About two and a half weeks ago, I remarked that one of the few things that could fully revitalize my Rangers fandom would be if the Rangers went out and procured a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. Early this morning, FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal reported that the Rangers remained the front-runners on Padres closer Heath Bell (who was thought to be a virtual lock to be traded before today's 3:00 p.m. CDT deadline), and that Mike Adams was expected to stay put. Shortly before 1:30 p.m. this afternoon, Rosenthal reported that a Bell-to-Texas trade had been consummated.
All of those statements were wrong. It was a good day to be wrong. It's been a good 24 hours.
Because in that 24-hour span, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has finalized the season-long transformation of the Rangers' bullpen from sub-mediocre to legitimately feared by acquiring the two best relief pitchers on the trade market -- hell, two of the best relief pitchers in the game, period -- while relinquishing two good, but not elite, pitching prospects, a slugging first baseman with good upside but crippling flaws in his offensive approach, and a back-end starting pitcher who was destined to function primarily as rotation depth and/or as a decent, but not great, reliever for at least the remainder of this season. The Rangers didn't get their upper-tier starting pitcher or their rent-a-slugger, but you certainly can't accuse them of scrimping as far as adding impact-level quality to the bullpen.
As was first reported by MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan at exactly 1:30 p.m. CDT on the nose, Texas flipped Double-A Frisco left-hander Robbie Erlin and right-hander Joe Wieland to the Padres this afternoon for setup man Mike Adams. There's no cash changing hands in this swap, meaning that Texas will be on the hook for a little less than $1 million on Adams' present deal, and probably something between $4-5 million next season as Adams enters his final season of arbitration eligibility. The key word here is "arbitration," as Adams, like Uehara, is controllable through at least next season, giving the Rangers substantial flexibility if their post-2011 inclination is to push ahead with the conversion of Neftali Feliz from ninth-inning specialist to starting pitcher. That is hardly written in stone, but it's a more realistic possibility now than it was just 24 hours ago.
Erlin, 20, was ranked among the top 35 prospects in the game by Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein and Baseball America's editorial staff at the mid-season mark, and is clearly the bigger get for San Diego, who may now be able to point to Erlin as their best overall prospect ahead of right-hander Casey Kelly and third baseman Jedd Gyroko. The book on Erlin is not overly complicated -- nice, solid-average stuff, with a low-90s fastball and two good secondary offerings that play up thanks to the advanced command that enables him to pound the zone with quality strikes. The blend of pitchability, maturity, aggressiveness, intelligence, and work ethic here is very strong, to the extent that one would actually be quite surprised if Erlin didn't stick in the majors as a useful starting pitcher once he reaches that point in his developmental arc.
However, his lack of size and punch in his stuff inhibits the upside, and Jason Parks presents a strong case as to why Erlin likely has more utility to a team like the Padres than he does to the Rangers: "Erlin isn’t without deficiency, and it’s my belief that those issues would negatively affect him had he remained with Texas. Because of his stature and his release, Erlin struggles to create a step-plane to the plate, and is often victim to the long ball when his solid-average stuff catches too much of the plate. In a home park like PetCo, Erlin could continue to fill up the zone with his fastball, despite the fact that his heater has more tail than sink, and allow the spacious stadium to participate in the process. In my opinion, Erlin is the perfect pitcher for San Diego to acquire."
Wieland's final ranking in the Rangers' system at the time of his exit was closer to the top of their third prospect tier (around No. 9-10 overall) than Erlin's position atop the Rangers' second prospect tier (around No. 4-5 overall), and so his inclusion in this deal doesn't sting nearly as much as Erlin's -- but if we're going to be completely honest with ourselves, a good trade should sting both participants. The 21-year-old right-hander spun a dramatic 27-batter no-hitter on Friday night at Double-A San Antonio in front of a large contingent of scouts, which functioned as a very nice final audition for a pitcher who is largely cut from the same cloth as Erlin on the pitchability vs. stuff scale.
Wieland wields an upper-80s to lower-90s heater and two good secondary pitches, all of which come tumbling out of his 6' 3" frame with good command and sequencing. Like Erlin, Wieland has thrived at the professional level because of his advanced feel for pitching and intelligence, but the projection is somewhat muted, as he profiles as more of a mid-to-back-end rotation starter due to the lack of upper-end velocity and a strong secondary offering, and his fly ball tendencies also wouldn't have served him especially well in Arlington. Nolan Ryan was known to have taken Wieland under his wing for some amount of one-on-one instruction, and it was no real secret that he was a favorite of the Rangers' army of minor league pitching instructors, but it's easier to justify a painful move like this when there's substantially less risk that the prospect you're selling on is going to become a front-line asset for someone else.
In exchange for those two very nice young assets, the Rangers received Adams, who at age 33 stands tall as one of baseball's absolute best relief pitchers thanks to a devastating fastball-cutter-slurve mix and excellent command. His primary weapon at this stage is the cutter, which he now throws some 60 percent of the time overall -- and even more often to opposite-handed lefty batters -- and has ridden to dominant pitching splits against batters of either dexterity. Case in point: in 2011, Adams has mowed down same-handed (right-handed) batters to the tune of .163/.191/.314, with 21 strikeouts against just three walks in 90 total plate appearances ... and against left-handed batters? Try .194/.235/.280 with an even more remarkable 31 strikeouts against just five walks in only 99 plate appearances.
And if you'd like to take it a few steps further, well, here you go: of the 267 pitchers who have logged at least 150 combined innings from Opening Day 2009 to present, Adams' ERA (1.31) and park- and league-adjusted ERA- (36) rank first, his fielding-independent ERA (2.07) and park- and league-adjusted FIP- (57) rank first and second, his batting average on balls in play (.224) ranks second ... and that's not even getting into his strikeout rate, which has sat consistently in the 9-10 K/9 range over the last four seasons, or his present sub-2.0 BB/9 rate this season, or the elite-level home run prevention that should still prove to be better than average even within the Arlington blast furnace. Adams isn't Mariano Rivera, but he isn't that far off.
The price here hurts, but it should hurt. That said, this isn't a steal for either club so much as it is another win-win asset swap. Aside from getting one year and two months of regular-season production out of one of baseball's great late-inning monsters, the Ron Washington/Mike Maddux dugout brain trust now has yet another lethal weapon that can be deployed against batters from either side of the plate in a post-season environment with little fear of being criticized for incorrectly playing the matchups. Indeed, their only punishable crime would be if Adams/Uehara weren't called upon at all when the game state dictated their arrival. And though the Rangers apparently won't announce a roster move until Tuesday, I have to believe that the acquisition of Adams spells the end of the Arthur Rhodes era, which would be a nice win for the notion of the bullpen meritocracy.
It's been a good weekend.