Bengie, Cliff, Cantu
Busiest team in baseball
Bankruptcy be damned
The 2010 season has been the one in which I've written more than ever before, but at the same time have written less about the minor leagues than ever before. But that's where I want to focus today.
Dial back four years. Despite hovering between third and fourth place in the division, a few games behind first place Oakland, rookie G Jon Daniels made three trade deadline deals in 2006, one major trade (getting Carlos Lee) and two smaller ones (picking up Matt Stairs and Kip Wells). Ultimately, Texas played .500 baseball after the three deals, and finished the season in third place in the West, 13 games back.
The Rangers, owning a comfortable division lead this year, are taking no chances, having made three trades this month as well, again one of the blockbuster variety (Cliff Lee) and two that were smaller in scope (Bengie Molina and Jorge Cantu).
In each case, Texas would be right to expect a greater impact than it got from its 2006 counterpart.
The Rangers are in bankruptcy, a story that's filled a thousand column inches over the last two months. It is what it is. The team is playing its best baseball in years, if not ever, in spite of it. Where the team's financial condition and unclear ownership situation have had an impact is in the nature of the three trades the club has made in July, each necessitating the inclusion of cash from the other team to help fit the deals within a tight, immovable budget. So from that standpoint, Texas has had to part with greater prospects than it did in 2006, not only because the club acquired more significant players, but also because the cost of acquiring cash was added prospect consideration.
Nonetheless, the effect of these trades on the club's prospect depth may ultimately be only slightly greater than it was in 2006. I've tried to make the point over and over, and many others have as well: The benefit of building a strong farm system shows up not only in the infusion of young talent and resulting cost containment, but also in the development of ammunition to trade for veterans for the stretch run.
In 2006, Texas had what Baseball America tabbed as the number 16 farm system in baseball. That relative thinness on the farm meant that, in order to acquire Lee (and change-of-scenery 4-A outfielder Nelson Cruz), the Rangers had to part with young, affordable big league talent (Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix), and to pick up an extra hitter and extra arm without giving up one of the club's few true prospects, they were limited to acquiring Stairs (for reliever Joselo Diaz) and Wells (for reliever Jesse Chavez).
Clearly, the group including Chris Ray, Michael Main, Justin Smoak, Josh Lueke, Blake Beavan, Matt Lawson, Omar Poveda, and Evan Reed, all traded away this month, is exponentially more valuable than what Texas gave up in 2006. But only Ray and Smoak came off the big league roster, and each was replaceable (at least in terms of what they were providing at the time), and the Rangers were able to make these three deals without touching their top minor league prospects (Martin Perez, Tanner Scheppers, Engel Beltre, Robbie Erlin, Wilmer Font, Mitch Moreland, Jurickson Profar, more).
We now learn that Daniels, while talking to Florida to get the Cantu deal done, was (according to Joe Frisaro of MLB.com) apparently "willing to part with [the club's] top three prospects, just to get the conversation rolling" about ace Josh Johnson, only to be told that Johnson was "unmovable."
Different situation, of course. A rotation headed by Lee and Johnson now, and Johnson for the next three seasons after this one, would have made it tolerable seeing Perez and Scheppers pitch for the Marlins, and Beltre patrol center field for that club. Johnson is the kind of player you load up for and don't look back.
But Daniels got Lee (controllable only for a half a season and the playoffs) for considerably less than that, and Molina and Cantu, too, obviously. Even considering the premium cost imposed to get cash thrown in.
How big a dent have these three trades put in the Texas system? Not much of one, if you asked Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. Goldstein ranked the Texas system number two in baseball before the 2009 season and number two again before the 2010 season (when all of the eight players traded this month other than Ray were part of the crop), and he told us at our event Sunday that the system is still top three in the game. Yesterday's move of Poveda and Reed, whom Goldstein projects as middle relievers, certainly doesn't change that.
Could the 22-year-old Poveda and 24-year-old Reed develop in such a way that Florida can count this trade as a win? No question. What if Poveda, out for the year due to Tommy John surgery, regains his velocity (not a plus to begin with) and command (a key to his game) and his promising changeup plays up like Armando Galarraga's slider and he turns into a back-of-rotation starter Texas wishes it had back? What if Reed's mid-90s four-seamer carries him to Florida, he refines his slider, and, like Matt Capps or Kevin Gregg, one day earns a chance to save a small market team's games, or even short of that, turns into Jesse Chavez, the reliever who Texas traded for Wells and who would later get traded for Rafael Soriano, straight up?
It could happen. But the fact remains, even if both righthanders are decent bets to pitch in the big leagues, that both had a good amount of folks to pass in this system, which makes the trade sensible if for that reason alone. Whether Cantu (rather than another corner bench bat Texas had the opportunity to acquire) helps is something we have to trust Daniels and his pro scouts on, or not. But moving Poveda and Reed to get him is fine.
Think back a year to reliever Matt Nevarez and second baseman Jose Vallejo to Houston for Ivan Rodriguez. Same idea. Nevarez and Vallejo were outside the Rangers' top 30 prospects. Nevarez ended up ranked by Baseball America this winter as Houston's number 15 prospect. Poveda and Reed will rank higher for Florida than they did here.
