Like Toronto, Texas had an eventful offseason that renewed the hope of its fans. New GM Jon Daniels made two bold trades and spent a healthy portion of his boss’s treasure to upgrade the team. Did Texas improve enough to overtake both Los Angeles and Oakland and reach the postseason for the first time since 1999?
Daniels replaced John Hart, who very clearly had worn out his welcome. Local media referred to Hart as the “empty golf shirt.” Questions arose concerning whether the 28-year-old Daniels would only be a proxy for authoritarian manager Buck Showalter, but he asserted himself quickly and appears subordinate to no one.
The John Hart era didn’t end so much as fizzle out. He signed four free agents to multi-year contracts in his first offseason. None came within miles of justifying his salary, and Texas staggered to another basement finish. Then, owner Tom Hicks turned off the spigot. Texas cuts its payroll essentially in half over the next three seasons and signed only one free-agent to a multi-year deal. Major free agents signed during Hart’s tenure:
2002 -- Chan Ho Park (5 years, $65 million), Juan Gonzalez (2 years, $24 million), Jay Powell (3 years $9 million), Todd Van Poppel (3 years, $7.5 million)
2003 -- None
2004 -- Kenny Rogers (2 years, $6 million)
2005 -- None
Kevin Millwood represents Texas’s first serious foray into the free-agent market in four years. His signing and trades for arbitration-eligible Brad Wilkerson, Adam Eaton and Vicente Padilla indicate that Texas wants to win now and is willing to pay for it.
Whether they can win is a different question.
Player (2005) Pos Age Bat OBP OBP+ SLG SLG+ B Wilkerson CF 29 L .351 109 .405 103 M Young SS 29 R .385 115 .513 116 M Teixeira 1B 26 S .379 113 .575 130 P Nevin DH 35 R .287 88 .379 93 H Blalock 3B 25 L .318 95 .431 98 D Dellucci LF 32 L .367 110 .513 116 K Mench RF 28 R .328 98 .469 106 R Barajas C 30 R .306 92 .466 106 I Kinsler* 2B 24 R .348 --- .464 --- * AAA Oklahoma
Wilkerson should spend most of his time in center field, replacing the combination of Gary Matthews Jr. and Laynce Nix. Rookie Ian Kinsler replaces Alfonso Soriano at second. The operative question: Is Wilkerson plus Kinsler better offensively than Soriano plus Matthews/Nix?
I expect so. Soriano certainly has the most power and flash, but his impatience and declining batting average undercut his value (not to mention his execrable defense). Compare Soriano and Wilkerson in 2005:
OBP OBP+ SLG SLG+ OPS+ Soriano .309 93 .512 116 109 Wilkerson .351 109 .405 103 112
Oh, those park factors. Wilkerson outhit Soriano despite suffering from wrist, forearm and shoulder maladies throughout the season. The difference is greater than it appears, as a point of OBP has more value than one of slugging. Wilkerson will cost six million fewer dollars than Soriano, is one year farther from free agency, and can play defense. And, just for grins, Washington GM Jim Bowden sweetened the pot with a quality fourth outfielder (Terrmel Sledge) and a legitimate pitching prospect (Armando Galarraga). Let no man question his generosity.
Assuming Wilkerson hits better than Soriano, Kinsler just needs to break even against last year’s center fielders for the offense to show net improvement. They batted a meager .241/.298/.400, so Kinsler has the bar set nice and low. He has yet to see a Major League pitch and in 2005 batted .274/.348/.464 in AAA Oklahoma, a pitcher-friendly park in the hitter-friendly PCL. If he falters, Mark DeRosa will step in. That’s not a desirable outcome, of course, but even so, Texas appears to have substantially upgraded the offense by trading Soriano.
Michael Young stands on the edge of brilliance. He set career highs in average, OBP and slugging, hits, doubles, homers and walks (and GIDP, but let’s not quibble). On the downside, he rates poorly as a fielder, unfortunate by itself but doubly so on a team that emphasizes grounder-inducing pitching. Like Young, Mark Teixeira trampled his record book last season. He is a legitimate Gold Glove first baseman.
