It is funny to think that we could end up going through that whole late-July trade watch rigmarole one more time before this regular season is said and done, and it's certainly not a given at this point that we're going to end up going through it again ... but, for the moment at least, we have something new on our hands that bears watching.
According to Ben Rogers on ESPN 103.3 FM's Ben & Skin Show broadcast this morning, the Rangers are, in fact, interested in 35-year-old Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman, who has clubbed National League pitching to the tune of .289/.405/.570 with 30 home runs in just 474 plate appearances this season, and who recently cleared a procedural hurdle called "trade assignment waivers" -- or trade waivers, for short -- that would enable any major league team to swing a trade for him beyond the traditional July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, if they were so inclined.
Berkman, 35, is banking $8 million this season by means of his one-year commitment to St. Louis, and though his contract does not boast any sort of no-trade clause, there also isn't any type of attached team/player option that would facilitate keeping him around beyond the 2011 season.
The majority of major league players are run through trade waivers by their parent ballclubs every August, and in every case, one of several different things happens: (a) the player is claimed by another team, at which point the parent ballclub can attempt to hammer out a deal during a brief exclusive negotiating window with the claiming team, offload the player -- and his contract -- onto the claiming team, or pull the player back off waivers (this can only be done once safely; trade waivers are irrevocable if a team tries to push a player through a second time), or (b) the player goes unclaimed, in which case he can be freely traded with no special restrictions to any interested team in baseball.
There are, however, a few catches: first, in order to qualify for post-season eligibility, a player acquired by trade must be in the organization by midnight on August 31st. If this condition is not met, he is not eligible to play in the post-season for his new team, which means that, in effect, a hypothetical deal for Berkman would need to be finalized by that deadline for Berkman to be playoff-eligible for the Rangers. And second, the Rangers could not trade a player -- or players -- presently on their 40-man roster for Berkman unless they, too, had also cleared trade waivers beforehand.
Now, clearly, there are a few different things that could be driving the Rangers' interest on this front. Nelson Cruz went down last night with a strained left hamstring that necessitated his immediate removal from the game, and though he claimed after the game that "it didn't feel as bad" as it did immediately after he injured it, the severity of the strain has yet to be determined. It could be that he's rendered unavailable for only a couple of days, but it's also possible that he is unavailable to the Rangers for a week or two (or longer), and it generally doesn't behoove playoff-contending teams to lose their best power hitter for an extended period during a critical stretch of the pennant race.
The likelier scenario, however, probably revolves around Berkman supplanting a .273/.335/.438-hitting Mitch Moreland at first base during the stretch drive, with the generous infusion of power and on-base percentage more than offsetting any possible loss of defensive utility at the position during Berkman's stint in Texas. Moreland, of course, took first base by storm last season and proved especially dominant during the post-season, but has struggled mightily at the plate since June 5th (.246/.298/.379 in 254 PA), and may not be what the Rangers would consider to be an optimal solution at the position over the final month of the regular season and onward into a potentially deep post-season run.
And, of course, the Cardinals do have some incentive (in theory, at least) to move Berkman, as they have completely fallen out of playoff contention, and trading him now would allow them to shed upwards of $1 million in payroll. With that said, however, Berkman seems likely to attain Type 'A' free agent status this coming off-season, which would enable the Cardinals to recoup two compensatory draft picks if they were to retain his services, offer him arbitration, and have him decline and sign elsewhere. In that sense, we're looking at another Heath Bell-type situation, where the value of the players relinquished by Texas would easily supersede straight-up fair value for Berkman, as the Rangers would then be in position to recoup draft picks for Berkman this winter.
That is, if they elected to offer Berkman arbitration. And given the kind of money he could be in line for and the Rangers' post-2011 payroll situation, that isn't necessarily a risk they'll want to take. But it could be.
I don't have a very strong grasp on what Berkman would theoretically cost the Rangers, at this point (somebody suggested to me on Twitter last night that the asking price could be on the scale of Neil Ramirez, or perhaps even beyond that), in part because of the draft-pick issue and in part because we can't be totally certain on who has and hasn't cleared waivers on the Rangers' end -- but given the offensive threat that Berkman represents, it is not especially surprising to hear about Texas potentially being involved here, and it won't surprise me if this rumor gains more traction within the next 24-48 hours.