When Ron Washington told Eric Nadel during Sunday's pregame manager's show that the Koji Uehara trade "makes our bullpen better, so far," I didn't hear what he said next, my mind racing to try and decide whether he was tipping the Rangers' hand hours before the trade deadline or just giving an honest, greedy answer to Nadel's question, wondering along with the rest of us if there just might be another gift in the process of being wrapped.
Either way, it felt like Go Time again, and I thought back to something Kevin Goldstein said to our group on Newberg Report Night a year ago, which I described a couple days later this way:
But my favorite Goldstein comment, made well before Daniels, Levine, and Preller arrived, was when it was not the Rangers' farm system that he referred to as being loaded (still a top three system, he believes), but instead the Rangers' front office, which he described as "scary smart." He emphasized how fortunate we should understand we are to have the people in charge of baseball decisions here that we do, and while I think we generally recognize that, it resonates even more when coming from someone with Goldstein's credibility who is so tuned into all 30 organizations.
"Scary smart." It coursed through my head as I half-watched Texas and Toronto get Sunday's game underway.
When news broke an hour later than the Rangers had acquired the allegedly unavailable Mike Adams from San Diego - and specifically that the cost was lefthander Robbie Erlin and Frisco righthander Joe Wieland - I think I began to realize what Daniels and his group had managed to pull off.
Let me say at the outset that I think the Padres made a terrific deal for themselves here. We'll get to that part later. But first, see if this makes sense.
Weeks after signing what they believed to be the two best Latin American teenagers on the market (and, with ownership's backing, paying them accordingly), the Rangers' baseball decision-makers huddled up and decided they wanted not only to add two impact arms to the bullpen before the July 31 trade deadline, but to go out and get the two relievers they believed were the best (given both productivity and contract status) that the market had to offer - even if one of them wasn't necessarily being offered at all.
There were stacks of stories and tweets over the last week that the Padres wanted Erlin and Wieland, but that they wanted the Frisco pair in exchange for closer Heath Bell, who will be a free agent in two months. The Padres made it known that they wouldn't trade Bell unless they were getting what they perceived to be more value than the two first- or second-round draft picks they'd get if they held onto Bell and lost him this winter. And according to a number of accounts, Erlin and Wieland (who on Saturday had no-hit their own AA affiliate, one of the most dominant clubs in minor league baseball this season) were two players from Texas (short of others like Jurickson Profar whom they knew they couldn't get) that fit the profile.
Daniels told reporters Sunday afternoon, in discussing the Adams trade, that he was a pitcher the club had targeted from the outset. Padres GM Jed Hoyer told reporters Sunday that he and Daniels had been talking for several weeks. Hoyer probably told Daniels that Bell was available, and Adams was not. And he told Daniels that he wanted Erlin and Wieland. (Said Peter Gammons on Sunday afternoon: "Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland for Bell is what Pads wanted all along.")
And then we heard, through a thousand tweets from media outlets all over the country, that no team was more aggressive on Bell than Texas. That could have been calculated by San Diego to get other teams to step out of their own comfort zone (as the Mets supposedly did by using a Texas proposal for Carlos Beltran to force San Francisco to better its offer), but regardless of how that story caught its momentum, it probably worked to the Rangers' benefit.
Because the Orioles, who wanted Tommy Hunter to plug into their rotation and the possibility that they could get Chris Davis unlocked once removed from the pressures and expectations that had defined his time in Texas, couldn't draw the line any higher on the ask for Uehara, knowing that Texas was - supposedly - heavier on Bell than any other club.
And that worked to the Rangers' advantage as well.
After Texas pulled off the Uehara deal on Saturday, Daniels told reporters who asked if there might be more action by Sunday's deadline: "Nothing else is close right now." Daniels added, as he always does, that he'd be open to any other opportunity to improve the club but sent signals, with less than 19 hours to go, that he didn't really have anything else cooking.
That comment probably wasn't very convincing, but the implication was clear: Texas didn't need to go get another set-up reliever, which is what Bell would have been here. Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News tweeted, just before gametime on Sunday: "It is sounding like [the] Uehara deal may have been [the] jolt San Diego needed to revitalize Bell talks with Rangers. Hold on tight for four more hours." Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com said the Padres were "still trying to keep high price on Heath Bell, but tougher now that Texas got Uehara." There were dozens of other tweets along those lines.
Even after the Uehara trade, Texas still had the prospects the Padres coveted, but a diminished need for Bell. That was a game-changer.
