It turns out that last night wasn't a good night for obsessive trade deadline junkies to turn in early, because during the wee hours of this morning, a couple of major announcements hit the newswire that significantly impacted the shape and direction of baseball's mid-season trade market. Early on in the 12:00 a.m. CDT hour, word came down on Twitter that Cole Hamels, the Rangers' reputed No. 1 trade target of the summer, had re-signed with the Phillies to the tune of a guaranteed six-year, $144 million contract extension, with his deal including a seventh-year vesting option that could send the total value soaring north of $160 million.
And less than 90 minutes later, Twitter was rocked by a second trade-deadline bombshell, as word came down that the Marlins had undertaken the next step in their ongoing "strategic teardown," and that they had sent starting third baseman Hanley Ramirez packing to the Dodgers in what is reportedly a two-for-two swap, with no money changing hands between the two clubs. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria emphasized that this was a change-of-scenery deal for Ramirez, but the obvious selling point here for Miami was the ability to escape from the shadow of the $35-plus million still owed to Ramirez through 2014. The fire sale is in full effect now, and it's hard to fathom it coming to an end just yet.
In any event, though, there's a fairly obvious inference to be drawn from these two transactions, and it's that the likelihood of a Josh Johnson-to-Texas trade is rising faster than a helium balloon. Or a spaceship, if you will. The Rangers have coveted Johnson for an extended period of time (to the extent that they were reportedly willing to sell the entire upper layer of the farm away for Johnson a couple of summers ago), he still fits the description of a "difference-maker," and indications point firmly in the direction of him being traded in the next week; meanwhile, with Ramirez leaving for the opposite coast and former "third baseman of the future" Matt Dominguez having been traded for Carlos Lee, the Marlins have a gaping long-term hole at the hot corner that they'll be looking to fill on the cheap.
So, yeah, it's pretty obvious what we're all thinking here, or at least what we should be thinking here: Josh Johnson coming on over to Texas, with the Rangers assuming the bulk of his remaining contract (approximately $5.5 million over the remainder of the 2012 season, and $13.25 million for the 2013 season), and with the Rangers headlining their end of the deal with Mike Olt. It's a remarkably, almost frighteningly, neat fit for both teams on paper, as it would give the Rangers a legitimate front-line starting pitcher who's controlled through the 2013 season, and would give the Marlins a cheap, young, and talented long-term solution at third base with first-division upside.
The Marlins also have starter Josh Johnson on the trade block, and the Texas Rangers are one of the teams actively pursuing him, a Marlins executive told USA TODAY Sports, with the Rangers informing the Marlins they would be willing to part with third-base prospect Mike Olt.
The layout is neat, and a deal constructed around this framework makes sense for both teams, and, honestly, I could see this trade coming together very quickly ... but, as is always the case, there are both conceptual and value-based matters that you need to work through first:
(1) Josh Johnson has had a lot of trouble staying healthy. Josh Johnson has no playoff experience. At 28 years old, Johnson has a grand total of 133 starts and 845 regular-season innings under his belt, and just one 200-plus-inning campaign (2009), which is superficially appealing from the standpoint of having an great pitcher in his prime who doesn't have too much mileage on his arm. The problem is that he lost his 2007-08 seasons to elbow problems and, eventually, Tommy John surgery, and then lost the final month of his 2010 season to shoulder inflammation ... and then, on top of all of that, lost roughly 75 percent of his 2011 season to more shoulder inflammation. Red flags abound.
The bright side here is that he's been pristinely healthy this year, and that the Rangers, in all likelihood, would view Johnson as a shorter-term asset, with the ability for them to cut bait after the 2013 season if they didn't feel like playing Russian roulette with his health any longer. The reliability/health component of the equation is a huge one, though, and there's more risk in play here than what you normally see associated with a front-line starter, which presumably undercuts the Marlins' asking price a bit. As far as the lack of playoff experience is concerned, that only marginally interests me. There are some people who value the hell out of it, and, heck, I'm sure the Rangers value it to a certain degree, but I guess I'm just not all that interested in focusing too much on a narrow subset of October innings.
(2) Josh Johnson is expensive. Kind of. This runs all the way back to my previously vocalized concerns about the Rangers' ability to take on more payroll this summer, as there was all sorts of talk earlier in the year about the Rangers already being over budget for 2012, and possibly not being able to break even from a fiscal standpoint even if the team managed to hit three million in attendance. With that said, though, the prorated rest-of-2012 commitment on Johnson is virtually identical to that of Zack Greinke, and less expensive than Cole Hamels before he signed his extension, so if the Rangers are/were legitimate players on those two fronts, you would tend to think that they'd be able to take on most, if not all, of that remaining $18-19 million commitment.
(3) Josh Johnson isn't as good as he used to be. Well, yes and no. He was a bonafide monster during his 2009-11 window, operating as a 5-6 WAR monster when he was actually on the bump, and he's still on pace to do that this year from a fielding-independent standpoint (2.97 FIP, 3.1 fWAR). From an ERA standpoint, though, he's fallen off quite a bit (4.14 ERA, 99 ERA+) as a result of his inordinately high BABIP with runners on base -- and while that's something you'd tend to think would normalize over time, FanGraphs' Jack Moore suggests that those BABIP issues might be a function of lacking effectiveness with his off-speed pitches when pitching out of the stretch, which is definitely something that merits a closer look. If that's a hitch in his process, you're talking about a problem that's more likely to carry forward and not simply be assuaged by a larger sample size.
(4) But I don't want to trade Mike Olt! Yeah, me neither. I'm still having a lot of trouble working through that aspect of this possible trade, too, because everything I wrote under point (3) of that trade market manifesto a couple of weeks back still holds true now. The Rangers have been a talent-gobbling monster in the amateur markets for years on end (particularly in Latin America), but the new CBA has majorly neutralized their financially based competitive advantage in that realm, and it's tougher now for a winning organization to continually reload the farm in the manner that it would prefer. It'll get even tougher if baseball successfully institutes an international draft come 2014.
And, with all of that in mind, you become even more conscious of your young players that end up coming under serious trade consideration ... and losing Olt would hurt. The thought should hurt. He's far and away the best upper-level power prospect in an organization that probably won't have Josh Hamilton six months from now, and, again, if he gets moved, he'll have a chance to make the Rangers rue the day that they elected to cut bait. But there's a key distinction between a trade hurting and a trade doubling you over in pain, as would probably be the case if Jurickson Profar were to be traded; Olt's a good, arguably great prospect, but he's not untouchable. He's not going to play third base in Texas. And he hasn't been preordained as the next great thing.
Now is the part of this program where I turn the floor over to the lot of you, because I'm genuinely curious as to where public sentiment lies on this idea as a whole. Let's assume for the sake of discussion -- and this is probably a pretty safe assumption -- that the Rangers would assume the entirety of Johnson's contract, and that they would, in fact, send Olt over as the headline piece to Miami. Okay. Now what? Do you need to load up the wagon with one or two more Tier 2/Tier 3-type prospects to seal the deal? Is Olt more valuable than a year and a half of Johnson, and therefore deserving of more talent coming back from Miami? Or does Johnson for Olt play well enough as a standalone deal?
Because here's my gun-to-the-head feeling: Olt plus a single high Tier 3 prospect (see here to get a general feel for the tiers system) gets you Johnson, and everyone walks away from the bargaining table feeling reasonably happy with how they made out ... but, yeah, it's just a guess. And, for the moment at least, this is just a rumor. One hell of a rumor, but just a rumor.