There's a common thread running through all the analyses of the Bengie Molina trade -- a shared question at their heart: Was it necessary? Did the Rangers need to bring in another catcher? And there's a question that's been asked less frequently, but that's no less important: Was it sufficient? Have the Rangers done enough by bringing in Molina, or is there yet more to be done?
There's no need to add to the many lines written in response to the first question. The answer to the second question, though -- that's worth another word or two. Here's one: No.
The Molina trade was not sufficient to bolster Texas' postseason hopes, because it did nothing to resolve the major pitching issue confronting the Rangers as the July 31 trade deadline approaches -- namely, the doubts about the durability and reliability of their starters, especially in light of their tough second-half schedule.
For all the hopes about the Rangers' rotation this year, at the halfway point of the season, they have only one starter among the top 20 xFIP qualifiers in the American League: Colby Lewis, whose 4.01 puts him at 18th. To find another Ranger on that list, you have to travel more than 20 spots further down the list. C.J. Wilson is 39th, with a 4.64 xFIP; Scott Feldman's 4.71 xFIP places him 42nd. Since the list of qualified AL starters is only 53 players long, that means the Rangers don't have a starter in the top 25 percent of the league in xFIP -- and their remaining two qualified starters are basically in the bottom quarter.
What about the unqualified starters? Tommy Hunter's at 4.64, even after Saturday night's game against the White Sox. The injured Derek Holland's xFIP is at 4.57; his partner on the disabled list, Rich Harden, boasts a 5.74 mark. Current RedHawk Matt Harrison was at 4.87 before his demotion.
Overall, as of Sunday morning, only the Baltimore Orioles' starters had featured a worse xFIP than the Rangers in the Junior Circuit. (By contrast, the Texas bullpen was fourth in xFIP in the AL.)
Now, that ranking doesn't mean the Rangers are doomed to have the second-worst starting pitching in the league in the second half of the season. After all, they've defied the defense-independent stats so far; their starters' cumulative 4.27 ERA puts them in the middle of the AL pack. It's possible they could keep that sort of performance up in the next 81 games, especially given the defense backing them. It's also possible the bullpen could continue saving the starters' rears.
But both Wilson and Lewis have question marks in terms of durability. Feldman, Holland, and Hunter have questions in terms of reliability. Harden has questions in pretty much every facet of pitching known to man. And the Rangers' bullpen has logged more innings than any other team in the AL.
Put bluntly: the Rangers' second-half pitching outlook is a serious concern. Bengie Molina, superior as his game-calling and staff-handling might be, doesn't change that.
So, given their larger pitching issues, why would the Rangers sell Michael Main to the Giants for the difference in salaries between Molina and Chris Ray? It's possible that the Rangers are simply so strapped for cash that they couldn't take on any additional salary whatsoever for the rest of the season -- but saw Molina as sufficient to address their battery woes. That would be a mistake, given the fragile state of the starters.
It would also tend to contradict Jon Daniels' public indications that the Rangers have enough financial flexibility to allow them to make a move in July. Granted, that flexibility could have been maintained if the Rangers simply hadn't made the Molina trade -- but assuming that Texas viewed the acquisition of a backstop as necessary (but not sufficient) step, then the action to make the deal with the Giants dollar-neutral could well speak to the Rangers front office having future pitching moves in mind.
Cliff Lee looms large. His 3.31 xFIP is not only second in the AL; it's the fifth-best among all qualified major-league starters, period. Lee's early-season injury may actually be a boon should the Rangers acquire him, since despite averaging nearly 8 innings per start, he's only racked up 95.2 IP, and has thrown just 1,313 pitches. He's not just a TORP guy; he's a true ace. And half of a season of Lee comes cheap, at approximately $4.5 million.
The question, of course, is whether Lee's value would justify the price the Rangers would have to pay to acquire him. For the moment, let's assume the Mariners would be willing to trade Lee within the division. (That seems fair, since Seattle is out of the post-season chase -- and as a free agent unlikely to sign with an AL West team, Lee wouldn't come back to haunt the Mariners in future seasons.) What you have left is the apparent dilemma at the core of all the rumors and speculations regarding the Rangers' potential pursuit of a trade for Lee (or, really, for any other top-of-the-rotation pitcher, such as Roy Oswalt or Dan Haren).
The dilemma: whether to trade the uncertain futures yet indubitable talents of top prospects for the dependable performance yet uncertain impact of a top (or even ace) starter. But does trading for Cliff Lee necessarily entail a present-for-future tradeoff? And would it be sufficient to put the Rangers over the top?
Consider those questions through the lens of the last Rangers' deal for a C. Lee: Carlos, in late July of 2006. Texas traded then-closer (and 2007 free agent) Francisco Cordero, corner outfielder Kevin Mench, Triple-A outfielder Laynce Nix, and Single-A reliever Julian Cordero to the Brewers for Lee and Triple-A outfielder Nelson Cruz. The idea was that the free-agent-to-be Lee would take the Rangers to the promised land of the playoffs for the first time since 1999; Texas also hoped to re-sign Lee to a long-term deal.