Fellow infielder Hank Blalock took two giant steps backward in 2005. After showing promise against the lefties that previously vexed him (.282/.344/.436 in 2004), he staggered to a dismal line of .196/.228/.356. Likewise, he dropped from .239/.323/.460 to .231/.276/.335 on the road. Neither line is acceptable for an everyday player, and he was the worst cleanup hitter in the AL last year. However, Blalock is just 25, and he has the potential to resume his All Star-worthy performances of 2003-2004. Texas may rest him more frequently. If he can’t solve lefthanders, Texas might have to relieve him in favor of Mark DeRosa, who hits lefties pretty well.
Mench hit a dreadful .185 with runners in scoring position last year, and a return to normalcy would give the team several more runs and him more ammunition for his 2007 arbitration hearing. Mench fields the corners better than his physical appearance would suggest. Dellucci drew forty walks by June 1st and found himself leading off most of the season. He’ll probably move down in the order in favor of Wilkerson, and he’ll occupy left field to allow Nevin and others to DH. He’s a placeholder defensively.
Gary Matthews Jr. slides from mediocre everyday player to good fourth outfielder. He’ll spot Dellucci against lefties and sub for Wilkerson and Mench as needed. Laynce Nix is recovering from shoulder surgery and should begin in AAA.
Two years ago, Rod Barajas was an non-roster invitee fighting for a backup role. In 2006, he’ll earn $3.2 million. Last year, he proved his power surge was no fluke and he also rated highly defensively. 26-year-old Gerald Laird (.310/.380/.562 in AAA) will back up for now and might have the better end of a time-share as the season progresses.
DH Phil Nevin admitted he reacted poorly to late season’s trade to Texas (.182/.250/.323), and the Rangers hope they can recoup some of their $10 million investment. They also have Erubiel Durazo coming off Tommy John surgery and young AAA masher Jason Botts (.286/.355/.522), whose outfield defense recalls the grievous efforts of Kevin Reimer. All three could get a decent number of plate appearances, and one or more could finish the season wearing a different uniform.
Rotation (2005) Arm Age ERA ERA+ HR% BB% SO% K Millwood R 31 2.86 145 2.5% 7% 18% A Eaton R 28 4.27 90 2.5% 8% 18% V Padilla R 28 4.71 94 3.4% 11% 16% K Loe R 24 3.42 134 1.8% 8% 11% J Dominguez R 26 4.22 109 3.5% 8% 14%
Gone are the six pitchers who started Texas’s first 66 games and 115 on the season. The Texas rotation had an ERA+ of 91, so management threw them all overboard.
The Rangers gave Millwood their first free-agent contract of over two years since, yes, Chan Ho Park in 2002. The “five-year $60 million” deal will pay only $33 million during the next four years; a fifth year of $12 million vests upon a complicated innings formula and the other $15 million is deferred until 2011-2015. Millwood is a fine pitcher but not really an ace. His home run rate and average on balls in play will climb in Arlington, and his ERA could vault into the mid-fours. Still, on the whole he offers a mild improvement over former #1 starter Kenny Rogers (preferably with less controversy).
After acquiring well-deserved goodwill with the Soriano trade, Daniels squandered much of it by trading Chris Young, Adrian Gonzalez and Terrmel Sledge for Adam Eaton, Akinori Otsuka and minor-league catcher Billy Killian. View the trade as three separate transactions:
A 26-year-old pitcher with a minimal salary and an ERA+ of 108 in his first full season for an arbitration-eligible pitcher entering his walk year with a career ERA+ of 92.
A well regarded 1B prospect for a 34-year-old reliever with one excellent year and one average year to his credit.
A respectable fourth outfielder for a minor-league, semi-prospect catcher.
Did Texas come out ahead in any of those deals? Forget about the two-year waiting period for evaluating trades. For Texas, the payoff is this year or never. Eaton derided the hitter-friendly Ballpark prior to the trade; he later backtracked while wrongly disparaging his run support in San Diego. He becomes a free agent after the season and already seems disinclined to stay. As for Eaton’s performance, Texas loves his power arm but apparently failed to notice that he hasn’t provided an above-average ERA since 2000. Texas voiced concerns about the durability of Chris Young, who missed a few starts down the stretch and amassed only 165 innings. However, he was 26, a rookie, and had never thrown more than 145 innings in a season. Young may outpitch Eaton this season at one-tenth the salary.
