Baseball's off-season has arrived, and for the umpteenth time this year, I find myself grappling with internal conflict. For many years, the intervening time frame between the conclusion of the World Series and the point where meaningful free-agent activity grinds to a halt -- typically some time in January -- was one of my favorite periods by virtue of my own selfish preference for big-picture analysis, but this year it feels as though the proper thing to do is to devote a bit more time to appreciating the season that was ... and yet, there's virtually no time to be spared this year. Go figure.
Thanks to a somewhat under-the-radar rule modification that was negotiated and finalized in late September, several of baseball's "important" off-season dates for players not under contract for 2011 -- including those who are free agents, arbitration-eligible and/or in option-year limbo -- have been expedited, meaning that the Rangers have only until midnight Thursday to decide whether they will pick up their end of Vladimir Guerrero's $9 million mutual option for 2011, or instead dispense a $1 million buyout and apply the $8 million differential towards other areas requiring improvement (e.g. catcher). In the event that the Rangers pick up their end of the option but Guerrero declines his end, the Rangers would be freed of their buyout obligation, but in light of everything we know right now, this doesn't seem like a very plausible outcome.
Before delving any further into the realm of the subjective, here's the 2010 fact sheet on Guerrero: he was very, very good up through about July 1st (311 PA, .339/.383/.580, 18 HR), then terrible up until the second week of September (232 PA, .234/.280/.367, 7 HR), then very good again through the end of the regular season (100 PA, .337/.380/.543, 4 HR), then terrible in the playoffs (62 PA, .220/.242/.271, 0 HR). Three of his four longest homers of the season -- with a composite true distance average of 448 feet -- were hit after August 30th, implying that bat-speed degradation was not the origin of his inconsistency. He graded out okay defensively in a meaninglessly small sample of games, but failed the eye test miserably. And in spite of everything, he contributed 2.6 wins above replacement while receiving base compensation of just $5.5 million -- a decidedly below-market deal when viewed after the fact.
In theory, at least, this is more complex than "keep him or let him walk," but in actuality that's really all it is. One involved party or the other could decline their end of the mutual option, and the Rangers could then tender an arbitration offer in the hopes of cashing in on his Type 'A' free-agent status (and recouping two compensatory draft picks), but Guerrero would likely accept by virtue of being able to make more money through that process than through the free-agent market. Similarly, Texas could re-sign Guerrero by means of mutual option or arbitration and then attempt to trade him, but the return in talent would assuredly be underwhelming, and the Rangers would likely have to subsidize some portion of his 2011 salary; in other words, a pointless and futile waste of time.
At first blush, the "keep him or let him walk" debate boils down to a matter of personal preference: the lineup stability afforded by a dedicated DH solution versus enhanced lineup flexibility and the ability to leverage the DH spot to protect the health of the Rangers' indispensable corner-outfield power threats. The latter scenario is premised on the belief that you can rotate David Murphy (and a right-handed platoon partner, preferably one who can play first base with some degree of competency and concurrently back up Mitch Moreland), Josh Hamilton, and Nelson Cruz through the DH spot as needed, as well as Michael Young and Ian Kinsler on occasion. More on this in a second.
Now, there are two characteristics of the "lineup flexibility" side that appeal greatly to my sensibilities: more money and diminished health risk.* I think it's possible -- if not downright probable -- that a Guerrero-carrying roster furnishes but a single additional win relative to a roster relying upon an ensemble cast at DH, and that the $8 million in cost savings can be allocated towards that mythical right-handed bat and a catching solution (there are already whispers of the Rangers pursuing free-agent backstop John Buck) that amply compensates for that single lost win, and perhaps generates even more value than the roster comprising Guerrero. Granted, nothing about this plan is assured, but great expectations follow the front office that has a track record of acquiring value at below-market prices.
[* - The health risk aspect does concern Josh Hamilton, but more so in the keeping-him-out-of-center field way than anything else. Because if you have a 12-pitcher, 13-position player roster with Guerrero occupying one spot, and your utility infielder and backup first baseman are mutually exclusive, then your sole viable backup for Julio Borbon in center field -- and the guy who will likely log no fewer than 20-25 games in center field in 2011 -- is Josh Hamilton. This ain't gonna fly. The guy has damn near killed himself three separate times crashing into center-field walls over the last two seasons. Seriously, enough is enough.]
The thing that gives me some reason to question the likelihood of this plan actually taking shape is how the Rangers have employed the DH position during the Jon Daniels regime. Over the last five years, Texas has rotated true DH-type players (Phil Nevin, Matt Stairs, Sammy Sosa, Jason Botts), fielding-deficient players (Kevin Mench, Hank Blalock, Frank Catalanotto, Andruw Jones), and okay-fielding but perpetually injury-prone players (Milton Bradley) through the DH spot, but never have the Rangers relied upon a preponderance of generally above-average defensive players like Murphy, Hamilton, and Cruz to fill the DH void. That may simply be a function of them never having had to do it before, but none of us can really say for certain if that's the case.
There's also the "veteran leadership" angle to consider, and, for better or for worse, I don't think it can be completely ignored. Guerrero is said to be respected by his teammates to such a degree that they will ask you to extricate yourself from his seat on the team bus if you should inadvertently sit in it, and you always wonder to what extent the players and on-field management privately lobby for certain players to be retained or removed. If there is a genuine, overriding sentiment in the trenches that Guerrero cannot be let go, I expect that will be conveyed to Daniels and company and incorporated into the process ... but in response to any/all chemistry/leadership talk, I would simply link Josh Garoon's epic mid-August piece on the issue and leave it at that.
At the very end of the day, I would wish Vlad well and let him embark upon the next stage in his likely Hall of Fame-destined journey, because I think the opportunity is there to extract more value and minimize the injury risk while quite possibly spending less money overall -- but coming off a season from which the Rangers emerged as American League champions, and given the short-term nature of any deal that brings Guerrero back in 2011, I don't believe any dissent against the Rangers' ultimate decision here can be all that severe. But then I've been wrong before.