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Exploring Texas Rangers' Options as Wheelin' and Dealin' Begins at Hilton Anatole

The scene yesterday afternoon in the lobby of the Hilton Anatole.
The scene yesterday afternoon in the lobby of the Hilton Anatole.
Photo by Sam Merten

Likely bracing for the departure of free-agent hurler C.J. Wilson, the Texas Rangers have already inked former Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan to a two-year, $14.5 million contract and announced Neftali Feliz's move to the starting rotation. But the efforts of general manager Jon Daniels and his staff to improve upon a club that's still reeling from losing the World Series for a second-straight season are far from wrapped up, as the Rangers are expected to be among the most active teams at this year's winter meetings.

Aside from the Nathan-Feliz combined maneuver and dealing former prized catching prospect Taylor Teagarden, Texas has spent the offseason holding its collective breath as top management like pitching coach Mike Maddux, assistant GM Thad Levine, senior director of player personnel A.J. Preller and director of player development Scott Servais have been courted by other clubs for promotions. At this point, it appears as though Servais will be the only loss, as he bolted to the rival Los Angeles Angels to be the assistant under new GM Jerry Dipoto, but that's not the only good news.

Not only were the Rangers able to retain Maddux, Levine and Preller, who are among the best at what they do, they replaced Servais with former Houston Astros GM Tim Purpura and snagged future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Greg Maddux (Mike's younger brother) from the Chicago Cubs to serve as special assistant to the GM. So, instead of scrambling to replace their pitching coach and assistant GM, Texas actually boosted an already stellar management team.

As the winter meetings kick off this morning at the Hilton Anatole, Daniels has said he aims to stay focused on adding more pitching, which is always a sound philosophy. The Rangers remain interested in re-signing Wilson and have been linked to several free agents and trade targets, not to mention 25-year-old Japanese ace Yu Darvish, who's neither.

Much like Daisuke Matsuzaka five years ago, Darvish must be posted by his Japanese team -- the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters -- with the winning bidder given exclusive negotiating rights to sign him to a long-term contract. However, Darvish's situation is, well, complicated. His father claims Darvish might not be posted until mid- to late January and recently estimated the odds of it happening at all this offseason at 50-50.

Even though the Rangers have been described as the front-runner to land Darvish by executives speaking to ESPN's Buster Olney, it seems unlikely that they'll gamble so much dough (likely somewhere north of $100 million) on someone who hasn't thrown an inning in MLB when they are apparently unwilling to do the same to keep Wilson. Plus, Matsuzaka and most other Japanese imports (with the notable exception of Ichiro Suzuki) have been busts.

Last offseason, the Rangers had the luxury of staying relatively quiet at the winter meetings, saving their big moves (signing Adrian Beltre and trading for Mike Napoli) for January, but they're unlikely to follow a similar path this year. Perhaps the most intriguing player that Texas has reportedly shown interest in is Oakland A's closer Andrew Bailey, and he's a strong candidate to be off the board sometime this week.

If that's the case, Texas should be aggressive early. Although the Rangers bullpen is already shaping up nicely, Bailey's a rare commodity: a 27-year-old dominant bullpen arm with three years of affordable club control remaining via arbitration. In his three big-league seasons, Bailey has posted a sparkling 2.07 ERA and 0.95 WHIP while saving 75 games, winning the 2009 American League Rookie of the Year award and earning two trips to the All-Star Game.

There's a bit of concern about his injury history, since the right-hander missed 52 games last year recovering from a strained forearm and sat out a total of 44 games in 2010 with strained rib muscles and minor elbow surgery. However, reports claim he's completely healthy, and his previous injuries aren't expected to result in future trips to the disabled list.

Acquiring Bailey won't be cheap, but imagine the ability to put Bailey, Mike Adams and Nathan on the bump to close out games. It would be the best bullpen threesome in the game, although the New York Yankees come close with Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and 42-year-old Mariano Rivera.

