There's no dancing around it any more. It's becoming more and more clear what Action Item One is this off-season. Consider the following:
1. Nolan Ryan, on Norm Hitzges's radio show last week, suggested the objective in the off-season is to find a starter to front the rotation, stay healthy, and give the team 200 innings. Two would be great, said Ryan, but that's probably a longshot. Asked whether the Rangers would consider trading some of their better prospects in order to get a solid young starting pitcher, Ryan said it's something the club would certainly have to look at, as long as it didn't put a void in the farm system.
2. Tom Hicks told reporters on Saturday that he's disinclined, based on input from Jon Daniels and Ryan, to go out and offer a long-term, massive-dollar contract to a free agent starting pitcher on the wrong side of age 30, calling such a practice "the biggest gamble in sports." If Daniels and Ryan recommend action on a unique case, Hicks is open-minded, but it sounds like all three of them agree that free agency is not the first answer when the question is how to improve the rotation.
3. On Monday, T.R. Sullivan wrote in his MLB.com mailbag that among the young starters who could be available around the league are Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, Zach Duke, Edwin Jackson, Boof Bonser, and Brian Burres.
4. Evan Grant suggested in yesterday's Dallas Morning News "Inside the Texas Rangers" newsletter that Texas might be able to add two veteran starters this winter, one via free agency and one by trade. On the trade front, he proposes that Kansas City, San Francisco, Toronto, and San Diego are potential matches.
5. Mike Hindman revisited his impressive study of where effective starting pitchers come from in a Morning News blog entry yesterday -- and it's not free agency. They are drafted and developed, or traded for. That's a theme I've been pounding for years in this space, but Mike shows that every team would be wise to adhere to it.
6. To slam the point home, consider the case of lefthander Nate Robertson. A relatively late bloomer, Robertson won 12 games in his first full big league season (2004), went 7-16 the following year, and posted a 13-13, 3.84 record in the Tigers' magical 2006 season. The arbitration process produced a $3.26 million contract for Robertson in 2007, and though he proceeded to produce a pedestrian 9-13, 4.76 record last year, Detroit chose to lock the 30-year-old this winter up on a three-year, $21.25 million deal.
No discredit to Travis Metcalf, Brandon Boggs, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, and Milton Bradley, all of whom took Robertson (7-10, 6.09) deep in his 3.2 innings of work last night, but the veteran southpaw -- who will pull down $7 million next year and at least $10 million in 2010 -- is Exhibit A as to why spending free agent money on 90 percent of the veteran starting pitchers out there borders on foolish. The system is set up so that pitchers rarely reach free agency until age 30 or very close to it, and for the vast majority of them, even the good ones start to level out at that age.
7. The strength of the Rangers' farm system, considered for the last 13 months to be among the best in the league, is no longer found at the lower levels. The system is loaded from top to bottom.
Piece it all together?
There's a lot of reason to believe that there will be a trade for pitching this winter. Possibly a big one.
Back in June, I suggested it might take a package of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, John Mayberry Jr., Eric Hurley, and Warner Madrigal to get the 24-year-old Greinke, who is 30-43, 4.45 in his five-season Royals career. Many of you responded that I was out of my mind.
So what would it take to get 31-year-old Roy Halladay, who is set to make $14.24 million next season and $15.75 million in 2010? Grant suggests that he or Shawn Marcum could be at the center of any discussions with Toronto -- though Sullivan points out that there's possibly a disconnect between the two front offices, evidently dating back to a disagreement as to the worth of Kevin Mench. (Strange, if true. Texas traded Mench to the Blue Jays for cash considerations in May.)
Sure, Halladay's career ERA in Rangers Ballpark is 6.14, and in Angels Stadium it's 6.35, but never mind that. This is a proven rotation horse, a guy who chews up innings, strikes out a ton more hitters than he walks, and wins games. To borrow a scouting phrase: He's what they look like.
I discussed that idea with Grant yesterday, and my thought was that the cost -- if Toronto were truly willing to explore the idea at all -- might look something like Derek Holland, Elvis Andrus, one of the Four Catchers, and someone like Beau Jones, Brandon Boggs, or Omar Poveda. (A year from now, if Holladay is still with the Blue Jays, Justin Smoak enters the equation. For now, would Mitch Moreland interest them as a fourth piece?) The Blue Jays are less in need of left-handed relief than most teams, but maybe C.J. Wilson enters talks as well, though Texas would obviously be selling low on him given his health situation.
Consider the points at the top, in reverse.
A strong, deep farm system, poised to attract any team shopping an impact veteran.
A way to get a pitcher who has proven to be worth the cost, with just a two-year guaranteed commitment.
Avoiding the free agent market.
A pitcher in his 30's who qualifies as a special case.
Then there's Ryan's comments. A starter to front the rotation. A healthy one. One who pounds innings. One who, if acquired by trade, wouldn't leave a void in our farm system.
