“Obviously [Texas] is my first choice, no doubt." - Darren Oliver, 11/21/11
I suppose this could have been anticipated, and probably was anticipated by some out there, but I wasn't personally anticipating it -- and, yet, here it is. According to MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, the 41-year-old Oliver has agreed to terms with the Blue Jays on a one-year deal that includes a 2013 team option, and, consequently, will see his two-year run in the Rangers' bullpen draw to an unceremonious end.
This all flies in the face of Oliver's previously stated hope that he would return to the Rangers in 2012, which would have made sense given that he has his family roots planted in Southlake and given that his sons have made it known -- both on camera and via print -- that they would like to see him more often. There was also CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman telling us earlier this month that Oliver appeared to be headed back to Texas, and that even though the Red Sox were among the teams courting Oliver, "Dallas is home."
I'm not sure what changed between Oliver and the Rangers in the intervening weeks that convinced him to eschew his "home" team and jump to another team located nearly 1,500 miles away, or whether the Blue Jays simply moneywhipped the hell out of him. I'm not sure what's prompting this change of course, but the one thing that makes it appear a tad strange on the surface is that Oliver's overriding goal at this point seems to be winning a World Series, and that the Blue Jays aren't nearly as close to winning the World Series in the next year or two as the Rangers are. Oliver said in late October that he would retire if he won a World Series ring, which would certainly lead you to believe that money isn't nearly as great a factor in his decision-making process now as it was earlier in his career.
But, then again, money always does matter, and the smart bet appears to be on the Rangers not meeting Oliver's lowest acceptable asking price. Evan Grant suggests that the Rangers' substantial investment in Yu Darvish prevented them from signing Oliver, because they're unwilling to make any further commitments to free agents before the Yu Darvish negotiations have reached a resolution one way or the other. It could be about that ... or it could also be about the Rangers' baseball operations people believing that it was too dangerous to go to war in 2012 with a 41-year-old arm serving the function of No. 1 left-handed reliever, which makes some sense if you reject the notion that the Rangers are simply not going to spend any more money by way of trade or free agency until January 19th.
And if it is at all about the baseball operations department being skittish on Oliver, I'm inclined to think it's a bit more about the scouting than the performance data. Because for all of the flack that Oliver took during the course of the 2011 season, and for all the plaintive wails that emanated from the fan base whenever Oliver was summoned into a late-game situation, the reality of the matter is that his context-neutral statistics have been nothing less than superb over the last couple of years:
It is true that Oliver was prone to some problems in late-game situations in 2011, and that this helped fuel the perception that he was no longer reliable, or even good -- but, on the whole, Oliver pitched very well in Texas, and was a key component of the bullpen that helped the Rangers win consecutive American League pennants. For $6.25 million over two years, that kind of performance -- and a supplemental first-round draft pick in the vicinity of No. 50 overall -- is tantamount to a pretty nice return on investment.
With a lefty-killing Koji Uehara still taking up residence in the Rangers' bullpen, you would figure that the plan might be for the Rangers to simply roll with one true left-handed specialist out of the gates next season, and worry more about filling out their 2012 bullpen with the best possible talent than force-fitting another left-hander into the mix just because he happens to be left-handed. Mike Gonzalez, whom the Rangers have remained interested in, is still dangling out there on the open market, and even though he recently underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, he is expected to be ready for Opening Day. If you aimed a loaded gun at my head and told me to pick the left-hander that the Rangers would sign to take Oliver's spot, I'd very likely go ahead and roll with Gonzalez.
But, then again, nobody really knows anything. Really.