When Scott Feldman took the mound in the top of the fifth inning, word came down that there would be an in-game press briefing about 15 minutes later.
By time the presser was over – following a groundout to second, a double dumped down the left field line, a five-pitch walk, a double steal on a strikeout, an intentional walk, and a throwing error by Adrian Beltre – there had been a pitching change.
In more ways than one.
With injuries the last few days to Jered Weaver (Angels), Roy Halladay (Phillies), and Ted Lilly (Dodgers), the Rangers’ announcement on Tuesday that they had come to terms with Roy Oswalt on a one-year deal – which will basically amount to a half-year deal – had all the appearances of a quick strike, perhaps even preemptive, to make sure they landed the veteran starter before another newly decimated contender beat them to it.
Yet it was a different injury, and the scare of another, that prompted this deal, the terms of which were actually agreed to on Sunday, according to Jon Daniels. Texas had seen Oswalt throw before Neftali Feliz got hurt, and before Alexi Ogando took a Sunday afternoon line drive off his wrist in a low-leverage situation, but it was those two events (certainly the former more than the latter, which turned out to be harmless) that led to a pact that many felt as long as six months ago was bound to come together eventually.
Texas was never really tested in 2011 as far as rotation depth was concerned. The club is being tested now – and there’s no guarantee it won’t be tested further. Feldman is valuable in his role as a swingman, good for a handful of starts to keep a rotation in order due to doubleheaders or blisters or minor injuries, but this is different. And neither Martin Perez nor Neil Ramirez nor Michael Kirkman had put themselves in a position to come up from Round Rock in Feliz’s place. The idea of adding a veteran starter, when Feliz will not only miss a quarter to a third of the season – at least – but also need to be eased back into action, was inviting, and the opportunity to do so without forfeiting key prospects or draft picks made Oswalt an even more attractive option.
Could Texas have gone out and traded for Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke? To convince the Phillies or Brewers to do business over the next month would have cost an added premium – neither team is out of the race – and remember, under the new CBA, giving up three or four blue-chip assets is not nearly as tolerable when the rental player you’re getting back in return won’t net you any draft pick compensation if they leave in the winter.
Knowing you’d have two first-round picks on the back end if you weren’t able to re-sign the player once made rental deals far more palatable risks than they are now.
Let’s say you have to give Milwaukee a package that looks like Perez, Cody Buckel, Victor Payano, and Hanser Alberto for Greinke.
Greinke is part of your playoff rotation, but who does he start ahead of?
(Take a look at his post-season history.)
You want to give all that up, and pay the $9 million left on Greinke’s deal, with no guarantee that you’ll have anything to show for it at season’s end?
Or does it make more sense to take your chances with Oswalt, and keep the prospects and added cash?
Is Matt Garza worth that sort of cost in prospects, given that the Cubs are selling a year and a half of his services and thus aren’t going to take whatever the market for a half-season rental might be under the new CBA?
Is Ryan Dempster a real upgrade?
Back to Hamels. You want him, and maybe you can bundle that Greinke package up and tack it onto the back of Mike Olt.
Then he signs with the Dodgers in December.
At which point you no longer have Hamels or Olt or Perez or Buckel or Payano or Alberto.
Or maybe Hamels is still in play, because no other team will package a pitcher with the track record and controllability of Matt Harrison with a couple prospects like Chad Bell and Rougned Odor. Maybe.
Or maybe Philadelphia, even with the loss of Halladay, is in no mood to think about moving Hamels at all, motivated to try and win anyway with what remains a championship-caliber roster (and recoup two draft picks if Hamels leaves). Tellingly, the Phillies were reported to have made an offer to Oswalt themselves, half a year after they’d paid him $2 million to avoid having to pay his $16 million option for 2012 and also declined to offer him arbitration (he was the only Type A in the league not offered arb), fearing he’d take them up on it and land a greater one-year deal than they wanted to pay.
The point is that Philadelphia decided this month that it wanted Oswalt back. That club isn’t selling pieces off just yet, and may not at all. (The extra Wild Card in each league is going to make fewer teams get in the sellers’ line in June and July.) Waiting for that possibility, especially since every fifth day would be earmarked for Feldman in the meantime, with no real guarantee of when Feliz might return, wouldn’t have been the wisest course of action.
The point is also that this move doesn’t necessarily foreclose the potential for something bigger later this summer, at least based on something Daniels said the day before the Oswalt announcement: “We’re trying to forecast not just now but into July what we might need,” Daniels told Ben & Skin (ESPN Dallas). “We want to make sure that we have the ability to go out and address those needs throughout the year.”
And in the meantime, Oswalt wanted to be in Texas and reportedly spurned more lucrative offers from the Phillies, Dodgers, and Cardinals – three teams that should contend most of the year, all in his familiar National League – to make it happen. One national report suggested he told the Dodgers it would take $7.5 million to sign him, while he reportedly instead accepted something between $4 million and $5 million (which suggests an $8 million contract that will be prorated down based on when his contract is purchased from Round Rock) plus another $1 million in incentives to join the Rangers. At one level or another, the Red Sox, Orioles, and Brewers were also said to have kicked the tires, while Detroit did before the season.
Jon Heyman (CBS Sports) adds that the righthander “spoke with several other clubs during the winter and spring, including the Angels, who, according to sources, were very close to signing Oswalt.”
Whether it’s because of Nolan Ryan or Mike Maddux or a two-time World Series club or simple geography, we have a case of a starting pitcher that was coveted at some level, and who had lots of choices, and who wanted to be a Ranger.
And sorta new.
