One year ago today, I wrote a report about Mike Napoli, focusing on a lengthy list
during the Jon Daniels/Nolan Ryan era of players that Texas acquired at what appears to have been exactly the right time. Players who were picked up just before they exploded, who came at a price that in retrospect seems absurdly light, who reached their big league peaks (or a significant resurgence) here – which doesn’t even count Adrian Beltre, whose contract already seems like a bargain.
The list was headed by Napoli and included Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Colby Lewis, Joe Nathan, David Murphy, Marlon Byrd, Darren O’Day, Milton Bradley, and Darren Oliver.
The departures the last few weeks of Nathan and Murphy, and possibly Cruz, will further prove the point.
Texas paid Nathan $7 million per year in 2012 and 2013 and got spectacular results. Detroit will reportedly pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million annually for his age 39 and 40 seasons.
The Rangers paid Murphy roughly $13 million over six seasons, most of which were pretty productive. Cleveland has agreed to guarantee him almost as much ($12 million) over just the next two, during which he will be 32 and 33, and coming off his worst campaign by far.
Cruz was paid about $21 million for seven Rangers seasons, with a high salary of $10.5 million in 2013. The 33-year-old will blow that number away with his next deal, even though he’s likely to enter his decline phase at some point during it.
Even A.J. Pierzynski, who will be 37, will be guaranteed more in Boston this coming season ($8.25 million) than he was in Texas ($7.5 million).
Craig Gentry was a senior at the University of Arkansas in 2006 when, in that summer’s 10th round, Rangers area scout Jay Eddings (who was promoted last month to a pro scouting position) pounded his fist on the table for a kid who wasn’t even drafted as a junior, due in part to Tommy John surgery, and whose senior season was abbreviated by an infection in his knee. Eddings believed in the player, and pushed until the Rangers used the 298th pick on the outfielder. It took a mere $10,000 signing bonus (where else was a senior going to go?) to bring him on board. He entered the system with all the fanfare ever afforded a college senior, which is to say basically none.
As someone who’s addicted to outfield defense and pressure offense, I’m obviously a huge Craig Gentry fan.
But I’m a bigger fan of building winning baseball teams, and while yesterday’s trade with Oakland can’t be oversimplified as the conversion of a 10th-round senior sign into a 10th overall pick in the draft, this is yet another example, almost certainly, of the Rangers maximizing a player’s value — and in fact getting the most out of him when he was undervalued in terms of payroll impact — and flipping him when the opportunity came up to get younger and less expensive and, given the immediate state of the roster, possibly more balanced.
Gentry turned 30 last week. His game is fully dependent on his legs. Oakland doesn’t care too much whether he’ll be the same player after three more years, when he’ll first have the right to test free agency, because that club’s window, which is framed offensively around 2014 28-year-old’s Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes and 34-year-old Coco Crisp, who will hit the market a year from now, is wide open right now. That’s a franchise that can’t worry about 2017, not coming off back-to-back division titles with over 90 wins and less payroll flexibility than most clubs. The A’s are built to win, and every move they’ve made this winter has been focused solely on 2014.
Which is not to say the trade that sent Gentry and righthander Josh Lindblom to Oakland for 24-year-old outfielder Michael Choice and 20-year-old infielder Chris Bostick was a 2014 sacrifice by Texas with only future seasons in mind. This deal, like last month’s Ian Kinsler-Prince Fielder swap, was made because it allowed Texas to take an area of strength and address an area of weakness, giving the roster more balance than it had the day before the trade went down.
Here are the realities:
Texas expects Leonys Martin, who made significant progress in 2013, to take the next step in his development and replace the flashes of impact play with a steadier dose of consistency. He’s this team’s center fielder and leadoff hitter, and not in a platoon.
As a right-handed hitter, Gentry could have gone into the 2014 season as the team’s starting left fielder, or more likely on the light end of a platoon with a left-handed bat like Engel Beltre or Jim Adduci or even Mitch Moreland. But given the Rangers’ objective of resuscitating its offense with some of the run production that was missing in 2013, the likelihood was always that left field was going to be an ideal place to add some punch.
He’s not the baserunner Gentry is, but Beltre is every bit as good an outfielder, and arguably better.
He’s also 24.
And out of options.
