As the trade deadline approaches, it seems that 2011 is finally hitting its stride with the trade market finally heating up. More teams have plausibly been in the race for division titles or wild-card spots late into the season this year, resulting in a lack of even the sort of minimal smoke that baseball diehards scavenge the internet for every July.
However, with 14 teams at least nine games behind their division's leader as of July 24th, baseball has now hit the part of the season where there are more clearly defined groups of contenders and those looking to next season (or beyond). This is excellent news for the Rangers, who, as one of the obvious buyers, now have many more options from which to choose in order to address their greatest weakness. A table to give some perspective on how the Rangers compare to the rest of the American League contenders (FanGraphs team stats showing production in terms of runs; one win is equal to about 10 runs):
The Rangers actually match up quite well with the other contenders in terms of offense, defense, and even starting pitching. Make no mistake: the Rangers are a good team who should be considered one of the favorites for the World Series. The glaring issue, however, is the bullpen, which not only is the worst of the contenders, but has been one of the worst units in all of baseball this year.
Fortunately, the Tommy Hunter addition has helped stop the bleeding, and Neftali Feliz, Darren Oliver, and Mark Lowe seem to have worked out the kinks that plagued them earlier in the season. Still, though the names look familiar to 2010, these pitchers are not performing up to the lofty standards that made the bullpen such a strength last year. In the crucible of the playoffs, I don’t think Hunter, Lowe, and Oliver are going to inspire a lot of confidence in a close game against the Red Sox or Yankees offense. So what does the ideal relief pitching trade target look like for the Rangers to address this?
Ideally, the Rangers would find a talented relief pitcher who has multiple years left on his contract with minimal money owed and who could step in as closer next year when Feliz makes his long-awaited move to the starting rotation. Unfortunately, all of the players who fit those requirements are likely to cost much more than the Rangers (or we) would feel comfortable with. Sean Marshall has been deemed untradeable by the Cubs; Mike Adams (Padres), Tyler Clippard (Nationals), and Joakim Soria (Royals) have been said to be available, but only for outrageous prices. So who are the realistic names that the Rangers may be targeting?
Bell has an excellent track record of being a good-to-elite closer with the Padres, and will almost assuredly be entering free agency almost assuredly as a Type A free agent. I feel that the Rangers likely place a higher value on his experience level than I do; moreover, I get the impression that the Rangers have quite a bit of confidence in their scouting department that could help ease their minds at paying a higher price than other teams.
Why is this relevant? The likely Type A status of Bell means that the Padres are going to demand a prospect package that not only balances the value of 2-3 months of the pitcher, but also the two draft picks they would require. Do the Rangers have enough confidence in their scouting and development team to ‘replace’ prospects who are a year or two away from the majors with the two high draft picks they would stand to gain? I think they do. At the very least, it appears to be a gamble they would not mind making.
While all of this gives me confidence in the amount of value trading hands, I must admit that Heath Bell the pitcher leaves me feeling unimpressed. While his 2.45 ERA and 2.92 FIP in 40-plus innings (0.6 WAR) looks good on the surface, I am concerned about how he would transition from the most pitching- friendly environment in the majors (PETCO Park) to the American League and a hitter's ballpark. His mediocre 6.69 K/9 and 3.35 BB/9 would both rank firmly in the middle of a decidedly suspect Rangers bullpen. His excellent FIP comes from an incredibly low 0.22 HR/9, which appears to be a factor of his home park and an unsustainably lucky 2.3 percent HR/FB ratio.
Considering PETCO has park factors for home runs of 59 and 95 for left-handed and right-handed batters, respectively (with 100 being neutral), and Rangers Ballpark in Arlington has park factors for home runs of 120 and 109, there is reason to be significantly concerned regarding his ability to transfer the home run suppression to a different league and park.
The counterargument to this is that Heath Bell has been an even better pitcher on the road this year than at home (3.56 FIP at home;1.99 FIP on the road), and, perhaps more importantly, he would likely be filling in as the eighth-inning option rather than as the closer. I do not have a feel for the cost, but under the seemingly safe assumption that the Rangers’ top three prospects are not involved, I would not strenuously object to the acquisition of Heath Bell.
While the Orioles did make an interesting run at the AL East crown over the first month of the season, they have quickly regressed to the cellar-dwelling position that many had predicted from the start of the season. Early interest in shortstop J.J. Hardy was shut down quickly when the Orioles gave him a three-year, $22.5 million extension. This has resulted in Koji Uehara being the most notable Oriole available for trade. Uehara was signed as a right-handed starter in 2009 out of Japan, but was converted to a setup reliever in 2010. Since then, his performance has been quite extraordinary, as he has averaged over 11.5 K/9 and fewer than 1.5 BB/9 en route to a 2.51 FIP. His primary weakness is the home run, where he has maintained a homer rate in excess of one per nine innings. While he pitched only 44 innings for the Orioles' major league squad last year, he is on pace to pace to cross the 60-inning, 2.0 WAR threshold this year.
