Every now and again, a particular viewpoint espoused by some other baseball writer will stick in my craw, and it takes days to properly extricate it. Or weeks, on very rare occasion. I typically bottle up these feelings of dissent and let the matter slowly fade away, but for some unexplainable reason I just can't do it this time. Maybe it's because of the purported implications for the Rangers' off-season plans. Maybe it's because I'm running low on sleep. Or maybe it doesn't really matter why.
The offending passage in question was dropped in a column by SI.com's Joe Sheehan about a week ago, and stated the following: "The Rangers have some depth from which to trade, but remember that they surrendered a lot of value this summer to make acquisitions without paying out 2010 salaries, so crafting an offer for, say, Zack Greinke or Matt Cain won't be as easy as it might have been." This appears perfectly innocuous until you absorb its meaning and realize that what Sheehan is actually asserting is that the Rangers' need for cash-subsidized trades this past summer might in some way impair their ability to swing a deal for a top-of-the-rotation piece this winter. Sheehan's working premise, then, is that Texas had to kick in substantial talent in order to compensate for their dearth of payroll flexibility.
And you know what? I can see how somebody might form that impression. The Rangers completed six trades that included cash inflows in a two-month span, the first five of which were completed before the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline and brought back a grand total of $7.2 million; I couldn't track down an exact figure on the subsidy which Texas received in the Jeff Francoeur trade, but I'm inclined to believe it was something in the $600,000-800,000 range. Heck, let's just go ahead and call it a round $8 million. That's practically unheard of in the context of single-season payroll relief, and I can understand why it might logically follow that an abundance of young talent was the cost of that relief.
But when you parse the numbers, you find that this isn't exactly the case. The payroll relief in the Jeff Francoeur trade was essentially cost-free, thanks to the Mets' astonishingly low asking price: Joaquin Arias. A pure player-for-player dump. Florida kicked in $600,000 in the Jorge Cantu trade, with the Rangers yielding right-handers Omar Poveda and Evan Reed; the former succumbed to Tommy John surgery well before the deal was completed and even assuming a setback-free rehab will profile as a No. 4-5 starter, at best, whereas the latter was a decent but unexceptional Double-A relief prospect. We can't say definitively which player was the price for the salary relief, but I think it's abundantly clear that neither remotely resembled a major loss in talent.
Texas received $350,000 in the Jarrod Saltalamacchia-to-Boston trade, but this did not represent accompanying salary relief for any single component of the deal -- the Rangers recouped only minor leaguers, and diverted that six-digit fund towards their draft-signing budget. Twenty-four hours earlier, Texas received $2 million from the Nationals in the Cristian Guzman deal, but again only relinquished a pair of fringy right-handers in Ryan Tatusko and Tanner Roark. We've already accounted for nearly $4 million in salary relief, and the most significant prospect yielded by the Rangers to this point is probably Tatusko or Reed -- guys who are unlikely to ever meaningfully contribute in the majors.
Which brings us to the two trades that Sheehan is most likely referencing -- the trades that summoned 2010 post-season heroes Bengie Molina and Cliff Lee to Arlington. The latter deal nourished the Rangers' coffers to the tune of $2.25 million, but who did this subsidy cost the Rangers? It's virtually impossible to say, but I find it entirely plausible that Blake Beavan was a non-excludable trade piece (particularly if former Rangers minor league pitching coordinator Rick Adair had any say in the matter), and that Josh Lueke constituted much of the cost. I would note at this point that Lueke ranks merely 15th in Kevin Goldstein's newly released Mariners prospect rankings; he's a good relief prospect with a powerful arm, but one with well-documented makeup problems, and the thing about it is that relief-only prospects sans elite upside just aren't that special or unique or, hell, excessively valuable.
Which finally brings us around to Michael Main, the point of extreme contention when the Molina trade was finalized and people realized that a former top prospect was apparently included in exchange for the sum of $2 million -- emphasis on former. I will freely admit to being partial towards Main, and in hindsight this may have spurred a more emotional response than what was warranted at the time; when you're one-half of the duo that dared to rank him as the top prospect in the Rangers' system in 2008, I guess you begin to feel an attachment towards that prospect that transcends rationality. Unfortunately, he had already sunk to mid-level prospect depths and his ceiling had fallen into "solid-average starter" territory at the time the deal went down, but he was still a decent pitching prospect in his own right. Now? After an abysmal four-start run at Double-A Richmond and a season-ending hip injury, the clock is beginning to tick.
In sum, the only "significant" talent the Rangers likely relinquished for that $8 million in salary relief was an increasingly maddening Michael Main and Josh Lueke, whose name alone is sufficient cause for concern. Even if you're of the belief that it was Blake Beavan and not Lueke who was the necessary cash-securing piece (and it definitely wasn't Justin Smoak, whose inclusion was necessary just to keep Jack Zdurienick listening), he's a back-end rotation piece with limited upside -- the kind of guy you're happy to ride through his pre-arbitration years for league-minimum production, but may not keep around for the full six years of club control.
Any one of these prospects would make for a fine complementary addition to a larger and/or more complex deal with a bigger payoff, but they're all relatively replaceable -- and that's where my disagreeance with Sheehan comes to a head. You miss out on a blockbuster trade opportunity for a top-of-the-rotation piece because you don't have a Martin Perez, or a Tanner Scheppers, or an Engel Beltre in your system. That sort of deal doesn't hinge on the presence of a fungible mid-level prospect. And even if you're of the mindset that Michael Main, Josh Lueke and the rest of those fringe-average arms together constitute "a lot of value," I don't think it's enough value to make things as difficult as Sheehan implies them to be ... as if trading for Zach Greinke or Matt Cain wouldn't be difficult enough, already.