If you stop and think about things critically for a second, you'll realize that the Rangers' off-season template is dividable into two distinct but loosely related plans: (a) the plan that includes Cliff Lee signing with Texas, and (b) the plan that doesn't. Truthfully, Plan 'B' is the more interesting plan to contemplate, because if the Rangers really want to maximize their odds of stamping a return ticket to the World Series, it necessitates that the Rangers find a front-line successor to their 2010 pitching demigod, or (at a bare minimum) a reliable mid-rotation innings-eater paired with other consequential roster upgrades.
Now, granted, signing Lee and upgrading other aspects of the roster don't have to be mutually exclusive, but pulling off the former significantly reduces the available resources through which the latter can be accomplished; in other words, one certainly shouldn't expect that the Rangers will commit a sum in excess of $30-35 million to free-agent signees in 2011, or (put another way) that Texas will sign both Lee and another top-flight free agent like Adrian Beltre in the same winter. It's fun to dream about, and theoretically possible, but it's not likely. And that brings me around to the point of this post: Plan 'B.'
ESPN.com's Buster Olney and SI.com's Joe Sheehan have both suggested that Plan 'B' could include signing free-agent outfielder Carl Crawford, with their rationale apparently being that Crawford's presence would (a) enable Texas to "rotate" Josh Hamilton, David Murphy and Nelson Cruz through the other two outfield spots (implying some degree of protection against injury), (b) holistically upgrade their outfield defense, and (c) keep him away from the Angels. (Olney also argues that Crawford would help "balance" the Rangers' righty-heavy lineup, a valid point which I'll acknowledge but not analyze any deeper ... for now, at least.)
Here's the thing: Crawford's a guy with "young-player skills" -- these players are thought to age more gracefully than three-true-outcomes hitters who are heavily dependent on walks and power -- still on the younger side of 30, and projectable for 5-6 wins above replacement per season over the next few years. When his eventual contract is someday compared against the current going rate for wins on the open market (generally $4-5 million per win), Crawford will have likely "been worth" his high eight- or low nine-digit deal. Viewed from this perspective, Crawford stands a good chance of representing a solid investment for his future employer.
But team context is vitally important, and it's where the argument for Texas signing Crawford begins to come apart at the seams. Crawford is, by all indications, going to demand left field exclusivity, and since neither Nelson Cruz nor David Murphy are viable center-field options, you're basically stuck with Josh Hamilton as your everyday center fielder in this scenario; Julio Borbon is also a possibility, but you're then left "rotating" Hamilton, Cruz and Murphy through right field and the DH spot, and I don't see much reason to believe that this would ever happen. More on this in a second.
Aside from the likelihood that making Hamilton your everyday center fielder lands him on the disabled list for at least 20-30 games per season (and significantly increases the probability of a catastrophic injury), you also have to consider that the projected defensive upgrade is mitigated by the marginalization of Borbon -- over a full season, he's probably 5-6 runs better defensively in center field than Hamilton, which is one of the arguments for a Hamilton-Borbon-Cruz outfield with an ensemble cast at DH. Compounded by the enhanced injury risk for Hamilton, I don't think it's far-fetched to surmise that the Crawford scenario dings you for 1-1.5 wins after his integration into the team projection.
And what of Murphy? There's really not much of a playing-time issue for him in a Crawford-Hamilton-Cruz outfield scenario, as one would figure he would be used liberally at DH and to infrequently spell Crawford/Cruz, but what if the Rangers did decide to make center field Borbon's domain, after all? In this scenario, Murphy is heavily marginalized and likely doesn't amass much more than 100-150 plate appearances, because, heck, where is the playing time supposed to come from? And that really strikes at the heart of the issue -- signing Crawford isn't a five- or-six win upgrade over your current cast, because he's not going to be supplanting a replacement-level player. I would suggest that the upgrade is tantamount more to a two- to three-win upgrade -- and when you're talking about something along the lines of $17-18 million per season, does this really work for Texas?
Now, again, there's the argument that keeping him away from the Angels is of considerable value to the Rangers; of course, Anaheim is likely even more prone to overpaying Crawford than Texas. There's the argument that the Rangers need all of the outfield depth they can get, because Hamilton supposedly won't stay healthy for a full season even if he remains in left field. There's the argument that the Rangers can afford to vastly overpay for wins given their position on the marginal win curve (e.g. one additional win is worth considerably more when you're a 88-win team than when you're a 78-win team), and that they can absorb this kind of hit with their enhanced revenue streams. There's some kernel of truth to each of these points, but I'm of the belief that there is a more cost-effective way to achieve basically the same results, and I'll try to spend some time in the next few weeks articulating my viewpoint.
Unless, of course, the Rangers sign Cliff Lee first and Plan 'B' vanishes into the ether. Then all bets are off.