That's the question. Would the 14-9, 2.64 Halladay fit here? No question. Probably better than any other veteran pitcher conceivably acquirable this off-season. Healthy? Yes. Workhorse? He leads the league in innings pitched (191), and it's not close.
Would it leave a developmental void? I have no way of knowing whether Toronto would take Holland, Andrus, a catcher, and Jones or Boggs or Poveda -- or if Texas would part with that package -- but let's think about what it would do to the system.
Holland (number nine on Baseball America's Hot Sheet this week) is virtually untouchable, without question. But to get a legitimate ace? Nobody is untouchable.
(And make sure to think about this from Toronto's perspective. If you dare trade Halladay, you can't let the other team keep its best two pitching prospects, can you? This is where that theory I've thrown out there a couple times the last few months comes in: I think it could be difficult to make an impact trade because of our prospect depth. Let's say the Jays would take this package, fronted by Holland. Let's also say that Texas didn't have Holland or Neftali Feliz at all, and that Toronto would still make this same deal, only with Hurley at the top. Does that mean the Rangers can get it done with Hurley rather than Holland or Feliz? Doubt it. Again, if you're the Jays, how can you trade one of the game's most dependable horses and allow the other team to keep any young pitcher off-limits?)
Andrus? Another core prospect. Can Joaquin Arias recover the arm strength to play shortstop every day? Can Marcus Lemon be a full-time big league shortstop? Is there a good reason that Jose Vallejo couldn't slide over from second base?
Could Texas afford to move Saltalamacchia or Gerald Laird or Taylor Teagarden or Max Ramirez? Of course they could, and they will.
Someone like Jones or Boggs or Poveda or Moreland? Sure, in a deal like this.
Don't get me wrong: Nobody is more excited about Holland than I am. I've seen Andrus do things defensively that no Rangers shortstop has ever done, and show an advanced ability to handle the bat despite being the youngest position player in the Texas League.
But imagine where we are right now if Florida had chosen John Danks (or Thomas Diamond, depending on who you believe) and Hank Blalock for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, rather than Hanley Ramirez, Anibel Sanchez, and another pitching prospect. When you get the chance to add a number one -- a Number One -- you have to be willing to do things that you otherwise wouldn't.
Things that could cost you your job if they don't work, or bring you significantly closer to holding up a trophy if they do.
All that said, I don't know if I'd make that hypothetical deal, primarily because I'd have to be convinced that the 31-year-old Halladay wouldn't be starring in 2009 and 2010 for a team just coming together, primed to win big in 2011 when Halladay will no longer be under contract. Is this the time to go get someone at Halladay's career stage? Beckett was 25 when traded. Greinke will be 25 before the Winter Meetings. Different situation.
But man, I'd think about it. A lot.
If it's even more than an Internet hallucination.
Lots of fans are griping about the plan to move Chris Davis to third base when Blalock returns tomorrow. Do you remember that Mark Teixeira played 25 games in the outfield in his rookie season (2003) and seven more in his second season. Really?
Don't worry about the position switch. It has nothing to do with Smoak, and everything to do with Blalock.
If Blalock puts up a 900 OPS like he did last year, or even an 800 OPS like he did much of this spring, then no matter what that leads to, this move will have been worth it.
Blalock has gone 6 for 12 with two doubles, two walks, and three strikeouts in his three rehab games for Frisco this week.
Huge night for Hamilton, who fell a double short of the cycle. I'm not sure if this means anything, but I'm also unsure that it doesn't (thanks to reader April Lok for the catch): As a center fielder this year, Hamilton is hitting .274/.340/.492. As a right fielder, he's hitting .372/.416/.664. (As a designated hitter, he's nestled in between, hitting .302/.413/.623.)
I'm trying not to get too fired up about Brandon McCarthy's start this Saturday. I know it's better to temper expectations and just see if he can handle Cleveland in his first big league start of the season after absolutely dominating Nashville and Omaha, two of the four weakest offenses in the 16-team Pacific Coast League.
But I'm anticipating this start like it's the big league debut of a blue-chip first-rounder who's blown through the minor leagues. A strong five weeks out of McCarthy would be the biggest story of the season's final quarter, as this team begins to look to 2009.
If we could get a start like last night's from Kevin Millwood once a month, I'd suggest that he doesn't need to pitch 180 innings next year to lock up his 2010 option. That's what a pitching leader looks like, even if he's not a classic number one. Locate, pound the zone, mix up your looks, let the defense do its job, give the bullpen a night off going into an off-day. Solid.
Ian Kinsler was leading the major leagues in hits and runs (102, in just three-fourths of a season) and the American League in total bases when he was placed on the disabled list on Monday with a sports hernia. He was also second in the league in extra-base hits, doubles, and multi-hit games, fourth in hitting, and seventh in stolen bases.