With Martin set to play every day in center (and Alex Rios in right), Gentry was in a bit of a lurch here — worthy of more than just 150 at-bats and a bunch of late-inning defensive work, but not enough punch to hold down a corner outfield spot on a contending team. A platoon in left? I’m not sure the Rangers were going to be comfortable giving Beltre or Adduci the heavy half of a tandem arrangement on a corner, or making Moreland an everyday outfielder. And if the plan was (or is) to go out and get a left-handed bat like Shin-Soo Choo (whom Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reports Texas met with recently, and who Jim Bowden of ESPN/XM believes will sign with Texas) or Curtis Granderson or the switch-hitting Carlos Beltran, then you’re back to looking at Gentry as a fourth outfielder playing behind three full-time guys. That’s a valuable piece, but perhaps less so than as a trade chip — particularly given what the A’s were offering — and especially when Beltre (who will surely be claimed by another club if he doesn’t make the Rangers’ Opening Day roster) is still around to serve in the lockdown defender role.
Craig Gentry is a bench weapon. He’s very good at his narrowly defined job. Contending teams win with players like that.
But he’s a 30-year-old bench weapon. And when there are options behind him who can serve a similar function (even if less dependably), when you can turn a role player into a talent like Choice, it’s a risk that fearless GM’s are sometimes willing to take.
Jon Daniels was willing to make the deal because his scouts believe Choice, who was born in Fort Worth and played high school ball in Mansfield and collegiately at UTA (where he was teammates with Rangers outfield prospect Preston Beck), could give the club a power bat that’s ready to contribute. He’s going to have the chance to earn the left field job (and though his left-right splits are reasonably even, it’s possible the club could pair him with the left-handed Beltre or Adduci).
He could also be sent to AAA for more seasoning (he has all three options left), especially if an impact veteran is acquired.
He could be traded again, for that matter.
The point is that there’s flexibility — and six years of control — and if Choice’s raw power translates against big league pitching, he could give the Rangers something they’ve lacked, with the negligible type of payroll impact that facilitates much bigger splashes elsewhere on the roster.
Chosen 10th in 2010 draft (in a deep crop that included Bryce Harper  and Manny Machado  and Matt Harvey  ahead of him, and Chris Sale  and Christian Yelich  behind him — Texas took outfielder Jake Skole with the 15th pick and catcher Kellin Deglan 22nd overall), Choice hit a robust .266/.377/.587 that summer with Short-Season A Vancouver and then .285/.376/.542 (with a league-leading 30 homers) for High A Stockton in 2011, followed by a standout run in the Arizona Fall League (.318/.423/.667). His power receded with AA Midland in 2012 (.287/.356/.423) and came back only a little with AAA Sacramento this season (.302/.390/.445), earning a September look with Oakland in which he went 5 for 18 with a double and a walk, fanning six times.
Despite the drop in game power the last two years, scouts continue to tout Choice’s raw power and plus bat speed, pointing to his aptitude and mechanical adjustments as a hitter — his strikeout rate has improved every season (one for every 2.9 plate appearances in 2010, 1/4.0 in 2011, 1/4.6 in 2012, and 1/5.2 in 2013) and he walked once every 8.7 times up in 2013 after once every 12.2 trips the year before — and most believe he’s ready for the opportunity to hit in a big league lineup.
As with most deals that involve unproven players keying at least one side of it, this is a scouting trade. Rangers talent evaluators obviously feel Choice’s power is not only in there but poised to break out. Scouting decisions don’t always pan out, but this organization has a tremendous track record in that respect, and it’s easy to get behind the idea that Texas has measured the risk against the upside well and is right about what Choice will be.
The right-handed hitter/thrower is built like Marlon Byrd, and many things about his profile might remind you of the former Ranger outfielder. He’s capable of playing center field but is ideally a corner defender. He’s athletic but won’t be much of a basestealing threat and doesn’t throw particularly well. Byrd’s a lifetime .280 hitter who has flashed 20-25 home run power in his good years. Choice could be that same guy, with the chance to clear more fences eventually — especially away from O.co Coliseum as his home park.
Choice may not be ready to produce like Byrd did in 2007-09 with the Rangers or last year with the Mets and Pirates, but with Byrd now 36 there’s certainly no guarantee he’ll continue to produce at those levels himself.
And Byrd is guaranteed $8 million from the Phillies in 2014. And another $8 million in 2015. And another $8 million in 2016, if he plays enough beforehand to lock that third season in.
Choice will make roughly the Major League minimum those three years.
Ben Badler of Baseball America tweeted yesterday that Choice will slot somewhere in the top five among Rangers prospects — presumably along with catcher Jorge Alfaro, middle infielders Rougned Odor and Luis Sardinas, and one of righthanders Alex Gonzalez and Luke Jackson and third baseman Joey Gallo — but he was number two for the A’s, and without question the player with the highest ceiling in Tuesday’s trade.