Lee put up a .322/.369/.525 line (.383 wOBA) for Texas, while playing atrocious defense in left. Over the first 103 games of the season, the Rangers averaged 4.95 runs per game, and gave up 4.89; in the 59 games with Lee, the Rangers scored 5.51 runs a game, and gave up 4.75 on average. Sadly, the improvement wasn't enough. When Lee joined the team, it had a 51-52 record – 2.5 games back of the division-leading Angels, and half a game behind the second-place A's. From that point on, Texas never managed to climb more than 3 games above .500, or any closer than 3 games back. And for that reason, many Rangers fans considered the Lee trade a failure.
Texas' expressed hopes of signing Lee after the season also flopped. Rather than re-up with the Rangers, Lee inked a six-year, $100 million deal with the Houston Astros. In the first three years of that contract, he's posted wOBAs of .370, .396, and .355 -- but he is struggling mightily this year, and continues to be a serious defensive liability.
Meanwhile, Francisco Cordero has had mixed results with the Reds, having signed a four-year, $46 million deal plus club option after 2006. Kevin Mench disappointed with the Brewers in 2006 and 2007, was only marginally better in a year with the Blue Jays in 2008, played 15 games for Japan's Hanshin Tigers in 2009, and is currently at Triple-A Syracuse, in the Washington Nationals' system. Laynce Nix played only 20 major league ballgames with the Brewers before following Cordero to Cincinnati in 2008, where he's continued to struggle at the plate. And Julian Cordero completely fell off the map after 2006.
Four years on, then, Nelson Cruz is probably the most important player included in the deal, at least for the Rangers and the Brewers. And yet Cruz was an afterthought for many, if not most, fans of both teams -- another example of Jon Daniels pulling off a Steve-Jobsian “one more thing.” Neftali Feliz, Engel Beltre, Nelson Cruz: all were generally viewed as high-ceiling, high-variance throw-ins at the time their deals were made.
Additionally, because Lee was a Type-A free agent after 2006, the Rangers recouped the Astros' first-round pick (the 17th overall) and a "sandwich pick" in the June 2007 draft. Those picks turned into Blake Beavan and Julio Borbon, respectively. (The Rangers gave up their own first-round pick, 16th overall, to the Blue Jays, for signing Frank Catalanotto; with the 24th pick overall -- compensation for Gary Matthews, Jr. signing with the Angels -- Texas took Michael Main.)
So did the Rangers sacrifice the future for the present in the Carlos Lee trade? Not really. Was improving their offense a necessity to make the postseason? Very probably. But was the Lee deal sufficient? No: because the Rangers drastically overestimated their playoff chances in 2006. Even had the Rangers played to their “Pythagorean” expectation after the Lee acquisition, they would've had a record of 34-25 -- good only for an 85-77 finish. And Texas also misjudged its chances at keeping Lee.
The Carlos Lee trade is a study in the difference between necessity and sufficiency. In this case, the gap was only bridged by how the Rangers hedged their present-versus-future bets. The return on the Lee deal was sufficient to render it a success, despite the Rangers' failure to achieve their more immediate objectives in 2006.
The Rangers' course in the second half of 2010 depends on Daniels successfully navigating the tricky course between necessity and sufficiency. If the Rangers fail to make a move for a front-line pitcher, then Daniels will again open himself to charges that he struggles at bringing in major-league talent at critical junctures, and at properly weighing prospects' prospective promise against promising playoff prospects. This has been the biggest knock on Daniels' GM tenure to date (see: Adam Eaton, Brandon McCarthy, Frank Catalanotto, et al). Even given the club's financial and legal situation, now that Daniels has pulled the trigger on the Molina deal, a failure to follow it with a trade that bolsters the rotation could -- and, to some degree, should -- raise questions about his ability to put the Rangers in the best position to seriously contend for a World Series crown.
Daniels needs to work his magic once more, and this time under the pressure of a legitimate pennant chase. He needs to acquire a Game One starter, while not sacrificing too many key components of the Rangers' postseason hopes for the next several years. And if the Molina deal did not, in fact, preserve Texas' financial flexibility – to the point that the club might be able to pick up the remainder of Lee's 2010 salary, rather than sending added prospects to Seattle – then Daniels has made his own job harder still.
Cliff Lee isn't Carlos Lee. A high-powered package structured around Martin Perez (or Tanner Scheppers, or Derek Holland) isn't equivalent to a deal highlighted by two months of Francisco Cordero. But Cliff Lee is all but a lock to be a Type-A free agent after 2010 -- and the Rangers are even less likely to keep him than they were Carlos. (As Jamey Newberg pointed out in an e-mail Sunday afternoon, however, it's possible he might only be worth the second-round pick of his signing team in 2011, especially if that team is the Yankees.) The parallels to 2006 aren't exact, but they are there. Maybe -- just maybe -- Daniels can give the Rangers "one more thing": pulling another promising prospect (Maikel Cleto?) out of the Mariners' hats along with Lee, and balancing the "now" and "then" sides of Texas' talent equation.
As in the past, if Daniels does succeed at cutting the Gordian knot binding the Rangers' present and future, it will be because he gambled on both. And if he fails, then the inevitable questions surrounding his position under new ownership will gain force.
[Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.]