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Brewers Free Agent Targets: Neftali Feliz

Milwaukee now has a hole in the back of the bullpen after trading Tyler Thornburg. Should they take a chance on a former shutdown closer still regaining his form?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With Tyler Thornburg shipping up to Boston, the Brewers find themselves looking for a new Capital-C Closer they can undoubtedly flip sometime in the future. While there are a couple of internal options they could consider, like Corey Knebel or Jhan Marinez, the team also says they'll consider looking outside the organization to fill that hole in the bullpen.

The Giants already jumped on Mark Melancon, and the Brewers aren't a realistic destination for Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen. But there are a slew of relievers on the market that have had at least some experience ending games, including former Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz.

A former Top-10 prospect in all of baseball (or Top-5, depending on where you look), Feliz was once seen as a future frontline starter before putting up 40 saves as a rookie in 2010. He followed that up by saving 32 games in 2011, but he also blew six saves in the regular season before succumbing to Cardinals Devil Magic in Game 6 of the World Series, when the Rangers were three outs from their first World Series title.

Texas finally pulled the trigger on the decision to put Feliz in the rotation in 2012, but he only pitched in 8 games before tearing his UCL and needing Tommy John surgery. He made it back on the mound for the end of the 2013 season, but his 100-mph fastball was seemingly gone for good.

Feliz struggled to strike batters out without the benefit of that kind of heat, and while he did post a 1.99 ERA after making it back to the big leagues for good in the second half of 2014, his FIP of 4.90 shows he was mostly getting by on smoke and mirrors. The following season was a total disaster for Feliz, starting with the the 4.58 ERA he had in 18 games before getting released halfway through 2015 and ending with an even worse run in Detroit.

After putting up a 7.62 ERA (that isn't a typo) in 30 games with the Tigers, it looked like the former can't-miss prospect was toast at the age of 27. But the Pirates rolled the dice last winter, bringing him in on a one-year, $3.9 million deal. Much like they did with A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano in years past, the Bucs figured something out and resurrected Feliz's career.

Feliz became a valuable member of the Pirates bullpen, putting up a 3.52 ERA in 53.2 innings this past season. He was still getting a little lucky -- his FIP was 4.52 -- and he was still walking too many batters (3.5 BB/9), but his strikeout rates spiked to levels he hadn't seen in more than five years and he finally rediscovered the juice on his fastball. His four-seamer averaged 96 mph for the first time since 2011 -- a full year before the elbow injury -- and he also threw his slider a full mph harder than he did in years past.

With that kind of revamped stuff, Feliz was able to increase his K/9 rate from 7.31 in 2015 to 10.23 last year. 28% of the batters he faced ending up whiffing, up nearly 10% from the previous year and higher than any strikeout rate he ever posted in a full major league season. Batters were chasing more pitches out of the zone (33.4% of his pitches outside of the strikezone were swung at, up from 29.8% in 2015), but they were also coming up empty on more pitches inside the zone, only making contact on 80.4% of those pitches (down from 86.6% in 2015). In all, his swinging strike percentage of 14.2% was the highest of his career by a large margin, and more than 3% higher than his career average.

All of those numbers seem to indicate that this wasn't just a one-year fluke. Something about his stuff was legitimately more deceptive this past year, and he wasn't just getting lucky. He'll still only be 29 next season, and was out of action for 13 months during a crucial period in the typical development timeline. It's possible he's regained some of his old stuff while also using a rough few years to learn how to actually pitch (instead of just trying to throw past batters), all while still being in his prime.

This isn't to suggest Feliz is a perfect option. There's still a degree of risk in buying into a free agent who suddenly found something just before hitting the open market, and he also was prone to home runs in 2016. Combine that with his high walk rates, and the Brewers could be buying into the second coming of Francisco Rodriguez and 30 Pitches of Terror: The Sequel.

But with David Stearns seemingly making it clear he won't be cutting off the rebuilding effort early and no significant payroll obligations on the books, the Brewers are in a position to possibly offer a reliever like Feliz a multi-year deal with eyes on him continuing to prove the renaissance is for real before ultimately dealing him, too.

Statistics courtesy Fangraphs and Baseball Reference