Resisting the temptation to sign Oswalt in December and displacing Harrison in the process made sense. (Partly because he reportedly spent much of the winter chasing a three-year contract that nobody was offering.) The loss of Feliz for a meaningful period of time changes the story. As for whether Oswalt can still pitch and help this club, Ryan believes he can, the Rangers’ scouts who watched him throw recently (including Mike Anderson) must believe he can, and these days the organization is certainly entitled to the benefit of the doubt when it comes to talent evaluation.
We’ll start to see how sharp Oswalt is and whether he can sustain his command and his stuff more than a couple times through a lineup as he tunes up in Round Rock, where he played for manager Jackie Moore and pitching coach Mike Maddux (and owner Ryan) in 2000, his last full minor league season. Optimistic estimates suggest he could be ready for the club’s June 22-July 1 homestand against Colorado (who he has dominated in his career, going 8-2, 1.94 in 12 starts with a .218/.269/.349 opponents’ slash), Detroit, and Oakland.
Meanwhile, Feldman will likely continue to get the ball every fifth day. The Angels will turn to Garrett Richards to fill in for Weaver, the Dodgers will recall Nate Eovaldi, and the Phillies could attempt to resurrect Dave Bush or Scott Elarton. But none of those clubs have a guy like Roy Oswalt getting ramped back up to reinforce things.
Yes, Oswalt had back problems in 2011 and has been on the disabled list five times in the last six seasons. No, he’s never pitched in an American League pennant race. (A thought: Not hitting and not running the bases might be a good thing for his back.) Granted, his last two starts in Arlington (in 2008 and 2010) weren’t pretty: 13 earned runs (10.97 ERA) on 18 hits (including four home runs) and five walks in 10.2 innings. There was reportedly a level of resistance from some in the Rangers organization to signing him at all.
But he could come in here with a little something to prove after not getting the deal he thought he deserved in the winter. He might be fresh in October after having sat out the first two months of the year. Like Beltre and Mike Napoli when acquired, he ought to be very hungry for that ring that has eluded him in an otherwise distinguished career.
If you’re having trouble thinking of him as anything other than (1) heyday Roy Oswalt or (2) a washed-up veteran desperately trying to hang on, if there’s no in-between you can crystal-ball, maybe think of him as a poor man’s version of Colby Lewis. What Texas is getting is probably a poor man’s Roy Oswalt, but if that’s tough to imagine, he’s probably going to fire a couple gems while making us question on other nights whether he even fits in a tightened playoff rotation. Like Lewis.
He’s not going to come in here and be Cliff Lee – who went 4-6, 3.98 as a Ranger before the playoffs started. But he’s not costing Texas any prospects, either.
Maybe, like it did with Lee, the way that Oswalt prepares and competes and handles himself will rub off on one or two of the younger pitchers all over this staff, simply by example.
But otherwise, Texas isn’t bringing Oswalt in here to be Cliff Lee. Or to be Oswalt in his prime.
And here’s something else to think about. It’s not so much that the window is closing here as that it’s so wide open right now that it makes some amount of sense to be super-aggressive. Not all of the club’s key free agents will be back after this year. When opportunities to boost your chances to win right now present themselves – particularly at no prospect or draft pick cost – going for it has to be on the table.
Texas will be a playoff team with or without Oswalt’s back-of-the-rotation contributions. But maybe he helps the Rangers win an extra game or two, which this summer could mean home field advantage or this October could mean something even more important. Maybe he won’t. But the only prospect affected by his addition could be the shift of injured righthander Matt West from the 40-man roster to the 60-day disabled list, once Oswalt is deemed ready to have his minor league contract purchased and to have his Rangers career get underway. There’s no Blake Beavan lost, no Robbie Erlin, no Cody Buckel.
It does almost certainly mean Feliz is not going to rejoin the rotation in 2012, and I’m OK with that. I wasn’t sold on Feliz as a starter to begin with, and as Jeff Passan (Yahoo! Sports) points out: “Forget Oswalt in the rotation. The Nathan-Feliz-Ogando-Adams-Uehara-Ross-Lowe bullpen is what truly makes the Rangers Freddy-level scary.”
Throw Feldman back into that mix, too. Having a dependable long man, which Texas doesn’t have at the moment, can be critical, not only in games that pitcher is needed but also in the two or three that follow.
We learned last year how important the bullpen is in October, particularly in National League parks.
Whatever you think Roy Oswalt has left, ask yourself this: Is he better than whoever the least useful pitcher on the staff is? The answer is probably yes, and potentially hell-yes. It’s not as if Texas just signed Sid Ponson.
So it comes down to money. Ownership stepped up on this deal despite media reports that the payroll is already over-budget, but then again the fan base has stepped up in a big way over these first two months as well, giving Texas the best attendance numbers in baseball behind the Phillies, and maybe that altered budget plans. Take a look at that Daniels comment and think about whether this means the Rangers now have to back away from the trade market in July. I don’t think it does.
As I’ve stated a hundred times, for me the barometer for judging a Rangers trade or signing is sometimes as simple as asking myself how I’d feel if the Angels had made the same move.
In this case, it’s not that hard to imagine that exact scenario, and I know that if the Angels (winners of eight straight and now closer to Texas than they’ve been at any time since April 17) had announced yesterday that they were recalling Garrett Richards to face Harrison this Sunday in Anaheim, but after that only to hold things down for another two or three weeks while Oswalt tuned up with AA Arkansas or AAA Salt Lake (assuming the Weaver injury lingers) – well, it wouldn’t have been my first choice.
Instead, Oswalt is a Ranger, which he wanted all along and which Ryan apparently wanted all along and which so much of the media expected all along, and while the downside is relatively minimal – especially if you believe it doesn’t take Texas out of the mix for any other deal that might materialize and that was on the whiteboard beforehand – the upside is that he could really help this team if he in fact has something left, with that added upside that he won’t be doing it for another team that Texas is going to have to beat.