Millwood out; Harden, Ray, Snyder in

I still remember standing outside my mother-in-law's home in Seabrook, Texas, the day after Christmas 2005, watching our five- and one-year-old play in the snow - one of the first our kids had seen, and I think also the first snow in the Houston area in something like 30 years - when I got the call on my cell phone that prompted me to run upstairs and hammer out this Newberg Report News Flash:

I want to take this opportunity to say Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and best wishes for a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and a vesting option for 2010.

Kevin Millwood has agreed to terms with the Texas Rangers.

Reeling from the four-year Chan Ho Park disaster that had been euthanized five months earlier, I was desperate for Kevin Millwood to come in here and be a true ace for this club, something he probably wasn't cut out to be, if only in terms of stuff and ability to dominate. Tenacity, yes. Example-setter, no doubt. Leader and tremendous teammate, you bet. "A presence in the clubhouse, on the field, in the community," said Jon Daniels in a press briefing yesterday, "an all-world human being."

An ace? Only in comparison to Park.

I was seduced by a couple 18-win seasons Millwood had under his belt (ignoring the seven, the two nines, and the 10), and by the ERA title he'd just won in his first run at American League hitters.

Millwood was solid here. He answered the bell. Never backed down. Led this staff. But there's a difference between being a team's number one starter and being a Number One.

Put it this way: Millwood had a very good season in 2005. Though he won only nine Cleveland games (losing 11), he led the American League with a 2.86 ERA. At age 30, and in that market, he'd probably warranted the five-year, $60 million contract that Texas agreed to pay him, beating Boston out to land the righthander.

But that same 2005 season, Rich Harden was more dominant. At age 23. In what was his second full season in the big leagues, he went 10-5, 2.53 in his 19 starts and three relief appearances, and was less hittable than Millwood, less homer-prone, nearly as stingy with free passes, and more likely to strike out a batter.

Both Millwood and Harden averaged just over 6.1 innings per start that year. Since then, Millwood hasn't matched his hits per nine or strikeout rate (all of which were inferior to Harden's to begin with), while Harden's hittability has fluctuated around the same rate and his strikeout rate has been higher every year since.

Millwood's ERA title and sixth-place Cy Young finish merited the big contract. But it was Harden who was the budding Number One.

The 2009 season started so well for Millwood, who through June 26 had gone 8-5, 2.64 over 16 starts, holding opponents to a .237/.306/.390 slash line and helping keep Texas in first place 52 straight days.

But over Millwood's next 12 starts, he went 4-8, 6.29. Opponents hit .303/.380/.512. At the end of that two-and-a-half-month stretch, the Rangers were 5.5 games back in the West. Yes, the offense had run into a wall, but had Millwood managed to reverse his win-loss record over those 10 weeks, Texas would have still been squarely in the race.

Millwood made three starts after that awful stretch, locking in his 2010 contract with the first. He won all three games, giving up four earned runs in 23 innings (1.57 ERA) and serving at least some notice that that staff leader was still in there somewhere, even if he was no longer as reliable as Scott Feldman.

That three-game effort was Simon and Garfunkel performing "Sound of Silence," "The Boxer," and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" a month ago at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert. It was brilliant, powerful, adrenalizing. But nostalgic.

This team might be ready to win in 2010. We'd all like to think that to be the case. I'm pretty sure most of us believe that even if 2010 isn't the year, we're on the doorstep of a run of contending seasons. Was Millwood going to contribute to that? Conceivably in 2010, when he'll pitch at age 35. Almost surely not beyond that.

But back to 2010. What can be expected? Even with his very good first half and burst of effectiveness at season's end, Millwood struck batters out in 2009 at the lowest rate of his career. His strikeout-to-walk rate was a career worst. His flyball rate and home run rate were the highest since his first year as an arbitration-eligible (2001). What's he going to be going forward?

A $12 million pitcher?

Or even a $9 million pitcher, which is what he'll be for Baltimore with the Rangers' $3 million subsidy?

The only way Harden will earn as much as the Orioles alone will pay Millwood in 2010 (let alone what Millwood will earn all told) is if he hits every incentive. Harden's 2010 base is only $6.5 million. Another $2.5 million in workload bonuses (half a million each for reaching 155, 165, 175, 185, and 195 innings) could lift the deal to the $9 million Baltimore will pay Millwood regardless of how he performs, or how often.

In exchange for Millwood, Texas comes away with Harden, plus 27-year-old former closer Chris Ray (entering his second season after Tommy John surgery, which often stages a big spike in performance), plus Rule 5 draftee Ben Snyder (a candidate to win a job as a left-on-left bullpen specialist).

Even counting the $3 million the Rangers are sending to Baltimore to help pay Millwood, the Harden-Ray-Snyder trio will cost Texas less than it would have cost to keep Millwood.

