Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who spent most of last week his colleagues in Las Vegas for baseball's Winter Meetings, has been relatively quiet as the offseason reaches the halfway point. Thus far, he has dealt Gerald Laird to the Detroit Tigers and Wes Littleton to the Boston Red Sox for prospects, along with exercising Hank Blalock's $6.2 million club option.
In his fourth year as general manager, Daniels has had his fair share of gaffes (getting virtually nothing of value for Chris Young, Adrian Gonzalez, John Danks and Alfonso Soriano comes to mind), but the organization is definitely in better shape now than when he took over. However, after his third straight losing season (eighth in the last nine for Texas), he will be expected to make improvements to a team that finished dead last in ERA (5.37) and defense (132 errors, .978 fielding percentage) in 2008. Suggestions in the form of a Christmas list are forthcoming, but first, let's get caught up with some offseason moves that impact the Rangers.
Predictably, the Yankees added the two most-coveted arms in free agency and paid handsomely to get them (seven years, $161 million for CC Sabathia and five years, $82.5 million for A.J. Burnett). The Cubs were able to retain Ryan Dempster (four years, $52 million), and Cleveland inked former Cubs closer Kerry Wood to a two-year, $20.5 million deal. This reduces the pool of available starters, but these three weren't necessarily good fits for Texas. The Rangers apparently finished second in the Wood sweepstakes, but there still are plenty of closers out there, even with the Mets signing Francisco Rodriguez (three years, $37 million) and trading for J.J. Putz.
Within the AL West, Oakland made an early splash by trading for slugger Matt Holliday, who gives them the middle-of-the-order hitter long coveted by GM Billy Beane. But Holliday appears to be a short-term solution since he's a free agent at the end of the year and is represented by agent Scott Boras. Beane was also pursuing shortstop Rafael Furcal, who appears headed back to the Dodgers; he's competing with the Rangers for Randy Johnson; and Jason Giambi has been discussed as a target. Clearly, the A's have some money to spend, and they will be an improved team in 2009.
The Angels lost K-Rod to the Mets and are looking closely at former Rockies closer Brian Fuentes as a possible replacement. GM Tony Reagins is also trying to retain Mark Teixeira, who is being courted by several East Coast teams and is likely to end up in Boston. If they miss out on Tex, Manny Ramirez has been tossed around as a backup plan, and Jake Peavy has been mentioned as a way to upgrade their rotation since Jon Garland, a 14-game winner with the Angels last year, remains a free agent.
Peavy, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, has been dangled by the Padres in trade talks with the Braves and Cubs, but conversations with both have gone nowhere so far. Peavy has expressed his interest in staying in the National League and Manny is being chased by the Yanks, so it's possible the Angels could miss out on Sabathia, Teixeira, Peavy and Manny. If so, there's no way they'll be able to match their MLB best 100 wins from last year, but they have plenty of dough to spend and will be dipping into the free agent market in order to remain the favorites in the division.
The Mariners dealt away Putz and lost Raul Ibanez to the Phillies (three years, $31.5 million), and new GM Jack Zduriencik is exploring the possibility of bringing back Ken Griffey as his replacement. After getting burned recently in the free agent market by Carlos Silva, Jarrod Washburn, Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, it appears as though Seattle is taking the cautious approach and will spend some time rebuilding under new manager (and former Rangers bench coach) Don Wakamatsu.
As mentioned earlier, Daniels traded Gerald Laird and Wes Littleton and exercised Hank Blalock's option. Trading Laird was something I was pushing hard at last year's trade deadline, and Daniels paid a small price for waiting. In a market with plenty of catchers available via trade or free agency, he received two decent pitching prospects back from the Tigers, Guillermo Moscoso and Carlos Melo. Had he traded Laird to a contender in July, it's likely the return would have been better.
The Rangers received pitcher Beau Vaughan from the Red Sox for Littleton, as Daniels was simply trying to get something in return for a guy that wasn't going to make the 40-man roster. As for Blalock's option, that was pretty much a no-brainer.
Texas also watched Ramon Vazquez sign in Pittsburgh (two years, $4 million), sold Kameron Loe's rights to a Japanese team and hasn't been showing any interest in bringing back Milton Bradley. This, of course, fascinates me. When I begged for Daniels to find a trade partner for this guy, commenters were all over me. More on Bradley in a later blog, but now that we're all caught up, here's my Christmas list.
1. Win the bidding war for Ben Sheets.
Texas has been talking with him. The organization believes his interest in playing here is genuine. He reportedly took his Dallas home off the market, and new Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux is lobbying to bring his former student here.
Don't eff this up.
Sure, Sheets was shut down at the end of last year with a strained pitching elbow and has been plagued with injuries throughout his career, but he also was 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA in 31 starts for the Brewers last year and was the NL starter in the All-Star Game. When he's healthy, he's an ace. And Texas desperately needs an ace. Given his injury history, he'll likely be looking at a three-year contract somewhere in the neighborhood of $45 to $50 million. It's a gamble, but one worth taking.