Incidentally, the Marlins will need to reinstate Poveda to the 40-man roster after the season, and add Reed to the 40, unless they want to risk losing them in the Rule 5 Draft. Here, it's highly doubtful Reed would have been added, and Poveda was a candidate to be outrighted. In my column for MLB.com a week ago, I suggested that we could see Texas trade a couple draft-eligible prospects for a corner bat this week, especially given the deep Rule 5 Draft class the club has to make roster decisions on this winter. That's exactly what the Rangers did yesterday.
You can read any number of stories today about Cantu, so I won't dig too deep on what he brings. His 2010 season (.262/.310/.409) hasn't measured up to his 2008 (.277/.327/.481) or 2009 (.289/.345/.443) campaigns, when he drove in 195 runs with 45 homers, but he's still capable of driving in runs in bunches (he set a big league record with RBI in each his first 10 games this year) and fills a roster void here. While he's hitting lefties at an underwhelming .256/.296/.422 rate this season, he punished them in 2008 (.293/.359/.510) and 2009 (.322/.389/.503). He's not a great defender at either infield corner, but will be more dependable at first base than Joaquin Arias.
Cantu doesn't play second base any more - leading some to wonder whether Texas has yet another trade in the works with Ian Kinsler expected to miss more than the minimum 15 days due to his groin strain - but that's not what he'll be asked to do here. He'll figure in at first base with the newly recalled Moreland, and give Ron Washington something he hasn't had all season: a capable right-handed bat off the bench on nights that he doesn't start. (Small sample size alert: Cantu is a healthy .323/.400/.452 hitter in 35 career pinch-hitting plate appearances.)
Will Cantu (who projects to be a non-compensation free agent, for those of you wondering if the Rangers could have a chance to recoup a draft pick for him this winter; don't count on it) contribute any more than Stairs (.210/.273/.370) or Rodriguez (.245/.279/.388) did in their late-season runs with Texas? The Rangers (on the hook for about $1.5 million of the $2.1 million remaining on his 2010 contract) obviously hope so. But given the club's depth in minor league arms, assuming you like what the bat does for the 25-man roster, it's a trade that makes a lot of sense.
To make room for Cantu on the 40-man roster, righthander Brandon McCarthy was shifted to the 60-day disabled list. (Righthander Mark Lowe was moved to the 60-day DL earlier in the day to make room for Moreland.) To clear space on the active roster for Cantu, Texas optioned Chris Davis (.189/.267/.245 since his return three weeks ago) again. It's pretty clear (as I discussed in one of yesterday's TROT COFFEY's) that Davis is on the Nelson Cruz path (at best) and will likely get included in a trade this winter, needing that change of scenery that Cruz needed when the Brewers sent him to Texas in the 2006 Carlos Lee deal.
I'm guessing Davis was probably in play in the Rangers' recent talks with Houston about Roy Oswalt and with Milwaukee about Prince Fielder (efforts that, in both cases, were described by Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated as "aggressive"). Houston ended up getting a young first baseman for Oswalt yesterday, flipping outfielder Anthony Gose (packaged from Philadelphia) to Toronto for Brett Wallace, as that club prepares for life after Lance Berkman, an eventuality that could arrive as soon as this weekend.
A thought: I wonder if a club shopping a versatile second baseman this weekend approaches Texas about Davis.
Moreland's time is now, and while his two singles and deep fly to center last night were a refreshing change from what we'd seen out of Davis this summer (and what Seattle has seen out of Justin Smoak, who sits at .159/.169/.270 with one walk and 23 strikeouts in 63 at-bats), he's a player who has exploded onto the scene the last two years but still needs to prove that he's a starting bat on a good big league club.
The 2007 17th-rounder, whom the Rangers experimented with on the mound after the 2008 season (he occasionally closed games at Mississippi State), was leading all of minor league baseball in hits in 2009 when he broke a bone in his foot with three weeks left in the season. He's short to the ball, barrels pitches with remarkable consistency, draws walks and doesn't strike out a lot, and is athletic enough to handle himself on an outfield corner (with plenty of arm, not surprising since he worked in the low 90s on the mound). A comp if it all comes together? Lyle Overbay is the one I keep coming back to.
Moreland, the Rangers' 2009 Tom Grieve Minor League Player of the Year, is a .313/.383/.509 hitter in four minor league seasons, and a .500/.500/.500 hitter for one big league night. Nice start.
Moreland's splits in 2010 are reasonably even, as are Cantu's. It's not clear how Washington will allocate time at first base between the two, and that may be something that Washington hasn't yet figured out himself.
But as Texas makes this road swing through Anaheim, Seattle, and Oakland over the next 10 days, before coming home to host New York and Boston, sitting at a season-high 18 games over .500 and having won 13 series out of 16, there's one thing that's unmistakable. Well, a few.
Jorge Cantu makes the first base situation and bench stronger. Bengie Molina has strengthened catcher considerably. Cliff Lee has overhauled every spot in the rotation, all by himself, and has changed the October outlook for this club.
And despite the fact that the Rangers had to dig even deeper in players than they should have had to in order to acquire all three, given the financial handcuffs on the organization that have yet to be removed, the impact that the Lee, Molina, and Cantu roster upgrades have had on the extraordinary depth this club has on the farm has been relatively minor, in a manner of speaking.
To join the free Newberg Report mailing list so you can get e-mail deliveries of every edition of the newsletter, daily minor league game recaps, and frequent Newberg Report News Flashes, go to www.newbergreport.com and click the "Mailing List" link on the top menu bar.
(c) Jamey Newberg