Imagine what Jon Daniels and his industrious, resourceful crew could have accomplished this week without a charge to keep payroll level.

Yes, there's the matter of Harden's chronic injury issues. But as has been pointed out several times the last couple days, he's made as many starts the last two years (51) as John Lackey, who could be on the verge of a $100 million contract from someone. And when he's on the mound, he's legit.

No starting pitcher in baseball had a better strikeout rate than Harden's 10.9 per nine innings in 2009, or than his 11.0 per nine in 2008. Not Tim Lincecum. Not Justin Verlander. Not Zack Greinke, not Jon Lester. Harden has been the best in baseball each of the last two years. His 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings for his seven-year career is the game's best among pitchers with at least 125 starts. His .220 opponents' average over that span is second only to Johan Santana's .219.

Not only was Harden's contact rate (total percentage of contact made when swinging) of 67.3 percent baseball's best in 2009 - and his rate of 69.6 percent in 2008 also best in the game - but no other starting pitcher has had a season below 70 percent since Francisco Liriano's 2006 season with Minnesota.

And Harden achieved that mark in 2009 even though his fastball velocity hovered around 90 at times, rather than 95-97 where it often sits. His command of a splitter and change are good enough that even a dip in velocity doesn't prevent him from missing bats better than any starter in baseball. (He's also one of only 40 pitchers in the last 120 years to have a nine-pitch, three-strikeout inning.)

No Texas Rangers starting pitcher has had stuff like Rich Harden since Kevin Brown. It's Ace stuff. The kind you throw out there in Game One of a best-of-seven.

Harden, who turned 28 after the season, is 50-29, 3.39 in his seven big league seasons, owning the eighth-lowest ERA among all big league pitchers with at least 125 starts in that span. He went 9-9, 4.09 in 26 starts last year, with increased home run numbers. Underwhelming? Disappointing? On the surface, probably. But he struck out 171 batters in 141 innings, and had an opponents' slash line of .234/.327/.407. In his first three 2009 starts, he fanned 26 batters in 15 innings - no pitcher since 1900 had ever logged that many strikeouts in so few innings over a three-start span in a single season. Still, it wasn't a brilliant season in the overall results, and maybe if it had been we'd be talking today about the Yankees or Red Sox - both of whom were reportedly finalists for him in Indianapolis this week - giving him a massive four-year deal that Texas couldn't have competed with.

In what ballpark does Harden have his worst career numbers? Among the parks where he's pitched more than a couple times, it's Rangers Ballpark (7.66 ERA, .330/.417/.404 slash line). If you want to fill your glass half full with me, maybe assume it was the Texas lineup that he had trouble with, not the yard itself. And for what it's worth, he's fared well in Anaheim and really, really well in Seattle, and of course in Oakland.

A teammate of Ian Kinsler at Central Arizona Community College in 2001, Harden signed with Oakland as a draft-and-follow that May (having been chosen in the 17th round in 2000) and reached the big leagues just over two years later, exploding on the league with four straight quality starts (3-0, 1.33). His six seasons with the A's (the first four of which Ron Washington was on the coaching staff) were marred by frequent injuries and disabled list stints: a shoulder strain and oblique strain in 2005, a back strain and elbow sprain in 2006, and shoulder strains in 2007 and early 2008. His run with the Cubs the last year and a half were relatively healthy, spoiled only by a four-week stay on the DL last spring with a lower back strain.

Of course, without the significant medical history, Harden (who has never logged 190 innings and hasn't reached 150 innings since 2004, calling into question how reachable those incentive levels are going to be) is never available on a one-year deal with an option.

This business of the $11.5 million mutual option in 2011 is interesting. If Harden has a career year, he'll opt out (and take the $1 million buyout). If he struggles or can't stay healthy, Texas will opt out. Under what scenario do both sides allow the option to kick in? Maybe if his 2010 season isn't quite the type that he thinks would fetch $11.5 million on the open market but the Rangers want him back anyway. Realistically, that second year isn't going to come into play. But should Harden pitch well enough this year to get a big contract from someone next winter, Texas will still be able to offer him arbitration and net a first-round pick as compensation.

There's certainly a much better chance of that than with Millwood (whom Texas would almost certainly never offer arbitration to).

For what it's worth, Harden was a Type B free agent this winter and wouldn't have cost Texas a draft pick even if the Cubs had offered him arbitration - which they didn't. Had they offered it, they would have received a supplemental first-round pick once he signed elsewhere.