The last leadoff hitter to lead the league in total bases? Zoilo Versalles in his MVP season of 1965, 17 years before Kinsler was born.
Kinsler has actually amassed enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, whether or not he returns to action in September. His .319 average currently trails league leader Joe Mauer (.324) and two others.
Joaquin Arias was hitting .375/.403/.641 in 64 August at-bats for Oklahoma when Texas called him up on Monday. He'd fanned only four times in 15 games. These six weeks are big for him.
The arthroscopic procedure on Wilson's left elbow went well, with no complications, last Wednesday. He should be ready for spring training, no longer hampered by bone spurs and chips.
Injured Oklahoma sluggers Max Ramirez (single, double, and walk in three trips) and Nelson Cruz (double and two walks in six trips) got their Arizona League rehab assignments underway yesterday.
RedHawks left-handed reliever Bill White in April: 7.00 ERA, .306 opponents' average, 11/8 K/BB
In May: 5.40 ERA, .292 OBA, 13/4 K/BB
In June: 2.79 ERA, .212 OBA, 13/7 K/BB
In July: 2.13 ERA, .209 OBA, 17/7 K/BB
So far in August: 1.00 ERA, .138 OBA, 7/4 K/BB
The Rangers probably need to clear a 40-man roster spot in September not only for Cruz but also for White, who will be a free agent this winter otherwise, don't they? The 29-year-old still has command issues (his 30 walks have come in just 52 innings), but a lefthander who strikes out more than 10 batters per nine innings out of the bullpen is a commodity this team needs. I don't know how much of White's steady 2008 improvement he'd credit Andy Hawkins for, but he probably needs another chance to show Texas whether he's figured some things out.
Third baseman Johnny Whittleman, hitting .257/.370/.392 for Bakersfield (including .333/.390/.500 in August), has been promoted to Frisco. The 21-year-old, whose 86 walks were eighth-most in minor league baseball last year, already has 81 bases on balls this season, tied for the sixth-highest total in the minors.
First baseman Ian Gac, in his sixth season but still just 23, is hitting .295/.373/.537 between Clinton and Bakersfield, with 30 home runs and 101 RBI.
Second-round pick Robbie Ross, whom Texas signed last week (paying the highest bonus any second-rounder in the league got), will not appear for a minor league club down the stretch. He'll instead report to fall instructional league next month in Surprise.
So will Tae-Kyeong Ahn, the 18-year-old righthander signed out of Korea earlier this month.
In addition to Smoak and Ross, Texas came to terms at the deadline with 33rd-round pick Ben Petralli, a catcher like his father, Geno. The younger Petralli was drafted five times: in 2004 (Dodgers, 26th round) out of Weatherford High School; in 2005 (Tigers, 15th round), 2006 (Tigers, 17th round), and 2007 (Rangers, 47th round) out of Sacramento City College (where Geno played collegiately and where Ben caught Bakersfield lefthander Zach Phillips), and this year out of Oral Roberts University.
I screwed up. On Saturday, I suggested that Seattle will get a bonus pick in the first round next June for failing to sign 2008 first-rounder Josh Fields. Not so fast. Since Fields was a college senior, the August 15 deadline didn't apply. The Mariners will retain his rights until a week before the 2009 draft.
MLB and its umpires agreed yesterday on a plan to institute instant replay on a limited basis. Installation of equipment is underway in all 30 ballparks.
Baseball America is rolling out its Best Tools feature. In its survey of AAA coaches and scouts, Teagarden was ranked as the Pacific Coast League's best defensive catcher.
Check out the Rangers' radio and TV broadcasters Eric Nadel, Victor Rojas, Josh Lewin, and Tom Grieve blogging baseball at http://rangersannouncers.mlblogs.com/. Good stuff.
Pittsburgh traded righthander Franklyn German to the White Sox for a player to be named later. The Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden League signed righthander Kevin Altman. The Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League signed lefthander Matt Smith.
The New York Football Giants placed running back Kay-Jay Harris on the waived-injured list. The West Virginia University product was the Rangers' 10th-round pick in 1997 (known then as Kevin Harris), hitting .186 in three pro seasons.
Scott Lucas has some must-see work posted on his blog at http://rangers.scottlucas.com/, including a rundown of all players in the Rangers' system eligible for this winter's Rule 5 Draft if not protected on the 40-man roster, and some spectacular photos from Frisco, specifically, Holland's and Feliz's starts earlier this week.
Thanks to 12-year-old genius Grant Schiller for pinch-hitting for Scott the last two mornings on the minor league game recaps.
My new column for MLB.com, a weekly ranking of the top 20 prospects in the Rangers farm system, debuts on www.texasrangers.com later this morning. Would love to hear your feedback.
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(c) Jamey Newberg
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