Prior to the beginning of baseball's winter meetings yesterday at Walt Disney World Resort, a flurry of activity resulted in big-name players dealt and fat contracts inked. Predictably, Derek Jeter (three years, $51 million) and Mariano Rivera (two years, $30 million) returned to the Bronx, but not without painful negotiations between the Yankees and Jeter. The Red Sox also finally landed All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in a trade with the Padres for a group of young prospects and are on the verge of signing him to an eight-year, $161 million contract extension.
Easily the most stunning offseason transaction thus far is the signing of former Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal by the Nationals, which affects the Rangers in a couple ways. Initially, the question becomes: If Werth is worth $18 million a year, what the heck is Cliff Lee's market value? And, as we pointed out in last week's paper, Josh Hamilton becomes a free agent in 2012 with Nelson Cruz free the following year. How much are they gonna demand given that Werth (.296 with 27 homers and 85 RBI this year) has never driven in 100 runs, hit more than 30 home runs just once and posted a .268 batting average in '09?
Another scary deal for Texas: watching the Rockies commit to a six-year, $119 million contract extension for shortstop Troy Tulowitzki even though he was signed through '13 with a club option for '14. When Elvis Andrus becomes a free agent after the '14 season ready to enter his prime at age 26, what will he be worth?
The Rangers also have to be mindful that C.J. Wilson's contract expires at the end of next year, and with another strong season, he could be the top free-agent pitcher available (Mark Buehrle is the most accomplished one), assuming CC Sabathia doesn't exercise the opt-out in his contract. With Jorge De La Rosa re-signing with the Rockies for two years and $21.5 million and Hiroki Kuroda returning to the Dodgers for one year and $12 million, C.J. Wilson could command a long-term deal at around $15 million annually at 31 years old with presumably a lot of innings left in his arm having spent most of his career as a reliever.
We've already made the case against opening the bank vault for Lee, but these other developments present additional concerns. Is it feasible to drop around $24 million a year on Lee when Wilson, Hamilton, Cruz and Andrus are due massive raises over the next few years? For example, let's say Wilson gets $15 million a year and Hamilton ends up with a deal somewhere around $20 million per season. That means the Rangers would be paying $75 million annually to just four players (Lee, Wilson, Hamilton and Michael Young, who earns $16 million) -- $20 million more than the club's entire payroll this year.
More affordable free-agent pitchers are off the board, including Javier Vazquez (one year and $7 million to the Marlins), Jon Garland (one year and $5 million to the Dodgers) and Jake Westbrook (two years and $16.5 million to stay with the Cardinals), as Carl Pavano, Brad Penny and Jeremy Bonderman remain as the only attractive leftovers. And in a relatively under-the-radar move, the Brewers acquired Shaun Marcum (13-8, 3.64 ERA, 1.15 WHIP in '10), who nearly no-hit the Rangers on opening day this year, from the Blue Jays for top prospect Brett Lawrie. The Rangers have shown interest in two pitchers looking to bounce back from injuries -- Brandon Webb and Jeff Francis -- but neither would come close to matching Lee's impact.
So while Texas waits for Lee's big decision, the options are disappearing. However, 27-year-old former AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke is still out there to be had in a trade with the Royals, and he's signed for two years and $27 million.
Opinions vary on what it will take to land Greinke, but it's assumed that any trade would involve one of the Rangers' top pitching prospects (Martin Perez, Tanner Scheppers or Robbie Erlin), a young major-league ready starter (Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter or Michael Kirkman), a major-league ready position player (Julio Borbon, Mitch Moreland or Chris Davis) and perhaps another top prospect (Jurickson Profar or Engle Beltre). Essentially, Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore is looking for his own Mark Teixeira-like haul, as he should for someone as accomplished as Greinke.
A look at Baseball America's recently released list of Texas' top 10 prospects shows that the organization's minor-league system will be decimated in a deal for Greinke. Perez, Profar, Scheppers, Erlin, Beltre and Kirkman rank as the top six (in that order), and again, it appears as though three of those could be required to meet the Royals' demands for their young ace.
John Manuel, Baseball America's co-editor-in-chief, says the Rangers no longer have an elite farm system. After jumping from the 28th-ranked organization in 2007 to No. 4 in 2008, No. 1 in 2009 and down one spot to No. 2 in 2010, Manuel expects Texas to slip into the 10-to-15 range when the rankings are updated in January.
It's a natural regression, Manuel tells Unfair Park, because of the ascension of former top prospects like Neftali Feliz, Andrus, Holland, Hunter, Borbon, Moreland and others to the big-league club. Now the team's top three prospects have issues. Manuel points out 20-year-old Perez's struggles (5-8 record and 5.96 ERA) this year at Double-A Frisco and Scheppers' injury history and nosedive at the end of his season at Triple-A Oklahoma (14 runs allowed in his last seven innings), along with claiming that shortstop Profar projects better as a pitcher than an infielder.
There are a couple of lefthanders already in the Royals' organization that Manuel prefers over Perez, and he questions how much someone like Perez would "float their boat." However, he adds that Kansas City is in a great position to evaluate the Rangers' farm system because the two clubs share a spring training facility.
Toronto and other teams are showing a lot of interest in Greinke, so Texas is faced with paying the steep price in prospects, or possibly lose out on both Lee and Greinke.
And that's not their only hole to fill.
While general manager Jon Daniels has signed Yorvit Torrealba as the team's new catcher and inked Japanese reliever Yoshinori Tateyama to a one-year deal, adding a slugger at designated hitter to protect Hamilton is second on the priority list after Lee.
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A few intriguing options have also flown off the shelves, notably Victor Martinez to the Tigers (four years, $50 million) and Adam Dunn to the White Sox (four years, $56 million). Daniels has shown interest in Paul Konerko, but he's reportedly looking for a three-year deal in the $45 million range, which poses a risk for a player who will be 35 when the season starts. (Update: Konerko re-signed with the White Sox for three years and $37.5 million.) In addition to possibly bringing back Vladimir Guerrero, who seemingly disappeared in the playoffs, there have also been suggestions that Texas is targeting Magglio Ordonez, a six-time All-Star who will be 37 at the beginning of the season.
Other possible fits include 40-year-old Jim Thome, who hit .283 with 25 homers in just 108 games for the Twins this year, 39-year-old Manny Ramirez, 36-year-old Hideki Matsui and 34-year-old Troy Glaus, who could spell Young and Moreland occasionally in addition to his DH duties.
Daniels must balance these decisions knowing that the division-rival A's are likely to improve as their impressive crop of young pitching matures, and Oakland's looking to add an impact bat to its lineup, targeting Lance Berkman before he signed a one-year contract with the Cardinals and reportedly offering a five-year, $64 million deal to free-agent Adrian Beltre. The Angels also figure to get better, as they are looking at Beltre, speedy outfielder Carl Crawford and closer Rafael Soriano.
As the rest of the winter meetings play out this week, Lee could very well decide on where he's headed, with New York the most likely of destinations. Hopefully, Greinke and others are still out there when he does. If not, Daniels will have to scramble in his attempt to keep the AL pennant in Arlington.