Well, that was awesome, if not a tad bittersweet. The first-place Rangers largely performed as they should have performed, particularly on the pitching side in their first two tilts against the Angels last week, and again find themselves perched atop the division by a formidable seven-game margin ... and yet, even though there's not a single player in baseball that could pull Anaheim even with Texas insofar as 2010 is concerned, I think most astute baseball observers will ultimately conclude that Sunday -- which produced the Dan Haren-to-Anaheim trade -- was a banner day for the Angels organization.
To be clear, there are some aspects of this deal which we're not yet clear on (such as why no other cash-flush organizations, e.g. the Yankees, submitted a better offer, and whether that reflects some sort of industry-wide concern about Haren's long-term health), but in viewing this through the day-after prism, it seems that the Angels divested themselves of a mediocre -- and increasingly expensive -- veteran southpaw in Joe Saunders, a pair of mid-level prospects, and a good but not great pitching prospect (Tyler Skaggs) in exchange for a perennial All-Star-level pitcher signed to a below-market deal through 2012. That's not a good thing for the post-2010 Rangers' post-season odds.
But I'd prefer to divert the conversation away from what the Angels are doing for their future and towards what the Rangers aren't doing in the present, which is not jerking Scott Feldman out of his precariously-held rotation spot after an abortive 5.1-inning, three-run effort against the Angels on Saturday. Per manager Ron Washington, Feldman remains scheduled to make his next start this coming Friday in Anaheim, which would, I suppose, constitute a far more questionable decision if the Rangers actually had a viable -- and healthy -- stand-in waiting nearby. Alas, they don't, unless you'd like to watch Matt Harrison fumble around as a starter again. More on that in a few moments.
Since my intrepid cohort Josh Garoon last checked in on Feldman three months ago, a few aspects of his overall pitching performance -- namely, his left-on-base percentage and still-hefty BABIP -- have improved, but just about everything else has either remained static or worsened. His strikeout rate has again dipped below the 5.0 K/9 mark, his swinging-strike rate (5.8 percent) is the fourth-worst of its kind in the American League, and his fielding-independent ERA (4.71 FIP) has quietly drawn closer to total congruence with his bloated ERA (5.46), all of which has prompted both myself and others to ponder the wisdom -- or lack thereof -- underlying his lucrative pre-season contract extension.
The thing about that extension, though, is that Feldman is what we should have expected him to be going into it -- a pitcher in close proximity to a true-talent 4.75 FIP baseline, which is exactly what the PECOTA player-forecasting system projected him to be not only in 2010, but 2011-13 as well. Contrary to popular belief, that sort of mediocrity has value, and arguably enough value to justify what he's being paid, but that doesn't answer the question of whether the extension should have been granted in the first place. They're two separate and distinct matters. And despite my then-approval of the extension, there are a few things I don't believe I caught in my initial analysis.
Again glancing at Feldman's pre-season PECOTA forecast, you find that even his 60th- and 70th-percentile projections had him pegged for a 4.60-plus FIP, as well as an ERA north of 4.50. Knowing what we know about how quantitative factors such as ERA are weighed in salary arbitration hearings (which directly influences the out-of-court arbitration settlements), and considering his present salary ($2.425 million) and then-likely regression from last year's performance, I think one could pose the argument that the Rangers, given the most likely scenario, could have secured Feldman's services in 2011-2012 at far less than $11.5 million by simply sticking with year-to-year arbitration. The potential two-year savings could have conceivably amounted to $3-4 million and simultaneously kept the non-tender option available if things took a turn for the worse.
Now, obviously, part of the reason for that extension was some motivation on the Rangers' part to show that they're eager to reward good performance, and making that clear to their younger talent by putting their money where their mouths were. I suspect the value in sending that sort of message is not remotely equivalent to $3-4 million of sacrificed financial flexibility, but hey, it is what it is. However, what if the Rangers could escape from that extension by virtue of making him available via waivers (and hoping some team was inclined to take a flier), or cutting a salary-dump deal in the next week for a marginal, Matt Hernandez-esque return?
Dealing Feldman -- and I'm not convinced any team would assume the entirety of his contract right now -- whittles down the Rangers' rotation depth to practically nothing, and as I noted late last week, the only real upside in doing so is if you can allocate the $11.5 million saved in such a way that it offsets the loss in pitching depth (e.g. a significant upgrade at catcher/first base), or take that money in the off-season and use it as a pot-sweetener in the pursuit of a front-line starting pitcher that you otherwise couldn't sign, or financial flexibility to accommodate a trade you otherwise couldn't afford.
In other words, there's some sense to the idea of trading Feldman, but it only makes sense if you make productive use of the money saved by means of bankrolling further roster upgrades; trading Feldman just because he's struggling like hell this year accomplishes little, and very well could hurt Texas down the road, given that the only locks for next year's Opening Day starting rotation are Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson and Tommy Hunter. Somebody's going to have to eat the rest of those innings, preferably while pitching at a few ticks above replacement level, and Feldman remains a pretty decent bet to do that, even if his rotation spot might be better employed through the remainder of the 2010 season as a place for Derek Holland and/or Rich Harden to audition for the Rangers' impending post-season run.
All that said, the safest bet of all for Feldman might be placed on his ability to keep us perpetually on the edge of our seats. That's just what zero-margin-for-error pitchers like Feldman do.
[Credit goes to Lone Star Ball's Adam Morris for inspiring this post. In tomorrow's edition of "Things I Hate," I'm going to write a 2,500-word post about why I still hate Dean Palmer for committing the game-ending error in Game 2 of the 1996 ALDS. Or something.]