Word was that St. Louis and Philadelphia and Toronto and the Angels were in on Bell but, by late Saturday, only on the fringes. The media still believed that the Rangers were in the lead on Bell, even having already added Uehara.
Texas had not only de-leveraged the Padres' position a bit (by adding Uehara first), but knew exactly what San Diego wanted, by having engaged fully in the Bell talks.
By Sunday, the Padres had to make a decision. Reportedly, Texas was interested in Bell, but not for Erlin and Wieland. Reportedly, San Diego wanted to trade Bell, not Adams. In simplest terms, the compromise, if a deal were to be made, would require San Diego to take less than those two for Bell, or to agree to part with Adams. Hoyer said Sunday evening that the Padres looked at the young pitching being brought along by the rest of the NL West and felt they needed to keep adding young arms. If Adams was a year away from being in the same position as Bell, saving games and pricing himself out of sticking around, would it be better to move him now (instead of - or in addition to - Bell) to get the two Texas arms his club had targeted, rather than just one of them?
If I'm sort of right about how this might have all played out . . . if Padres owner Jeff Moorad really did tell Adams a couple weeks ago that he was "not going anywhere" (a fact Adams all but confirmed Sunday afternoon) . . . if the Rangers did step forward on Bell more so than any other club this past week - even if not quite meeting the Padres' ask . . . if the Uehara trade on Saturday shifted the leverage even slightly . . . then it would make sense to conclude that San Diego was the one to blink.
I don't know how interested the Rangers were in Heath Bell this month, but it's pretty evident that they used his availability to find out exactly what San Diego wanted. And then positioned things to the point at which the Padres knew they'd have to part with Adams to get it.
A crowd of national writers, from Buster Olney to Jayson Stark to Jeff Passan to Jim Bowden, proclaimed Texas the league's number one or two trade deadline "winner" on Sunday. ESPN Dallas's Bryan Broaddus, a former NFL scout, tweeted: "Non football thought: I'd love to work for Rangers GM Jon Daniels. He has a plan. Not afraid. Big Picture Guy."
Daniels and his outstanding crew executed one heck of a plan this weekend.
Bell himself tweeted Sunday evening: "I'm going to miss Mike Adams. Texas is lucky."
I'm not sure that's the adjective I'd use. "Masterful" sounds better.
Bell might miss Adams, but the National League won't. Over the last three seasons, the righthander has held opponents to a .163/.221/.234 slash, striking out 167 batters in 151.2 innings while walking only 36 unintentionally. His opponents' batting average and on-base percentage over that span, as well as his 1.31 ERA and 76 holds, are best in baseball. Granted, Petco Park is kind to flyball pitchers (which Adams tends to be), but over those three seasons he has a 1.26 ERA away from home, limiting opponents to a .182/.236/.256 slash.
Adams's cutter - a pitch he throws over half the time - is nasty enough that left-handed hitters (.174/.234/.249) have been only marginally more "productive" against him these past three seasons than righties (.151/.206/.217). He has more of a power game than Uehara, but like his new teammate is deceptive, locates everything, and, as Daniels pointed out, has proven that he can get outs in big spots.
Uehara and Adams in 2011: a combined 95 innings, 51 hits, 15 unintentional walks, 111 strikeouts.
Feel free to take a minute to re-read that sentence. I'll wait.
They are also number two and number three in baseball in opponents' on-base percentage this year (.191 and .193 respectively, trailing only Giants reliever Sergio Romo).
A baseball brain whose analysis I trust believes that Adams was one of the top five relievers in the National League, and Uehara one of the five best in the American League, each capable of closing if the decision is made in 2012 to make Neftali Feliz a starter. The fact that both Adams and Uehara will be here in 2012 makes this weekend's trades even more exceptional.
The fact that both are as deadly against left-handed hitters as against righties means two things: (1) fewer pitching changes, which is a good thing for plenty of reasons; and (2) Arthur Rhodes's days here may be numbered.
You're going to hear a lot of folks lean on the baseball cliché that adding Uehara and Adams to this bullpen could turn Rangers games into six-inning affairs. Therein lies an important subtlety that shouldn't be overlooked: It would be fantastic, as Texas continues to push Alexi Ogando further into uncharted workload territory, not to mention Matt Harrison and Derek Holland, who have already worked more big league innings than in any previous season, and C.J. Wilson, who is headed in that direction and has been worked hard, for those guys to be able to turn things over after six innings, or seven, even if there's something left in the tank. A lockdown bullpen enables you to do that, and it could make a big difference when the games have so much riding on them in September, and hopefully October.
