The Texas Rangers believe they bolstered their bullpen and starting rotation Monday by signing four-time All-Star reliever Joe Nathan to be the team's closer as hard-throwing Neftali Feliz will make the move into the starting rotation.
Nathan, who agreed to a two-year contract worth $14.5 million that includes a buyout and a team option for 2014, has been one of baseball's premier closers since 2004 when he joined the Minnesota Twins, nailing down 35 or more saves in six consecutive seasons through 2009.
The right-hander missed the 2010 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March of that year and returned in 2011, pitching in 48 games (44 2/3 innings) with a 4.84 ERA and 14 saves with eight holds. He had 47 saves in 2009 with a 2.10 ERA and was one of the top closers in the big leagues.
"We kind of look at this as almost two acquisitions," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "We're getting a big-time makeup, big-time pedigree, big-time stuff closer in Joe Nathan; also, moving one of the best arms in our organization, probably one of the best arms in professional baseball to the rotation. That's a move we thought about and wanted to make the last couple of years, but the timing had to be right, had to be right for the team and also Neftali. We feel the timing is right now."
The moves could indicate that the Rangers are out of the bidding for free-agent left-hander C.J. Wilson, who is considered the top starting pitcher on the market. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said that the club is not closing the door on retaining the 31-year-old.
Nathan celebrates his 37th birthday Tuesday. Daniels said the team's scouts saw significant improvement in Nathan during the second half of last season, emphasizing that Nathan had regained the "sharpness and break back to his slider." Daniels said Nathan passed a physical Monday with no issues.
"I love it. I've always been an admirer of Joe Nathan," manager Ron Washington said. "He's been in the fire before, so I don't think there could be anything that could happen at the end of a ballgame that he hasn't already experienced. His arm strength is back. He got an opportunity last year to throw and find out where he is, and I just think this is a great move for the Texas Rangers."
The club has already informed Feliz that he will be moving into the rotation when catchers and pitchers report to spring training in February. Feliz won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 2010 with a club-record 40 saves.
The club hoped to move Feliz into the rotation last spring, but the young Dominican, uncomfortable with his off-speed repertoire, waffled and the Rangers kept him in the closer's role.
Feliz recorded 32 saves in 38 opportunities, enduring a rocky start to finish the regular season strong. Although he struggled with his control early in appearances during the postseason, he saved six consecutive games until blowing a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 6 of the World Series.
In a statement, Feliz, a starter his entire career until the Rangers moved him to the bullpen, said he is ready to join the rotation.
"I am happy to know the team's decision this early, and I have plenty of time to get ready. I have already started running," Feliz said. "I have time to work on my changeup and all my pitches. I know I have to work hard to be ready to help my team as a starter so we can get back to the playoffs."
The lasting impression of Feliz is that of him slowly walking off the mound to the dugout with his head down, shaken at losing a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 6 of the World Series. Washington would later say that Feliz's mental state was not conducive to him returning in the bottom of the 10th when the Rangers again blew a two-run lead and eventually lost the game and the series.
Washington has said that he is not concerned with the 23-year-old's ability to move beyond the stunning disappointment and bounce back in 2012. Washington and Daniels both said Feliz's blown save had nothing to do with the quick signing of Nathan and decision to turn Feliz into a starter.
Feliz's addition provides the Rangers flexibility in case they do not re-sign Wilson.
"We're not closing the door [on re-signing Wilson], but we're also realistic on what happens when the top free agents get to this point. The market is what it is," Daniels said. "We'd love to have C.J. back and you can have some options. We wanted to make sure we did. That's all."
Feliz is set to join a young staff that includes promising lefties in Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, plus hard-throwing righty Alexi Ogando, who Daniels said is projected to be in the rotation, as well as the dean of the staff, Colby Lewis.
Scott Feldman, plus a group of minor-league prospects, will also push for a starting job.
"We're comfortable going with this group, but you can always improve and that's going to be our mindset," Daniels said. "If there's an opportunity to do so we will. But, the bar's been raised, on field, certainly with the type of moves we make, the type of people we bring in, I don't think we're going to be looking for any kind of a back-end guy. If we do elect to add another starter, it's going to be somebody that he goes ahead of the group we've got."
Nathan will join a bullpen that currently boasts hard-throwing right-handers Mike Adams, who the Rangers acquired at the trade deadline to be a set-up man and a potential successor to Feliz, as well as Mark Lowe, who expressed a desire to close last spring as the Rangers experimented with Feliz in the rotation.
Adams has three career saves in seven seasons, one coming with Texas. Lowe has five career saves, including one last season with the Rangers.
Jeff Caplan covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.