This past weekend may have comprised the rare and unusual off-season Rangers trade (one which saw recently DFA'd Guillermo Moscoso shipped to Oakland in exchange for minor league power reliever Ryan Kelly, who may not ever contribute to the Rangers' bullpen but at least furnishes more in the way of potential to help Texas than Moscoso did for the better part of his tenure here), but as is often the case in the hot-stove universe, the real story ended up being the trade that didn't happen, and the (misguided?) sentiment of a fan base perturbed by the total value of the Rangers' investment in that not-quite-actualized deal.
If we are to believe Peter Gammons' account of what went down behind the scenes (and while Gammons unquestionably ranks among the most respected baseball journalists in history, I would caution that there is always an element of uncertainty involved in the reporting of trade rumors that prevents us from ever interpreting any single rumor as outright gospel), the Rangers were close to swinging a deal with the Rays that would have sent Matt Garza to Texas in exchange for left-hander Derek Holland, right-hander Frank Francisco, minor league outfielder Engel Beltre, and Cubs catcher Robinson Chirinos (who would have been acquired in a separate deal), but the Cubs themselves upped their offer for Garza, knocked Texas out of the running, and, well, that was that.
The prevailing response to this revelation among Rangers fans appears to be one of relief intertwined with subtle dismay, as Holland is still a young, talented left-hander with quality stuff and potential that has yet to be fully tapped (although the scenario where he evolves into anything more than a mid-rotation starter is beginning to resemble more of a long-shot scenario), Francisco is a solid late-inning weapon who is still more than capable of closing games elsewhere in the majors, and Beltre is a top-100 prospect, albeit not the sort that can carry a major trade on his own merits due to the heightened bust potential. Why would Texas move that sort of package, plus whatever assets might have been required to procure Chirinos (let's just pretend the cost would have been Chris Davis), for a pitcher coming off a mediocre 1.8-win campaign last season?
Any intelligent discussion about this subject has to begin with two things: (a) a pragmatic examination of both Holland and Garza, who -- make no mistake -- would have been the principal pieces in this exchange, and (b) separation of the wheat from the chaff, the latter of whom is Davis and, to some arguable extent, Francisco. It is difficult, if not virtually impossible, to envision Davis doing enough to unseat Mitch Moreland at first base after repeated high-profile failures, and, even in the event of a dramatic performance drop on Moreland's part (or a trade), Texas would seem likelier to allocate that playing time to Michael Young and roll with exponentially more reliable options at designated hitter than Davis. The loss of Francisco would sting, but he's not wholly irreplaceable and will cost somewhere in the vicinity of $4 million next season, which is a hefty chunk of cash for a good, but not great set-up man.
This leaves us juxtaposing Garza against Holland and Beltre, all three of whom have drawn their fair share of divergent opinions. Full disclosure: I have never seen Beltre play in person, and frequently defer to the knowledge of those who have actually done so and possess extensive scouting expertise when it comes to prospect evaluation. We're all very clear on the plus defensive projection and plus offensive tools (do note the distinction between projection and tools), but the list of red flags (via Jason Parks) is considerable: "Still transitioning from athlete with raw tools to baseball player with on-the-field skills; lacks mature approach at the plate and is overly aggressive; needs refinement with routes in centerfield; needs overall maturity; has yet to produce at Double-A level."
My point? It's very easy to talk in the declarative sense about what we believe a high-upside, moderate-bust potential prospect like Beltre is going to do and what he's going to be worth, but here's the reality: he could break out and establish himself as a serious upper-echelon prospect with huge trade value by as early as mid-season, or he could stumble performance-wise -- as so, so many prospects do at or before the Double-A level -- and move backwards. I do buy into the Parks-advanced school of thought that overwrought anxiety about the state of the farm system at this point in the Rangers' development cycle is really not necessary, and that dealing a top-100 prospect or two or three is justifiable if done to acquire the right major league player -- particularly if that prospect is something of a long shot to help Texas in a meaningful way in the next couple of years.
Setting aside -- but not forgetting -- the Davis/Francisco/Beltre component of this deal for a moment, we arrive at the Holland/Garza component, undoubtedly the greatest point of contention. With many already penciling Holland into the Opening Day rotation, it's apparent that Garza wouldn't represent depth improvement so much as he would quality/stability improvement, and even then that improvement is not completely assured -- there is a greater-than-zero chance that Holland performs better than Garza next year, and in 2012-13 as well, when Garza is playing out his final two pre-free agency seasons. I don't think that probability extends too far beyond 20-30 percent, if at all, but it's there.
Since I'm tired of dealing in vague generalities, here's a conceivable scenario with some hard numbers to digest: imagine that Garza was traded to Texas, and posted three consecutive above-average three-win seasons from 2011-13 before embarking upon his free-agent journey, and also imagine that Holland, after being traded, posted 1.5-win seasons in 2011-12, and then averages out as a solid-average two-win pitcher from 2013-15, during his age 26-28 seasons. Using $4.5 million per win as your benchmark in 2011 and assuming an inflation rate of five percent, Garza's total worth comes out to $42.6 million over three seasons against Holland's $45.1 million over five seasons, with Garza perhaps banking $20 million in that three-year span against Holland's $11-12 million over a five-year span (although it could obviously work out a larger sum).
Holland, of course, works out to be the better overall value on paper in this scenario (which is likelier than many want to admit), but the extra wins today during the apex of the Rangers' competitive window merit special consideration, as another 1-2 win enhancement to the present team and beefed-up rotation could mean the difference between another deep October run and second place -- yes, this is true despite the fact that the Rangers are division favorites. Being a favorite is not equivalent to being a favorite to win your division by a sizable margin. Despite the additional years of club control at what will likely be cheaper prices, there's little question as to which pitcher I would take, leaving Beltre, Francisco, and Davis to constitute enough value to compel Tampa Bay to accept the Rangers' offer (which they obviously didn't).
I know fan sentiment is largely against this configuration of the Garza-to-Texas deal, and I know the valuation of the Holland/Garza component could swing one way or the other depending on your aggressiveness with Holland's projection, and I know I may be too dismissive of Beltre/Francisco/Davis, and I know my viewpoint is colored by my continued concerns over the state of the starting rotation, and I know there's a reasonably decent chance that this rumor isn't even accurate, or is missing crucial pieces of information. If you do buy into it, however, it provides some interesting insight into the Rangers' thought process vis-a-vis the current pitching trade market, and, if nothing else, it provides us with something of legitimate interest to talk about on these snowy January days.