Daniels did make a worthy roll of the dice by acquiring Vicente Padilla for pitcher Ricardo Rodriguez, whose career had ground to a halt in Texas. Padilla pitched very well in 2002-2003. A variety of arm problems held him to 272 innings and a 96 ERA+ during the last two years. Texas hopes a healthy Padilla can revert to the ’03 version. He, like Eaton, has some quizzical ideas about park effects. He actually said he was glad to be joining Texas because Philadelphia’s park was too homer-friendly.
Loe spent much of 2005 as one of the few bright spots in a depressing relief corps, then campaigned for and received a promotion to the rotation in late August. He strikes out fewer than one batters per two innings but succeeds by keeping 70% of batted balls on the ground. Loe debased his 3.20 ERA as a starter by walking more than he struck out. He does have pretty good stuff, an excellent temperament, and youth. Would that we all did.
The “good temperament” description most definitely does not apply to would-be fifth starter Juan Dominguez. Dominguez has a plus fastball and a changeup that makes grown men wet themselves like frightened toads. He also shows up overweight to Spring Training, arrives late to workouts, and occasionally exudes an air of indifference toward his profession. Such antics qualify as capital offenses on a Showalter-run squad.
Fallbacks include Josh Rupe (currently nursing a sore arm), Edison Volquez, C.J. Wilson, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, and Brian Anderson.
Bullpen (2005) Arm Age ERA ERA+ HR% BB% SO% F Cordero R 31 3.39 135 1.7% 10% 26% A Otsuka R 34 3.59 108 1.1% 12% 22% J Benoit R 28 3.72 123 2.4% 10% 21% B Shouse L 37 5.23 88 3.0% 8% 15% J Wasdin R 33 4.28 107 2.8% 6% 14% C Wilson L 25 6.94 66 2.3% 8% 14% J Leicester* R 27 5.51 --- 3.9% 10% 17% F Castro** L 21 2.28 --- 2.1% 11% 23%
* AAA Iowa ** High-A Winston-Salem
The bullpen made the 2004 Rangers a division contender. The 2005 edition pulled them back under .500. Per Baseball Prospectus, the Expected Wins Added by Texas relievers plummeted from 14.8 to 3.9. Francisco Cordero regressed slightly toward the mean, rookie sensation Frankie Francisco never threw a pitch and underwent Tommy John surgery, Carlos Almanzar barely pitched, and Brian Shouse, Ron Mahay and Doug Brocail all declined precipitously. As of mid-March, Texas still has several relief spots to assign.
Cordero has allowed only ten homers to the 958 batters he’s faced during 2003-2005. He also has 248 strikeouts in 225 innings over the same span. He struggles with control occasionally and creates his own jams. Texas hopes Otsuka can provide the late inning support that last year’s bullpen did not. Like Cordero, he permits few homers and generates plenty of strikeouts and walks. Joaquin Benoit (Say it with me: “wah-KEEN ben-WAH.”) has thrived as a reliever after several failed attempts as a starter. Texas would prefer to use him as a long man. Righties batted .322/.402/.522 against Shouse last year during a failed experiment to outgrow his LOOGY-osity. He chews up lefties (.209/.271/.357).
Beyond those four, Texas has more questions than answers. John Wasdin had a reasonably good year by cutting his normally horrendous home-run rate to an almost acceptable level and by limiting the free passes. His track record is dubious and he retained his extreme flyball tendency, but Texas gave him a guaranteed contract. C.J. Wilson actually pitcher pretty well in relief after a handful of disastrous starts when Texas still entertained thoughts of the postseason. He could alternate between starting, relieving, and revisiting AAA. Texas acquired ex-Cub Jon Leicester in the offseason and must keep him on the 25-man roster or expose him to waivers. The same applies to Rule 5 pick Fabio Castro, who has not pitched well in camp. Other bullpen candidates include Scott Feldman, Ron Mahay, Erasmo Ramirez, former Padre Kevin Walker, and former Oriole Rick Bauer. Frank Francisco, who provided a fabulous rookie campaign in 2004 then missed last year with Tommy John surgery, could return by late May.
The era of rebuilding, internal improvement, and aversion to free agency has ended. Texas wants to win now. They can surpass Los Angeles and claim their first upper-division placement since 1999. They won’t catch Oakland and don’t have quite the talent to fend off several challengers for the Wild Card. Eighty-five wins.