Pirates bolster bullpen with 1-year deal for Neftali Feliz, cut Sanchez

Rob Biertempfel
| Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, 1:21 p.m.

The Pirates on Wednesday continued to reshape their bullpen by signing free agent reliever Neftali Feliz to a one-year, $3.9 million contract.

Feliz won the American League Rookie of the Year Award as the Texas Rangers' closer in 2010 and has ample experience in high-leverage situations.

The right-hander has collected 97 saves during seven years in the majors.

General manager Neal Huntington said Feliz's arrival does not necessarily portend the departure of closer Mark Melancon, whose name has surfaced in trade talks during the past few months.

“As we sit here today, we're planning on Mark being our closer,” Huntington said.

Feliz, 27, was non-tendered by the Detroit Tigers in December after putting up a 7.62 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP in 30 outings. He began last season with the Rangers, who cut him in early July after he scuffled with a 4.58 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP in 18 appearances.

The mid-90s mph fastball is still a weapon for Feliz, but he must fully regain his form to be an effective setup partner with Pirates left-hander Tony Watson.

The rest of the Opening Day bullpen likely will consist of righties Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero and newcomers Juan Nicasio and Kyle Lobstein.

That seven-man configuration could cost about $24.8 million, which at this point figures to be about 26 percent of the 2016 payroll.

In his final year of arbitration eligibility, Melancon can expect to draw a $10 million salary — a sum the Pirates might deem too pricey.

“We're trying to build our bullpen around Mark and Watty,” Huntington said. “But at the same time, you never say never (about a trade).”

After having Tommy John surgery, Feliz pitched in only six games in 2013. He's made 78 appearances over the past two seasons.

“We saw flashes of Feliz returning to his preinjury form in 2014,” Huntington said. “On the surface, 2015 was not a great year for him, but we saw flashes of his fastball, flashes of his slider. We saw things we believe came come back.”

In 2010, Feliz racked up 40 saves and averaged 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings with the Rangers. He earned an All-Star berth and was named Rookie of the Year after leading the AL with 59 games finished.

Two years later, the Rangers tried to convert Feliz to a starter. He pitched in eight games (seven starts) and went 3-1 with a 3.16 ERA before having Tommy John surgery in August.

Feliz's first full season back from surgery was 2014, when he was used as a setup man. He pitched in 30 games and collected 13 saves with a 1.99 ERA.

In addition to reconstructive elbow surgery, Feliz missed time due to a sore shoulder in 2011 and an abscess in his side in 2015.

To clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Feliz, catcher Tony Sanchez, a past first-round draft pick, was designated for assignment.

“A very difficult decision,” Huntington said. “He's worked hard, but there were some challenges along the way.”

Sanchez, 27, was selected fourth overall in 2009. Over the past three seasons, he played in 51 games in the majors and batted .259 with four homers.

Defensive deficiencies, most notably poor throws to second base, forced Sanchez out of the Pirates' long-term plans.

“We still see major league upside for Tony,” Huntington said. “Given where we are and where we feel we're going, we felt this was the best move.”

Sanchez, who was planning his wedding at home in Miami when Huntington called, said he understands the Pirates' decision but it stings nonetheless.

“It (stinks) to be the fourth overall pick and not pan out,” Sanchez said. “It's no one's fault but my own. I never thought I'd say this, but I think getting an opportunity with another club is what's best for me.”

Huntington indicated that the development of Elias Diaz also helped make Sanchez expendable. During the Winter Meetings last month, the Pirates rebuffed a request by the Rangers to include Diaz in a possible trade for first baseman Mitch Moreland.

Diaz is behind Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart on the Pirates' depth chart. Management wants him to fine-tune his skills this year as a regular at Triple-A Indianapolis.

“We put Tony and Elias in a less-than-ideal situation last year with them splitting time at Triple-A,” Huntington said. “It didn't benefit either one of them.”

Notes: The season opener at 1:05 p.m. April 3 at PNC Park vs. the St. Louis Cardinals will be nationally televised by ESPN. … The home game against the Cardinals at 5:05 p.m. June 12 at PNC Park will be televised by ESPN as the opener of a “Sunday Night Baseball” doubleheader. … Two games at PNC Park will be carried by Fox Sports: June 11 vs. the Cardinals and July 9 vs. the Chicago Cubs. Both games will begin at 7:15 p.m. … Four home games this season are slated to begin at 4:05 p.m.: May 21 vs. the Colorado Rockies, June 4 vs. the Los Angeles Angels, July 23 vs. the Philadelphia Phillies and Sept. 5 vs. the Cardinals.

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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