What Does 2021 Have in Store for Michael Feliz?

The last two articles I’ve written have been about a pair of pickups that the Pirates gave up virtually nothing for. Today’s going to be a little bit different, as I’ll be previewing a pitcher that the Pirates had to give up a player currently under a $36 million-a-year contract to get. Michael Feliz is the guy I’ll be talking about today, and what his 2021 season may look like. 

It’s hard to say if the Pirates won the Gerrit Cole trade or not, and while Joe Musgrove brought in some prospects and Colin Moran is the Pirates’ starting first baseman four years later, the other half of the deal, Jason Martin and Michael Feliz, have yet to show much. Martin is now in the Texas Rangers organization, but Feliz is still with Pittsburgh, despite being injured most of last season. This could be his last shot to show the Pirates what they might have in him before he gets passed over. Does he have the stuff to do it?

When the Pirates acquired Michael Feliz, he did not have great stats on paper in the majors, with a 4.43 ERA in 65 innings in 2016 and a 5.63 ERA in 48 innings in 2017. When you look behind that, you can see he has sub-four FIPs in both of those years (3.24 and 3.78). As far as stuff went, Feliz sat around 96 MPH with the fastball and low to mid 80s with both the slider and the changeup. His K/9 rate was above 13 in both years prior to the Pirates trading for him, so there was definitely some pretty good stuff there, it just needed to be harnessed. 

Primarily working in the seventh and eighth innings in 2018, Feliz struggled pretty hard, with a 5.66 ERA overall and a really high 6.05 ERA in the eighth inning. Once again, his FIP was about average, this time at 4.13. For a bullpen that featured some pretty good arms set to return for the 2019 campaign, there were questions surrounding the cloudy future of Michael Feliz, and if he actually had a future as a late-inning reliever.

2019 started just about the same for Feliz, as he was actually optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis to begin the season. Once he got a late April callup, he did not pitch well at all. In 10 ⅓ May innings, Feliz gave up 11 runs. All of those runs came in four out of eleven appearances, including a botched opener attempt, where he gave up five runs in just ⅓ of an inning. This earned him a brief two week Triple-A stint, and then he was right back up when Nick Kingham was designated for assignment. 

The minor leagues may have changed him, as Feliz came out and pitched really well in June (3.00 ERA), even better in July (1.38 ERA), and then had a solid final two months of the season (3.63 combined ERAs in those months). For comparison, Feliz had a 5.11 ERA pre-All star game and a 3.13 after it. Also, he may have found himself a spot in the seventh inning, as he put up a 0.90 ERA in 20 innings there. His ERA+ was at 110, which means he was 10 percent better than league average as a pitcher. Feliz was never close to average at any point in his career before, so this was definitely a boost for him. 

2020 was just a disaster for Michael Feliz, and he gave up six runs in 1 and ⅔ innings before hitting the Injured List for the remainder of the season with right forearm discomfort. 

All that Feliz can do now is look ahead to improving for 2021, and he better do it quickly, because guys like Wil Crowe, Miguel Yajure, Cody Ponce, and others are coming right behind him. Now this could obviously change with poor play by other relievers or injuries, but looking at the projected makeup of the bullpen, Feliz is probably in the hottest water right now, especially since he’s given up two home runs in just about six innings this spring. His current contract also does not play to his advantage, as this is his last year before he hits the free agent market. If the Pirates are going with the “look toward the future” approach like I think they are, Michael Feliz will not have a spot in Pittsburgh much longer. 

So this begs the question: Why sign Feliz at all this past offseason? Well, there is really no answer to that, they could have non-tendered him and brought him back on a minor league deal like Clay Holmes just as easily. He’ll start in the major league bullpen, no doubt, but if this season starts off rough, then Michael Feliz is on his way out and guys like Geoff Hartlieb and company will fill that spot quickly. That would also mean another piece from a Neal Huntington deal having almost no value, but hey, what else is new?

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