Assuming that there is some degree of truth to the pair of very encouraging reports filed by Newsday's Kat O'Brien and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt in the last 24 hours, the Texas Rangers' lengthily discussed pursuit of free-agent right-hander Ben Sheets could quickly evolve from mere amicable and mutual interest between prospective employee and employer into something far more substantial.
To quote O'Brien, "If [the Yankees] fail to reach an agreement with [Andy] Pettitte, one fallback option is Sheets, though sources said that is highly unlikely at this point," presumably because of concerns over his unnerving propensity for disabled list visits over the last several seasons. Haudricourt is similarly pessimistic on Milwaukee's chances of retaining the 30-year-old rotation anchor, stating that the Brewers have "given no indication they will stop him from going elsewhere" and suggesting that one essentially has to assume that he's a "goner."
It goes without saying that the successful acquisition of Sheets would represent a rather tremendous coup for the Rangers from both a talent standpoint and a public relations standpoint, veritably solidifying the number-one rotation spot with a legitimate top-of-the-rotation talent for presumably no less than two years while generating some much-needed fan enthusiasm and fostering the goodwill that the organization so desperately needs to voraciously accumulate as more and more disposable income in the possession of North Texans begins to vanish.
Now, is sufficient payroll room present to enable the tendering of a competitive offer to Sheets and his agent, Casey Close? The answer to that question is largely dependent on what you personally deem "competitive." Team president Nolan Ryan indicated last month that the Rangers' 2009 payroll would almost certainly fall between $65-75 million, leaving at most $10 million to address other deficiencies on the major league roster after accounting for guaranteed 2009 contracts and the projected salaries of arbitration-eligible and pre-arbitration players, barring the possible trade of a payroll-consuming individual.
But might not that figure become at least slightly more negotiable if the idea of acquiring Sheets was presented to ownership -- or the man controlling the purse strings, Tom Hicks -- from the perspective of the auxiliary benefits he could provide the Rangers in terms of both enhanced fan viewership (manifested in the form of at least marginally strengthened single-game ticket and season-ticket sales and local television ratings) and overall team marketability? Furthermore, such an offer could be aggressively backloaded if upper management appraised the Rangers' evidently tenuous financial situation as being more of a one-year blip on the radar than a long-term dilemma.
Sheets's fair market value -- on an average annual basis, mind you -- is thought to be in the general vicinity of $14-15 million (the current going rate for a pitcher that projects to be worth approximately three wins more than a replacement-level pitcher), which could conceivably be docked ever so slightly if Sheets opts to grant the Rangers a minor hometown discount; however, don't count on much leeway being afforded there even if negotiations should progress to an advanced stage at some point in the next several weeks.
Assuming Sheets's desire for a two-year deal isn't a fabrication on the part of his agent or the media, Texas could structure a hypothetical deal to pay out perhaps $10 million in 2009 and $16 million in 2010 (with at least a small portion of that $26 million proposal being deferred money). It's almost certain the Rangers would then want to tack on a third-year team option with a reasonably priced buyout clause attached in the event that Sheets outperforms expectations and firmly establishes himself as a feared Junior Circuit fireballer, so for the sake of discussion we'll throw out the princely sum of $2 million for the hypothetical buyout clause and $17 million for the hypothetical third-year team option.
Thus, it becomes either a two-year, $28 million deal or a three-year, $43 million deal, depending on how the Rangers choose to approach what will be a 32-year-old Sheets after the 2010 season. Is that an unreasonable figure? I don't think so, as it locks up the end of the Metroplex resident's prime at a relatively affordable price on a relatively short-term pact that effectively neutralizes some of the risk commonly found in the four- and five-year contracts frequently doled out to primo free-agent starting pitchers. And need anybody be reminded that Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, two far inferior pitchers to Sheets, will both be raking in eight-digit salaries in 2009?
Millwood and Padilla may ultimately be the X-factors in the Rangers' pursuit of Sheets, of course, and it's quite possible -- heck, even probable -- that this entire discussion will be rendered moot if general manager Jon Daniels can't find a way to offload at least one of those contracts onto an affluent playoff contender. There are, however, alternative ways to improve the 2009 major league product besides reinforcing the pitching staff, and we'll soon examine perhaps the biggest positional weakness of the projected 2009 squad, and what can be done to affordably address that weakness without impeding the absurd cache of minor league talent that relentlessly storms closer and closer to Arlington.