Over at Hardball Talk, they have the latest edition of their Power Rankings out. The Rangers are 4th, and their ranking is accompanied by this:
Ha! That Wash, he's so dumb! If he had his way, he'd move his starters to the bullpen.
This, of course, is because Neftali Feliz wasn't put in the rotation this spring. Its resulted in much ridicule of Ron Washington by the national baseball media, and ties into the beating he took during the 2010 postseason, where his bullpen management seemed to have most of the sabermetric-type writers convinced that Wash needed to eat dinner with a cork on his fork like Ruprecht, so that he wouldn't put his eye out while he ate.
What's particularly troublesome about comments like these, however, is how they ignore reality.
How many teams would have taken one of their best relievers, a guy who had been pitching out of the bullpen virtually his entire time in the majors, and put him in the rotation, like the Rangers did with C.J. last season?
And then the following year, do the exact same thing with a guy who not only had never made a start in the majors, but who was a converted outfielder who had spent his entire pitching career working as a reliever?
The Rangers have also made it clear the plan is for Feliz to transition to the rotation in 2012. And yet, people seem to act like Texas not putting the 22 year old Feliz into the rotation and asking for 200 innings from him now is a crime against the hallowed memory of Alexander Cartwright.
The Feliz situation seems to be a lightning rod for criticism generally, with some within the sabermetric community apparently viewing the Rangers' decision to leave Feliz in the pen for 2011 as a case study in foolish hide-bound thinking and the modern reluctance to recognize the value of a closer versus a quality starter. The watered-down, simplistic view that seems to have been adopted is that the Rangers think that the closer role is so important, they are giving up an ace so that they can protect three run leads in the 9th inning.
The reality is, of course, much more complex. I don't think there's any question that those who make the decisions in the Rangers organization know that a top of the rotation starter is more valuable than a closer. Whether the Rangers are better off with Feliz in the rotation or in the bullpen right now, however, depends on how well you expect Feliz to perform in the bullpen, how many innings you feel comfortable with him logging, given his youth, and what the other choices in the rotation and the bullpen are.
It is just frustrating to me that an organization that had, a couple of years ago, developed a reputation for "getting it" seems to be so frequently used as a punch line because of their use of Neftali Feliz. And it is all the more frustrating when you consider that the Rangers have been one of the most aggressive teams in recent years in terms of being willing to take relievers and use them as starters.
UPDATE -- Calcaterra responds. And as he points out, the comment that I used as my jumping off point was a cheap joke, which probably didn't warrant my diatribe. His response is worth reading, and I think ultimately, he and I are probably more or less on the same page on this issue...there are legitimate arguments to be made both pro and con, and none of us, including the Rangers, really know what the absolute "right" answer is, because so much of it depends on things that we can't know until Feliz actually does transition into the rotation. I was hoping for Feliz to end up in the rotation for 2011, and was disappointed that he didn't...but there are legitimate reasons to think that him staying in the bullpen is the right move.
Now, does Ron Washington prefer to have Feliz as the closer rather in the rotation right now? Probably, because he knows Feliz is a great closer, and he doesn't know what Feliz will do in the rotation, and just about every manager of a team expected to get to the playoffs will take the known very good commodity over the unknown that could have a bigger payoff, but also carries a lot more risk. If he has a choice between Feliz in the rotation, where Wash probably is concerned that he'll show flashes of greatness but also struggle, will have to have his innings monitored, and overall, probably won't (in 2011) be a guy expected to head up a playoff rotation, and having Feliz close, he's probably going to go for the latter.
Would things be different if this were a team that was rebuilding, rather than a team that will be viewed as a massive disappointment if it doesn't win the West? Probably. But it is the manager's job to worry about the tactical issues, the (relatively) short term, while it is the front office's job to worry about the strategical and long-term issues, and that's why I think the front office is more enthused about Feliz as a starter than Washington.