Several minutes after the conclusion of a hectic late-afternoon basketball game against my formidable 11-year-old nephew (who overcame his inherent height disadvantage by showcasing the elusiveness and clean shooting mechanics of a young Chris Paul -- then again, maybe I'm just out of practice), my laptop's ever-reliable newsreader lit up with updates on the tenuous status of reliever Wes Littleton, who had been plunged into 40-man roster limbo after being designated for assignment on November 20th and has now witnessed the expiration of his tenure in a Texas Rangers uniform.
One line of thought being kicked around is that Saturday's trade of Wes Littleton to the Boston Red Sox for two players to be named later or cash could be a potential precursor to a larger-scale trade between the two teams, presumably of the catcher-for-pitcher variety that has been so hotly discussed in recent weeks; Texas could forgo the apparently minor return Littleton will net and simply add him to such a deal as a trade sweetener, for instance.
Indeed, it certainly seems possible -- and perhaps even likely -- that the Rangers knew Littleton had no chance of slipping through league-wide waivers unclaimed from the outset and designated him for assignment fully armed with the knowledge that he would be traded before December 1st. General manager Jon Daniels and company wouldn't misread the market's level of interest in Littleton's services that badly before exposing him to waivers to be caught off-guard, one wouldn't think.
But while the departure of Littleton for Boston may well have been by design, I'm yet again left wondering precisely why a pitcher who has at least experienced some degree of success in the big leagues has been dispatched after five-plus years in the organization to the benefit of a pitcher who has done virtually nothing of particular note in three years.
The latter pitcher I'm referring to is, of course, veteran right-hander Willie Eyre, a surprise 40-man roster addition in the wake of Littleton's not-so-surprising roster subtraction. Both hurlers have tossed more than 100 career innings in the majors (102.1 IP for Littleton, 127.1 IP for Eyre), but that's about where the similarities end; the standard sample size disclaimers obviously apply, but in those respective inning spans, Littleton has struck out more hitters, walked fewer hitters and yielded fewer home runs per nine innings, posted a far better opponents' batting line, induced more ground balls and tossed a higher percentage of his pitches for strikes than Eyre.
Did I also mention he is at no disadvantage with regard to available minor league options compared to his relief counterpart (neither right-hander has any remaining), and is also four-plus years younger than Eyre?
Tom Tango's Marcel the Monkey player forecasting system is remarkably simplistic at its core (it employs three-year weighted averages, regressed towards the mean with a built-in age factor), yet is still well-regarded in sabermetric circles and scores well compared to more advanced forecasting systems in the vein of Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA and Dan Szymborski's ZiPS. Again, sample size is an issue here, but let's take a brief look at how optimistic Marcels is on Eyre's and Littleton's 2009 prospects:
The disparity isn't exactly enormous in terms of fielding-independent ERA totals, but still amounts to two or three runs over the span of a full big league campaign (note the major playing-time assumption underlying all of this); shift to good ole' vanilla ERA, and you're talking about something more along the lines of four or five runs -- not at all a negligible number where the perpetually pitching- and defense-bereft Texas Rangers are concerned. Run prevention can be fashioned in any number of different ways, and perhaps the most direct (and simple) way to aid the "runs allowed" column is to run better pitchers out there. Based on the data we presently have at our disposal, Littleton is a better pitcher than Eyre.
Perhaps the Rangers are wholeheartedly convinced that Littleton's funky sidearm delivery and lackluster velocity will contribute to further regression that would have eventually decimated any trade value he presently possesses. Perhaps Eyre has recuperated beautifully from Tommy John surgery, has rediscovered his command and has picked up a new pitch or two along the way, and the Rangers have legitimate reason to believe he'll be a major piece in next season's bullpen puzzle.
And perhaps the Texas Longhorns will sneak into the BCS National Championship Game without winning their own conference. But I'm not terribly confident in any of those three scenarios unfolding.
Is there more to all of this than meets the eye? I wouldn't be shocked. And it's quite possible that I'm totally off-base in not completely trusting Daniels and company on this issue, particularly in light of the promising direction they've managed to steer this organization in over the last two years.
But, seriously -- Willie Eyre?