According to San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser, “The move has some in the game scratching their heads (I’ve even heard comparisons to the Andre Ethier deal with the Dodgers).”
In December 2005, Oakland traded Ethier, then a 23-year-old who had just torn up the AA Texas League, to Los Angeles for Bradley, who would play the 2006 season at age 28 (plus infield prospect Antonio Perez). Bradley helped the A’s win the West in his one full season in Oakland, while Ethier finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year vote in 2006, since finishing sixth in the MVP race one year and appearing in the All-Star Game two other times. The mere invoking of that deal eight years later suggests there are folks unsure of why Oakland — cash-strapped Oakland — would move a high-end prospect like Choice for a 30-year-old role player, when nine times out of 10 you find the A’s on the opposite side of that kind of trade.
(One big league scout suggested to Slusser, by the way, that Bostick, the second player coming to Texas, “has upside and is a risky trade” for Oakland. He’s not a high-upside player, and is at least two years away, but Lindblom was probably not going to impact the 2014 Rangers staff any more than he did in 2013, and he’ll be out of options when the season ends. Adding a middle infield lottery ticket like Bostick — more ballplayer than toolbox in this case — is a classic Daniels move. But he’s far from a sure thing, even if some believe his hit tool and feel for the game could carry him a long way.)
I read a lot of A’s-centric material yesterday openly wondering if Billy Beane just isn’t a Michael Choice guy, for some unknown reason — otherwise it would seem fair to assume that (1) reasonable value for Gentry would have been less than a big league-ready prospect with Choice’s upside . . . or that (2) Choice could have brought a more valuable (younger?) asset back. (Grant speculated that the A’s, desperate for a new stadium, have that added reason to go all in for the 2014 season — and perhaps increase support for stadium funding.)
(Maybe Beane thinks that sending Choice to Texas could take the Rangers off the chase for Choo or Beltran or Cruz, increasing his own club’s chances in the division this year. Doubt that was a meaningful factor, though.)
Regardless of the reason, every national column you read today will suggest Texas won this deal, even if the more predictable immediate impact belongs to Oakland.
Gentry’s greatest value is as a part-time center fielder, and the importance of that role is arguably diminished this year in Texas. He had more value to Oakland, whose center fielder is aging, injury-prone, and a year from free agency, and whose need to win right now, even at the expense of the near future, has become apparent.
And that made Choice less valuable to the A’s than he is to Texas, which has made run production a priority this winter, and which has a left field situation that’s immediately open to competition. Oakland’s window may have gotten arguably wider with this deal, but it could shut sooner than the Rangers’ window, which Choice could help extend as he gives the club six years of inexpensive control and the type of raw power that was otherwise at least two years away from arriving off the farm.
The Rangers have had unusually good success in the 10th round of the draft, finding players like Rusty Greer and Doug Davis and Billy Sample and others (including outfielder Justin Maxwell, who didn’t sign, and righthander Matt Nevarez, who was eventually sent to Houston in a trade for Pudge Rodriguez, and outfielder Jared Hoying and righthander Cole Wiper, each of whom have a real chance to get to the big leagues). It’s historically been a more fruitful round for Texas than the second, or the fourth.
Craig Gentry fits near the top of that list of Rangers steals in the 10th round. Even though his unusually long college career was followed by an unusually long minor league apprenticeship, resulting in his first extended big league opportunity coming at age 27 in 2011, he was outstanding in his role here the last few years, providing the type of help off the bench that great teams get, and was a fan favorite (myself included). But he’s 30 years old, arguably situated, given the state of the team, in a position where he was either going to be overexposed or underutilized, and with this trade he enabled Texas to add a recent first-round pick at a position of need — and to potentially address left field without surrendering a future first-rounder in the process.
For now, at least.
Gentry is unquestionably a success story in Texas, but this organization has demonstrated, over and over, that it won’t keep a player too long. The Rangers scouted him well and developed him well, and most likely got Gentry’s best years, and are clearly convinced they have the chance to get the same out of Michael Choice.
And those lie ahead rather than behind.
One fan tweeted yesterday: “First Ian, now Gentry. Who are the women supposed to cheer for?!?”
I responded: “The Rangers.”
Just as the presence of Jurickson Profar and need for left-handed power made Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder a good fit, the development of Leonys Martin and presence of Engel Beltre and need for even more power made the trade of Craig Gentry a sensible one. If Choice becomes what the Rangers believe he will become, one day we’ll look back fondly not only at the very good years the former 10th-round pick Gentry gave this team, but also at the trade that sent a 10th man to a division rival for a hometown kid, the corner bat with a high ceiling, controllable for a baseball eternity, that this club had a serious need for.