Feliz looks to reclaim ROY form

PITTSBURGH – During their three-year playoff run, the Pittsburgh Pirates have made a habit of picking up pitchers who other teams had given up on and turning them into shining reclamation projects.

The Bucs are hoping that 27-year-old Dominican Republic native Neftali Feliz will continue that trend in 2016.

Feliz, 27, was named the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year after logging 40 saves as a 21-year-old phenom with the Texas Rangers. Feliz also made the AL all-star team that year.

Since then, though, the right-hander has fallen on hard times.

The Rangers made the ill-fated decision to turn Feliz into a starter, and it backfired. Then came a few injury-riddled seasons sandwiched around Tommy John surgery, and Feliz being designated for assignment by the Detroit Tigers after last season.

The Pirates, who picked up Feliz this past offseason, still think he has plenty left in the tank.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was on the Rangers’ coaching staff in 2010 when Feliz was setting the world on fire.

“I watched him win the Rookie of the Year as the closer with Texas in 2010,” Hurdle was saying about Feliz recently at PNC Park. “Neftali’s pitched the seventh inning, and he’s pitched the eighth inning. So we know he can fit in with us in a lot of different ways.”

The Pirates’ bullpen posted a major league-leading 2.67 collective earned run average in 2015, but the Bucs lost some key members of that pen to free agency in the offseason.

Another key middle-inning reliever, Jared Hughes, began this season on the disabled list.

It all makes Feliz’s role with this year’s club much more magnified.

Last year’s bullpen anchors were eighth-inning specialist Tony Watson and closer Mark Melancon, who led the majors in saves with 51.

If Feliz can come close to regaining his standout form this season, he could play a very versatile role in this season’s bullpen.

An inkling of that appeared in the season opener, when Watson worked the seventh inning and Feliz was brought on in the eighth. Both pitchers retired the vaunted St. Louis Cardinals’ side in order.

A big factor in Hurdle’s decision to use Watson in the seventh was the fact that the Cardinals were presenting three consecutive lefthanded batters in that inning – a pinch-hitter, followed by dangerous leadoff man Matt Carpenter and Philipsburg-Osceola High School product Matt Adams.

Watson struck out two of the three hitters he faced, and Feliz was nearly as impressive in the eighth.

“It was left-on-left three straight times (in the seventh inning), and (Watson) came in and did the job that we anticipated that he would do,” Hurdle said. “Feliz followed that up with a very solid effort in the eighth.”

Watson took the flip-flop in stride.

“He’s more than capable of eating up some innings,” Watson said of Feliz. “He’s pitched some good innings for some good ballclubs. We have some good arms out there. Whenever I’m called on, I’ll be ready to go.”

The interesting experiment may be a recurrent theme this season for Hurdle, who likes to think outside of the box.

“I believe we’re going to give it some length,” Hurdle said. “Then we’ll watch the maturation of the bullpen and the different individuals out there, and the roles they can get into. I do anticipate us doing a number of different things … not just in the bullpen, but also with the lineup. This should be a fun club. I’m looking forward to watching this club play.”