It's funny what a glaring offensive weakness and a few seemingly idle trade inquires can do to set the rumor mill churning into overdrive. Despite previous indications that the Rangers were financially handicapped in terms of any further trade-market splurging, the whispers have persisted, with SI.com's Jon Heyman reporting that the "very active" Rangers had joined the Angels and White Sox in pursuing the Brewers' Prince fielder, and ESPNChicago.com's Bruce Levine stating that the Rangers are among six teams bidding for the Nationals' Adam Dunn.
Less than 24 hours ago, I was heavily inclined to write all of this off as pure, unadulterated garbage, but I get it now. And maybe it never should have surprised any of us in the first place. If it looks, acts and hits like a replacement-level player over a long enough duration, it probably is one. That isn't to say that Davis is destined to remain saddled with such an ignominious label as "replacement level" for the remainder of his pro career, but regardless of whether he's being plagued by inconsistent hitting mechanics, an inability to develop good pitch-recognition skills or something tools-based (e.g. degradation of his power stroke*), it seems clear that the Rangers are looking for a more reliable/productive intermediate- to long-term solution to their first base dilemma.
[For what it's worth, resident scouting guru Jason Parks recently issued these statements on Twitter: "The future [first baseman] of the Texas Rangers is not currently in their system or on the 25-man [roster]. Chris Davis of '10 is not the same Davis as '08. ... His pitch recognition skills aren't very good (they were never great), but he doesn't appear to have the same strength/bat speed. ... At one point, I would have felt comfortable giving Davis a legit 80 grade for the present power. I can't say that now."]
Anything of significance I have to say about Dunn in the context of this trade market can be covered in a more interesting fashion by examining this Fielder-to-Texas notion; it almost certainly won't happen, but that never stopped anyone from talking about a trade rumor before, particularly those of the potential blockbuster variety. And before I can articulate my problem with this trade rumor, and why this isn't really akin to the Cliff Lee trade in terms of potential impact, we need to set about actually quantifying Fielder's trade value, using the same model we used to determine Roy Oswalt's worth.
Operating off the reasonable assumption that Fielder, if acquired by Texas, would amass two wins (above replacement) over the remainder of the 2010 regular season and approximately 5.5 wins in 2011, and factoring in other variables such as the market value of a single win ($4.5 million/win, in this exercise), salary ($3.5 million over the final two months of this season, plus $13-14 million via arbitration in 2011) and the value of post-2011 compensatory draft picks ($6 million, per Victor Wang's calculations, we find that Fielder's surplus value is around the $22-23 million mark; since the Rangers would likely require a cash subsidy to cover what remains of his 2010 salary, you can likely bump that upward into the $26-27 million range.
Is that enough value to justify relinquishing Martin Perez and/or Tanner Scheppers? Absolutely. And to be clear, I can't imagine any possible way in which such a deal would get done without including at least one of those two elite arms, or perhaps Derek Holland -- whose upside may still be bright, but whose trade value has also taken a hit as a consequence of his injury problems this year -- and a more talent-laden prospect package; it's just not feasible without employing at least one or two elite trade chips. Notice, however, that there's a distinction between the deal being justifiable value-wise, and me -- or you, or anyone else -- actually wanting to pull the trigger. Why?
Well, in case you didn't notice, there's a flaw in that $26-27 million valuation. The impact (and value) of the two marginal wins that Fielder would supply during August/September is diminished, as the Rangers' chances of reaching the post-season are already very high; in other words, they almost certainly won't need those two wins to wrap up the division, which means that Fielder's primary value is in (a) any post-season contributions in 2010 and (b) his regular-season contributions in 2011.
And guess what? Somebody will probably lead you to believe that Fielder makes the Rangers significantly stronger in terms of contending for a world championship in 2010, but they'll be off the mark. In terms of wins above replacement in, say, a seven-game series, Lee's total expected value (0.23 WAR/game started) would be nearly double that of Fielder (0.04 WAR/game), and nearly triple that if things reached the point where Lee made three separate starts in a playoff series. That's an intuitive way of seeing how the presence of an elite starting pitcher is more important than that of an elite hitter in the post-season, but there's another consideration I'd like to highlight.
Sooner or later, people will get tired of me bringing up Nate Silver's "secret sauce," but it's relevant here in terms of how Silver assessed the importance of hitting in the playoffs: "More remarkably, all three of these characteristics [a power pitching staff, a good closer, and a good defense] relate to run prevention, rather than run scoring. That does not mean that offense is of no importance in the playoffs. But there is a lot of noise in the postseason record, and offense did not produce enough signal to emerge through it. The reasons are too complicated to get into here, but have to do with what happens when good offenses face good pitching. Pitching does have some tendency to dominate these match-ups, whether they occur in the regular season or in the playoffs. Because "plus pitching" versus "plus hitting" duels occur more frequently in the post-season, we tend to notice the effects more then."
It's one thing to implore the Rangers' front office to acquire Fielder while knowing full well that it would be a 2011-focused deal; it's quite another to regard Fielder -- or Dunn -- as the missing piece in the Rangers' inevitable march to the World Series and rely upon that perspective when lobbying for a major trade. I won't deny that either Fielder or Dunn would constitute a major short-term upgrade over Davis, and even give the Rangers a post-season boost; what I have a problem with is the belief that such a boost would be significant, which is really overstating the case. I can see Texas revisiting this over the 2010-11 off-season if Fielder's still on the market, but in the here and now, I can't see the logic behind paying a king's ransom to acquire Fielder. I just can't.