right in the middle of the pack, with a 3.57 bullpen ERA. They seem like a plausible destination for Jonathan Papelbon, but his salary will be a dilemma. The ability to retain Papelbon for future seasons is certainly desirable, but he is owed a substantial sum. Feliz would be a cheap acquisition for this season, and they’d have him under team control for 2016. It’s hard to project anything beyond the 2016 season, let alone in bullpens, and you’d have to think that’d be sufficient to meet Toronto’s desire for future retention.

The Boston Red Sox would also certainly make sense. They rank 24th in bullpen ERA (3.93), and they’ve thrown 8th most bullpen innings (272.1). They have an aging bullpen, and Feliz would represent an intriguing acquisition. Their batting average against is very high – which is at least somewhat attributable to bad defense – and their team problems do match well with Feliz’s deficiencies. If they are making a concerted effort to improve the defense and work on hit prevention, Feliz would be an interesting test case to work with.

My personal favorite destination for Feliz, however, is Tampa. They have the 26th best bullpen ERA (4.09), but even more problematically have thrown the most bullpen innings (294.2). Tampa has received positive attention for limiting their starters’ innings. They’ve been pulling starting pitchers earlier than most teams would, even in good performances, to limit the number of times they have to face opposing hitters. This, however, has put a larger toll on a mediocre bullpen. In tune with their creativity and flexibility, Feliz could work as a multi-inning reliever, with substantial upside in myriad roles. He would be a low-cost option for this season, while remaining a potential long-term cog if they like his fit.

Feliz will not be a free agent for long. His upside, control, and ability have to make him an appealing option for nearly half the teams in baseball – contenders and rebuilders alike. My hope is that Feliz goes to a team who can maximize his abilities and is willing to work through his BABIP struggles to help him return to previous form.

Whether you agree or disagree, Gabe Isaacson wants your feedback. You can find him on twitter @GabeIsaacson, join in the conversation @CTBPod,on our Facebook page or download the Fandings app and debate him today!

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