Harden's medicals may have scared off teams such as St. Louis, but he passed a Rangers physical yesterday and will be introduced at a press conference this morning. There will always be a health cloud over Harden, but ESPN's Keith Law made what I thought was a solid point on that subject: "[I]f the Rangers can make sure they have a backup starter available for his inevitable month stay on the DL, they've got value. If you think about it, adding 20-25 good starts to that rotation could very well help push them closer to the top of the division." The Rangers have starter depth, unquestionably.

I'd be upset if the Angels or Mariners landed Harden. And that's usually my test.

As for Ray, I'm not going to go into too much depth, but suffice it to say that he's probably a good risk to be a lot better in 2010 than he was in 2009 (0-4, 7.27), which was his first full season back on a mound since August 2007 Tommy John surgery, because that's what the empirical evidence on TJ cases says. Not long ago, he was one of the bright young closers in the league, racking up 33 saves in 28 tries for Baltimore in 2006 (2.73 ERA, .193/.275/.352 slash line), which was just his third full pro season after being drafted out of the College of William and Mary. Over his first two seasons (2005-06), the league hit just .205 off of him, the sixth-lowest opposing batting average among all big league pitchers with at least 100 appearances.

A max-effort righthander with a heavy mid-90s fastball and hard slider, Ray was unable to harness his stuff on his return from surgery, but that's not atypical. Command almost always lags health by as much as a year after Tommy John, and he showed signs late last year of rounding into form. Through June 28, his ERA was 10.24 and opponents hit .379/.450/.586. Thereafter - before struggling over his final 1.2 innings of work - his ERA was 3.22 and opponents hit .291/.344/.465.

Though the 27-year-old debuted in the big leagues in 2005, I believe he still has two options, and so unlike a pitcher like Luis Mendoza or Clay Rapada or the Rule 5 pick Snyder, Ray isn't a "use it or [potentially] lose it" case. There's plenty of upside here, and particularly given the plan to provide Neftali Feliz and C.J. Wilson opportunities to win rotation jobs, adding another high-ceiling arm like Ray builds the staff's depth and flexibility even further.

Snyder, left off the 40-man roster last month by San Francisco, was the player Texas had the Orioles choose with the third pick in yesterday's Rule 5 Draft. The 24-year-old, in his third full pro season out of Ball State (taken in the fourth round in 2006, two spots before the Rangers selected Marcus Lemon), was transitioned from starter to reliever by the Giants in 2009, and the move paid off. Snyder posted a 2.04 ERA out of the AA Connecticut bullpen, holding Eastern League hitters to a .210 average while fanning 70 in 70.2 innings. Commanding an average fastball and a deadly slider, Snyder destroyed left-handed AA hitters, limiting them to an anemic .146/.198/.197 slash line and just one home run in 157 at-bats, and posting a 5.7 K/BB rate.

Scott Lucas dug up the interesting note that in 2008, Snyder made four of his 14 High A San Jose starts against Bakersfield, and in those games he went 2-0, 0.70, holding the Blaze scoreless three times and fanning 19 while issuing seven walks in 25.2 innings.

Will Snyder make the team out of camp? He'll have a shot, likely competing for one of two spots with Rapada and whichever lefties among Wilson, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison don't win spots in the rotation - and maybe a veteran southpaw like Darren Oliver or Arthur Rhodes. Will Zach Phillips and Michael Kirkman and possibly even Kasey Kiker and Michael Ballard have a chance to win a job? Not much of one, since several like Snyder can't be sent to the minor leagues without clearing waivers first. They'll get their opportunities, but probably not in April.

Ray may struggle in camp and start the season in Oklahoma City. Snyder may fail to prove his readiness and find himself back with the Giants before the end of March. But they may also trot out of the home dugout on April 5, lining up along the first base line in Rangers uniforms, introduced in front of a sellout Arlington crowd.

Whether Ray and Snyder are there to take their places on the baseline for those introductions, chances are good that Rich Harden might be 300 feet to the south, loosening up in the home bullpen as he prepares to take on the Blue Jays, not only as the Rangers' number one starter but, for the first time since Rangers Ballpark's inaugural 1994 season, as a true Rangers Number One.

Texas got things done

At Meetings; first and foremost

Was staff Hardening.

===========================================================

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title_authors

Jamey Newberg

Dallas attorney Jamey Newberg has been commenting on Rangers from the big club down through the entire farm system since 1998.

Scott Lucas

Scott Lucas was born in Arlington, Texas, to Richard and Becky Lucas. He lived mostly in Arlington before moving to Austin, where he graduated from The University of Texas. Scott works for Austin Valuation Consultants, Ltd., and has published several boring articles about real estate appraisal and environmental contamination. He makes a swell margarita and refuses to run longer than ten kilometres.

Eleanor Czajka

Eleanor grew up watching the AAA Mudhens in Toledo, Ohio. A loyal Ranger fan since 1979, she works "behind the scenes" at the Newberg Report.

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