The 36-year-old Uehara is being paid $3 million this year with an option that will soon vest, guaranteeing him a $4 million salary next year. It’s hard to guess at the cost in prospects of Uehara. Looking at his stats, the very reasonable contract, and the potential for Type A status next year, it would seem that his value should be greater than that of Heath Bell and in the same group as Mike Adams, Sean Marshall, and Tyler Clippard. On the other hand, he is also a 36-year old-pitcher who (a) has an injury history, (b) a fastball that averages 89 mph, and (c) may not garner Type A status in 2012. Despite the Orioles' last-place rank, there does not seem to be the same level of (publicized) interest that would be needed for Andy MacPhail and the rest of the Baltimore front office to create a buyer’s frenzy and induce poor decisions. As best I can tell, Uehara currently seems on track to be traded for a B or B- level prospect that is relatively close to the majors, and a low-level lottery ticket.
Nunez, like Heath Bell, represents a talented relief pitcher that would be a significant upgrade to the bullpen this year, but offers the added value of being under contract for 2012. The 27-year-old right-hander increased his strikeout totals from a solid 7.5 K/9 to an excellent 9.0 K/9 average over the past two years. The walk rate is acceptable, staying just under 3.0 BB/9 over the past two years, but he has given up too many home runs this year (1.18 HR/9), resulting in a solid, if unspectacular, 3.83 FIP in 45.2 IP for 0.2 WAR. As the Rangers are looking to move Feliz to the starting rotation next year, Nunez’s experience as closer would make him an excellent candidate to fill that role in 2012 -- assuming that the home run rate regresses closer to 2010 levels (0.69 HR/9).
Nunez seems like the perfect fit for the type of pitcher the Rangers are searching for. Unfortunately, other teams like the Phillies are also searching for this type of pitcher, and the Marlins are known for demanding quite a bit in trade. The cost for Nunez is going to be young pitching prospects and, while the Rangers have quite the impressive reserve of those in the minors, I'm still not sure the price will drop into the range that the Rangers will feel comfortable with. Trade rumor reports and other various internet smoke suggests that Jon Daniels has discussed the cost of Nunez with the Marlins' front office, but that any real progress has cooled considerably over the last two weeks. Perhaps the Marlins blink first due to concerns about how much he will make in arbitration next year, but I get the feeling that the Rangers have moved on to other targets.
A familiar name to Rangers fans, Bailey is a 27-year-old right-handed pitcher who functions as the Athletics' closer ... when healthy. A phenomenal 2009 saw him break out with 83-plus innings of relief work, in which he struck out 9.83 batters while walking 2.59 and allowing 0.54 home runs per nine innings, good for a 2.56 FIP and 2.4 WAR. Unfortunately, back spasms and a sore elbow limited Bailey to 49 innings in 2010, and saw his K/9 drop to 7.71. This year, a strained forearm caused him to miss the start of the season, and he has amassed only 19 innings to date. However, there are signs that he is back to his 2009 form, as he is again striking out batters at a rate of 9.0 K/9. If the medicals check out, he could be the best reliever the Rangers have this year, let alone in a 2012 season that has seen Feliz move to the rotation.
The dilemma in targeting a highly talented closer with 2½ years left on his contract is apparent: How much are you willing to give up for a player who could anchor your bullpen for the next three attempts at the division crown and post-season success, but who may be too injured to ever fully contribute? The early word coming from Billy Beane and Co. is that they are willing to trade him, but that it would take quite a prospect haul. Though there is the potential for significant value even with the move to a hitter-friendly park, the potential risks of this trade must be factored into the chosen prospects as well. If the A’s are not going to accept a package revolving around Tanner Scheppers, Chris Davis, and some lower-level talent, then I fear the only acceptable players will be the sort of high-ceiling, highly-thought-of prospects that the Rangers are unlikely (fortunately) to trade for a reliever. A more acceptable deal may be found by targeting fellow, but lesser, A’s relief pitchers seen below:
Personally, I would like to see the Rangers add Carlos Beltran and a quality reliever who will be around in 2012. This would represent a similar gain in talent in 2011 as trading for Ubaldo Jimenez, but likely at a significantly lower price, though Jimenez would at least be around for two more seasons. Regardless, given the Rangers' talent relative to the rest of the division, a series of smaller moves that represent tangible upgrades could move this team from likely playoff team status to a virtual lock for the playoffs and a team equal to any in baseball.