2. Sign Randy Johnson.
Texas is among several teams in the bidding for Johnson's services. And while Texas is 10 years late on inking the future HOF'er, when your pitching staff is as bad as the Rangers, a 45-year-old southpaw coming off an 11-10 season with a 3.91 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 184 innings is a major upgrade.
Johnson is just five wins away from 300 in his career, but his arrival will be more than a novelty act, especially if it's coupled with the Sheets signing. If Sheets becomes the ace, Millwood moves to No. 2; Johnson can be slotted at No. 3; Padilla will slide in at No. 4; and whichever youngster emerges out of spring training will be in the fifth spot.
The Big Unit obviously has something left in the tank, as evidenced by his 2.41 ERA in his 13 second-half starts, finishing the season with a complete game against the Rockies when he gave up one unearned run and struck out nine. The risk here is minimal, and if he requires only a one-year commitment, Johnson can be shopped at the trade deadline if the Rangers aren't contending.
3. Wise up and realize that Ian Kinsler sucks as a second baseman. Then, bite down hard and move him to left field.
On its face, it seems crazy to move an All-Star second baseman to a position that you already have filled just to create a new hole, but this is not a new suggestion from me. In fact, I harped on it several times last year. Most notably, I pointed out how Kinsler has essentially become Alfonso Soriano -- a great offensive weapon that is a liability in the infield. Of course, it's ironic that Soriano was supposedly traded away because he wouldn't move to the outfield in order to make room at second for Kinsler. Then Soriano became a left fielder in Washington, and Kinsler proved to be as defensively challenged as Soriano.
Look, the Rangers defense was awful last year and Kinsler was part of it. Move him to left and let Joaquin Arias, who played well at second base last year, and German Duran platoon the position to see if either is a candidate to stay there long term. This gives an outfield of Kinsler, Josh Hamilton and David Murphy with Nelson Cruz and Brandon Boggs as bench options. I'm very comfortable with that. Plus, that leaves Marlon Byrd available for ...
4. Trade Marlon Byrd and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to Boston for Clay Buchholz.
Boston needs a young catcher to replace Jason Varitek and a fourth outfielder to replace Coco Crisp, and the Rangers need pitching, so this seems like a great fit for both sides. However, given how much GM Theo Epstein covets Buchholz, it might take a little bit more to get this deal done, which I'm not opposed to doing.
Perhaps best known for pitching a no-hitter as a 22-year-old in 2007, Buchholz struggled mightily last season (2-9, 6.75 ERA). However, his stuff is off the charts, and scouting reports say his stint in the Arizona Fall League put him back on track as one of the top young arms in the game. Even Nolan Ryan said he'd look good in a Rangers uniform.
Obviously, if the Red Sox wanted any of the Rangers top prospects added to the deal, I'd walk away. However, Daniels should entertain the idea of accepting Julio Lugo in the trade. Boston is desperately trying to unload Lugo, as he's no longer a starter and is set to earn $9 million both next year and in 2010 with a vesting option for 2011. He could play second base if Kinsler is moved to left field.
Epstein would likely ask for Taylor Teagarden as a substitute for Salty, but Teagarden is the Rangers catcher of the future, and I wouldn't expect to see him go anywhere unless the offer is overwhelming.
5. Keep your options open.
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If the rumors are true, Daniels may be quietly shopping Michael Young. It's not often you hear about a shortstop entering the trade market coming off five-straight All-Star appearances and his first Gold Glove, but Young begins the first season of the five-year, $80 million contact extension he signed in March 2007. Apparently, Texas paid $20 million as a bonus, so Young is owed $12 per season over the remainder of the contract.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking to give Young away, but shedding his contract could make a lot of sense for Texas if they could get a reasonable return. Despite his Gold Glove, Young's defense is lacking, and top prospect Elvis Andrus could be ready to take over the position by midseason. This would likely move Young to third, where his production (.284-12-82-10 SB) simply wouldn't justify his salary as a corner infielder. Once some of the other offensive weapons are signed, especially Teixeira and Ramirez, there might be some interest in Young from those teams that missed out.
Daniels should also be open to signing Juan Cruz as an option at closer, and even though Jake Peavy is highly unlikely to approve a deal to Texas, it wouldn't hurt to make a strong offer to San Diego. With all that has happened to him so far, perhaps Peavy is just looking for someone who wants him bad enough to make the right offer to land him.
So there's my wish list. Feel free to chime in accordingly. I'm not optimistic that he'll come through on any of them, but one thing is undeniable: Heading into next season with the roster virtually as-is will be considered a failure. Daniels must get busy and make this team better, or else another sub-.500 season is ahead. And how many more can this team handle before a new GM is brought in?