But Daniels shouldn't stop at Bailey while discussing a potential deal with GM Billy Beane, who's looking to completely overhaul his club by trading for top prospects. Beane has also made it known that young starters Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez could be had as well.

Cahill turns just 24 in March and is just one season removed from winning 18 games with a 2.97 ERA. The right-hander's also under contract for four more years and $30 million, and he could be successful in Texas with his sinkerball. Unfortunately, Cahill doesn't miss a lot of bats (career 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings) and regressed last year back to his 2009 form, posting a losing record, an ERA above 4.00 and a WHIP above 1.40.

At this point in his career, Cahill's a solid fourth starter on a championship club, so it makes little sense for the Rangers to pursue him and push someone like Matt Harrison out of the rotation.

Gonzalez is a completely different story.

Once known only as the prized pitching prospect that was involved in three separate blockbuster deals for Jim Thome, Nick Swisher and Freddy Garcia, Gonzalez has emerged as a definite No. 3 starter with No. 2 upside. In fact, the best comparable player to Gonzalez's last two seasons is ... wait for it ... none other than C.J. Wilson. The numbers speak for themselves.

Gonzalez: 65 starts, 31-21 record, 3.17 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 402 2/3 IP, 368 K, 183 BB

Wilson: 67 starts, 31-15 record, 3.14 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 427 1/3 IP, 376 K, 167 BB

 

So why not just re-sign Wilson? That one's easy: M-O-N-E-Y.

While most fans probably don't give a rat's ass how much co-chairmen Bob Simpson and Ray Davis pay Wilson, it unquestionably restricts the club from making other substantial commitments.

It sounds like a lot to surrender, but 20-year-old southpaw Martin Perez and 18-year-old Jurickson Profar should be enough to land Bailey and Gonzalez. And Texas shouldn't hesitate one second to pull the trigger.

Fans and GMs both overvalue prospects for almost the same reason: No one wants to see a talent like, say, Adrian Gonzalez shipped off only to become one of the game's best players somewhere else. (I refer to this as The Jeff Bagwell Syndrome.) Of course, GMs also value them because they're cheap and developing players is an instrumental component in building a championship-caliber club.

Derek Holland is a prime example. In Game 4 of this year's World Series, he pitched the best game in Rangers' history after earning less than $500,000 -- chump change in the baseball world.

The more players you can put on the field like Holland, Feliz, Harrison, Elvis Andrus, the more dough you can bank to spend on veterans like Michael Young, Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre, who collectively account for $45 million in salaries next year.

But there are also times when an organization is seemingly a piece or two from either contending or winning it all, much like 2010 when Daniels swapped a group of highly touted prospects, including first-round picks Justin Smoak, Michael Main and Blake Beavan, for Cliff Lee and Bengie Molina.

Unless you've been in a coma for a couple years, it's no secret that the Rangers' window to win its first championship is now. That's why dealing Profar and Perez (or any unproven minor leaguer for that matter) is a no-brainer.

There's no question that Profar and Perez are among the best prospects in the game, but the key word there is "prospects." No one -- not even the experts at Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus -- have any idea how their skills will translate onto a big-league field.

I could literally list thousands of examples, but I recently came across one on Twitter that pretty much sums it up. For whatever reason, someone started tweeting passages from the 2003 edition of Baseball Prospectus. It reads: "Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez may be getting all the prospect press but Jeff Mathis isn't far behind them."

A swing and a miss. Big time.

Mauer would eventually win the 2009 AL MVP, and Martinez would become one of the game's best hitting catchers (although now he's a full-time designated hitter). Mathis, on the other hand, has a pathetic .194 career batting average and .557 OPS.

DVD. Ruben Mateo. Joaquin Arias. Eric Hurley. Jason Botts. Dan Peltier. The list goes on and on. And on. More often than not, prospects simply don't live up to the hype. Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez are the exceptions -- the one in a million talents that even managed to exceed expectations.