Daniels talked on Sunday about the dogfight that Texas is in with the Angels, who sit two games back in the division and have the easier schedule from here on out, including seven of the clubs' remaining 10 matchups in their ballpark. You need multiple guys in the bullpen capable of getting big outs, Daniels said, and Texas unquestionably added two veterans that fit the description this weekend.
If you were put off by Adams's comments to San Diego reporters that he was "kind of in-between" and a little shocked to be traded, remember Cliff Lee's reaction when he addressed the media minutes after being told he was traded not to New York, but to Texas. Adams will be fine. He's already talked about reuniting with Yorvit Torrealba. He spent his first three years in the big leagues with Mike Maddux as his pitching coach. He's a Texan.
And this: "It had become a little bit difficult to come to the park, because I hate losing. . . . I don't play for numbers. I play to win. The most important thing for me is to get to the playoffs and have a chance to go to the World Series. Going to Texas, obviously, I'm going to have that opportunity. Hopefully I can step in there and give them the extra little boost they need.
"I just want to go in there and contribute, and make that push to October, and have a very short offseason. That's my goal."
He'll be fine.
And so will San Diego. Erlin and Wieland have had tremendous seasons, each moving themselves from Myrtle Beach to Frisco and higher up on the Rangers' prospect list. One's a diminutive lefthander, the other a big righty, but otherwise there are similarities. Each came out of high school with an already mature approach, each understands how to pitch, each pounds the strike zone, and each has gotten better with the competition. Both were born in 1990 (Erlin was a 2009 third-rounder, Wieland a 2008 fourth-rounder) but aren't far from being big league pitchers. They tend to give up flyballs, but that's less of an issue in Petco Park than in most ballparks, as we've discussed. These two kids are warriors.
It's probably not unfair to compare Erlin and Wieland, at least generally speaking, to Hunter and Blake Beavan, the key pitchers moved in the Rangers' previous two impact trades. Those four pitchers are strike-throwers who should have long big league careers, but probably profile as middle-of-the-rotation types - and good bets to realize that potential (or, as Keith Law put it, pitching prospects "who make up in probability for what they might lack in upside").
Which is certainly not meant to diminish their value. Young pitchers capable of developing into number three or number four starters with years of club control are valuable assets, whether it's to help acquire Cliff Lee or Koji Uehara or Mike Adams or to give a club multiple seasons of 150-180 pre-arbitration innings. Texas paid a considerable price to get Adams. San Diego did well here. A win-win, you might have seen it called.
And setting aside a personal wish that those guys pitch in the big leagues for a long time, from a pure baseball standpoint we want them to succeed. The last thing you want is for your team to start to get a reputation for moving overhyped prospects with inflated statistics who don't pan out. Better to be known as an organization that knows how to scout - and develop - so that other clubs continue to want your players. That's a good thing.
Does this trade weaken the farm system as surely as it strengthens the big league roster? Yes. Of course. As Rangers fans we're not used to having to come to terms with that, having been raised with the defense mechanism of needing to follow the farm system rankings because the big league standings were too painful to keep both eyes on.
Get used to this. Parting with future to upgrade present is exactly where you want to be, especially when the pipeline is deep enough to comfortably enable it.
It's been a great couple of days for the Rangers, who took a recent first-round pick, a third, a fourth, and a fifth, chosen in 2006 and 2007 and 2008 and 2009, players who were scouted well and developed better, and turned them into two of the best relief pitchers in baseball, filling a glaring big league need and leaving intact the top tier of a farm system that still boasts Martin Perez and Jurickson Profar and Leonys Martin and Mike Olt, not to mention Eric Hurley and Neil Ramirez and Tanner Scheppers as pitchers not far from the big leagues, and young arms like David Perez and Luke Jackson and Robbie Ross and Roman Mendez and Barret Loux and Justin Grimm and Cody Buckel aiming to put themselves in the same position in the next couple years that Erlin and Wieland were in this month.
Moving Justin Smoak put a dent in the system, too, but nobody would take that trade back because, you know, to borrow another baseball axiom, flags fly forever.
There are different ways to chase those flags, but my favorite is "scary smart," and I can't wait for these next two months, with a greater confidence today that we might have another month of baseball beyond that to keep us occupied.