So what do we really know about Profar and Perez, other than seeing them atop dozens of prospect lists? Personally, I haven't seen Profar play and watched Perez pitch once for Double-A Frisco. I'm guessing the vast majority of folks are in the same boat, so the answer is not much.

With that said, there's no shortage of scouting reports available for both players, and they obviously have the skill sets to make an impact in the bigs. Profar has most scouts drooling after hitting .286 with 12 homers, 65 RBI and 23 steals, while playing strong defense this year. But he's just 18 years old and hasn't played game above Class A. Could he be the next Hanley Ramirez? Sure. Most likely not, though.

Perez's stock dipped a bit this year after an atrocious 10-game stretch following his promotion to Triple-A when he posted a 6.43 ERA and 1.88 WHIP. And it's not like his career numbers are outstanding either (4.22 ERA, 1.50 WHIP). At just 20 years old, he clearly needs a couple more years before he can be expected to contribute to the big-league club.

In a perfect world, Perez figures it all out, earns a spot in the 2014 rotation and turns into Johan Santana somewhere around 2016. And Profar's ready at 21 years old to take over for Andrus when he hits free agency in 2015, perhaps earning his first All-Star nod in 2016.

While it would be great to have players of that caliber on the team, there are two major concerns. As I've said, the odds are slim that they become great. And the last team to be building a championship club for 2016 is the Rangers. Maybe the A's will be ready for a run then, and Texas could still be an AL powerhouse then as well, but as the Rangers marketing slogan said last year: "It's time" -- time to worry about putting the best team on the field now, not four years from now.

Sure, Gonzalez is no Lee (few are), and he has his flaws: He walks too many batters (although Wilson suffers from the same affliction), and he has benefited by throwing most of his games in a pitchers' park. And, once again, Bailey does have an injury history.

But the duo represents a much better return than Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka, who Daniels landed for Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young. At five years younger than Wilson, Gonzalez is a great replacement, as his wins, strikeouts and innings pitched have increased each year, while his ERA has dropped.

Bailey would change the bullpen from very good to great and would allow Texas to deal Koji Uehara for help elsewhere.

Most important, they can immediately contribute to a club that's on the brink of a championship, and they're under club control for three (Bailey) and four (Gonzalez) seasons at under-market rates. (They project to earn a combined $8 million through arbitration.)

The only reason not to pull the trigger is because a greater return could be had elsewhere. And while Profar and Perez for Gonzalez and Bailey is a great trade for Texas, it doesn't yield a bona fide ace.

Enter the Tampa Bay Rays. They are shopping starter James Shields, who finished third in this year's AL Cy Young voting. As I first mentioned in the days following the World Series, swapping Profar and Perez for Shields and center fielder B.J. Upton makes perfect sense.

The Rangers would solve their center field conundrum (although Upton is a free agent at the end of the year) and would finally have a No. 1 starter, who just so happens to have three affordable options for the next three years at a combined value of $28 million.

 

It's highly unlikely that either deal comes to fruition, but I do believe Daniels will make a big splash this week, with "big" being the operative word. As in, 280 pounds big.

Yup, I really believe Texas will land Prince Fielder -- for somewhere in the range of seven years and $160 million ($23 million average).

Although Daniels reportedly has been discussing a contract extension with soon-to-be-free-agent Josh Hamilton, it would be very un-Daniels-like to ink the oft-injured Hamilton -- who lost his shadow (Johnny Narron) this offseason and is so fragile physically that he can't play center field -- to a fat, long-term contract.

Allowing Hamilton to sign elsewhere would create a massive hole in the lineup, as the club would be losing a left-handed, MVP-type masher. And there aren't any of those scheduled to hit free agency next year aside from Hamilton.

But there is this year. And not only is Fielder a perfect replacement, he would be an upgrade.

In his first six full seasons in the bigs, Fielder has missed a total of 13 games. Thirteen. Ten of those were routine days off; one was because of groin tightness; one was because of leg soreness; and one was because of the flu.

Oh, and he's not too shabby at the dish either, averaging a .282 BA, 38 HR, 109 RBI, 95 R, 94 BB and .929 OPS (which is third best among active players under 30 and better than Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson's career OPS). He also spanked 50 homers in 2007 and drove in 141 runs in 2009.

So, yeah, he's pretty good.

Call him tubby. Rip on his defense. Go ahead. But there have been plenty of fat players with long careers (David Wells and CC Sabathia to name a couple), and Fielder's actually average with the glove. He's surprisingly athletic for his size.

Will he need to be moved to DH later in his career? Most likely. But a seven-year contract would make him still just 34 in the final year, so that part of his career could be somewhere else.

If you watched this year's National League playoffs, you know Fielder is not only one of the top players in the game right now, but he's also one of the game's greatest characters. He'd be a nice fit for the Rangers' loose clubhouse.

The Anatole will always be remembered as the place where Tom Hicks triggered the eventual bankruptcy of the team by inking Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million contract.

Nothing can erase that deal (which proved to be so above market that it has only been bested by A-Rod's current deal with New York in the 11 years since it was signed) from baseball's history, but Texas is poised to write another chapter, this time for far less money and with a much, much better ending.

Other Players of Interest

Roy Oswalt, FA: He's no longer an ace, but he's still a strong No. 2 if he's healthy. But health is definitely a risk associated with Oswalt, as he suffered from serious back problems last year that had him considering retirement.

The Rangers have expressed interest in him in the past and continue to do so, but I don't see Texas taking another gamble on a pitcher with significant injury concerns. That is, unless there's overwhelming medical evidence to suggest he's in top shape.

Mark Buehrle, FA: The Rangers are apparently interested in the four-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner, but I'm guessing he's offered more money than Texas is willing to spend.

That's good news because Buehrle's simply not a top-of-the-rotation starter. In fact, he probably never was.

From ages 21 to 26 (2000-2005), he won 85 games with a 3.63 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 5.4 K/9. Nothing really jumps out, but as he entered his prime years, he actually got worse. From ages 27 to 32 (2006 to 2011), he won 76 games with a 4.02 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 4.8 K/9.

I'm sorry, but why, exactly, are the Rangers interested? While tossing more than 200 innings for 11 consecutive years is a nice bullet point, he's just not worth the money he'll get for the years he'll get.

John Danks, White Sox: His career stats aren't anything to brag about (54-56, 4.03 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 7.0 K/9) and he had his worst record, ERA and WHIP and lowest IP and K in 2011.

Again, why are the Rangers interested?

Matt Garza, Cubs: I'd deal Martin Perez for Garza, who posted the lowest ERA (3.32) and highest K/9 (9.0) of his career, but the Rangers likely wouldn't. And that's what it will take to get the 28-year-old with two years of arbitration remaining.

Jair Jurrjens, Braves: He had a career low ERA (2.96) this year and has encouraging career stats (50-33, 3.40 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 6.2 K/9), but he has missed a total of 129 games in the last two years.

Jurrjens is just not worth the risk, plus Atlanta is reportedly overvaluing him by a long shot, asking for a Zack Greinke-like return. Despite the rumors swirling around him, it seems unlikely that he'll be dealt.

Wandy Rodriguez, Astros: Meh.

Jorge Soler, FA: The Rangers have been linked to the 19-year-old Cuban defector, but they've already invested $15.5 million in fellow Cuban center fielder Leonys Martin.

Yes, That's Right, Even More Predictions

Yoenis Cespedes, FA: Speaking of Cuban defectors, Cespedes is expected to get a deal around $50 million. Even though they've already made big splashes by signing Jose Reyes and Heath Bell, I think the Miami (yes, Miami) Marlins would love to see him roaming center field in their new stadium.

C.J. Wilson, FA: He goes to Boston for more than $100 million. It turns out to be a much better signing than John Lackey, but that ain't saying much.


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